Monday, September 19, 2005

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hear a Child

By Danny Alexander

In this era of inflamed cultural anxiety and renewed culture wars, it’s hard to imagine a more necessary book than Gerard Jones’s Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Superheroes, and Make-Believe Violence. One of his key strengths is that Jones listens to what kids have to say, unlike the political pundits who give lip service to protecting them. Aside from skewering the lazy thinking (and bad science) that has shaped most liberal and conservative perspectives on culture, he also offers indispensable insights into the distinct ways boys and girls make use of the culture, often reaching conclusions that fly in the face of conventional wisdom.

After Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’s hidden sex scene made national news, Hillary Clinton held a press conference comparing video games to cigarettes and tobacco, spouting the same tired assumptions Jones’s book should have lain to rest. In response, he agreed to answer a few questions:

In Killing Monsters, you go to great pains to show why studies on the effects of media violence are, to say the least, misleading, and you make a strong case that video games are the least likely cultural culprit when it comes to real violence in society. Last March, likely 2008 Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton joined culture warriors Joe Lieberman, Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback, asking for $90 million in federal funds for research on the effect of the Internet, iPods, and other electronic media on children. What hopes do you have that this research will yield more objective or thoughtful results than past studies?

Basically none. Whenever there’s a call for new studies, it’s always from the same people: politicians or advocates who want evidence that certain types of entertainment cause certain types of problems. And they always turn to the same researchers, who are even more invested in demonstrating the presence of the same “negative effects.” After all, their livelihoods, sometimes the existence of their schools’ entire social science departments, depend on reliably delivering the same anxiety-provoking data for the same politicians and foundations. It’s a combination political maneuver and boondoggle, just like Bush demanding “more intelligence” on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and connection to al Qaeda. More studies, more quotable people assembled to say exactly what they’ve been asked to say.

I’d love to see some real research done on this subject, but that requires asking questions that no one’s asked in 80 years of social-science “research” on entertainment.
1) What might be the positive effects of this media? (Not just, “Does this increase hostility?” but also, “Does it increase boldness, self-confidence, social connection, the desire to take right action?”)
2) How do the effects of “violent entertainment” compare to sports fandom, academic pressure, social competition, patriotism, religious zeal, and the many other factors in life?(e.g., anecdotally it certainly seems that more large-scale violence is inspired by holy texts and national causes than anything make-believe; but no one ever puts entertainment in a larger context.)
3) How do we explain the fact that instances of crime, violence, and other antisocial and self-destructive behavior keep dropping even as media use increases and media violence becomes more frequent? All the research I see is “bubble research.” The numbers make sense within the bounds of the study, but they’re never reflected in real life. (As contrasted with, say, the cigarette/cancer connection, which clearly showed up in real-life statistics and then was backed up by lab studies.) Can it be that the increase of aggression recorded by so many studies somehow results in a decrease of genuine acts of violence? There are hypotheses to explain such a phenomenon, but the usual gang of researchers and politicians never wants to look at it. Heart doctors study the “French Paradox.” Will social scientists ever study the “Media Paradox”? I’d love to see it happening, but it won’t come at Clinton and Brownback’s urging.

Why don’t arguments like the ones you make in Killing Monsters get more media play?

The commercial news business is owned by the same companies who produce the entertainment, and they know that consumer confidence in their news product is tenuous. Producers and journalists are afraid that if they seem to be coming out in favor of the company’s entertainment products, they’ll lay themselves open to accusations of shilling for entertainment at the expense of accuracy. I’ve talked to enough reporters about this personally, usually right after they’ve interviewed me, to say this with some confidence. It’s the same reason educated, left-leaning journalists are so susceptible to being bullied by conservatives.

The focus on content and taste is also a great distraction from potentially larger arguments about the effects of new media per se or the political implications of the media and their messages. People who make decisions in the mass-media business know that no assaults on violent, sexy, or bad-taste entertainment will actually make any significant differences to their profitability. Everyone in the mass-media business knows that these flurries will happen and all you have to do is toss a couple of products to the wolves, slap on some new warning labels, and maybe pull back on the shock value a little bit. If you can redirect the argument from “I don’t want my kids disappearing into an iPod” to “I don’t want my kids listening to all that violence and obscenity on an iPod” and then tell them, “Now it’s easier for you to keep them from listening to all that violence and obscenity,” the larger questions about whether they should be listening to iPods in the first place get shelved. The furor over Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is good for video games as a whole, because if you can make it the demon and then show that it’s been dispatched, the rest of the games in the living room look more innocuous.

Clinton’s Senate re-election campaign received more entertainment industry donations than that of any other senator. My guess is, based on what we’ve seen in the past, the industry will continue to support her despite her taking such stances. Why do you think the industry is unwilling to stand up for itself on these issues or help educate itself and the public on the positive side of controversial ideas and violence in particular in cultural play?

People in the entertainment industry are always willing to sell out their own. HUAC found far more friendly than hostile witnesses. When the comic-book business was in danger of being destroyed in the early 1950s, people in newspaper comic strips and “wholesome” comic books rushed to the Senate hearings to say, “We’re not like those sleaze mongers. Attack them but leave us alone.” Supporting a senator who attacks Grand Theft Auto is a perfect way to cast oneself as a “responsible” member of the entertainment industry.

The people who support Clinton also know that she’s not going to go after their products. Attacks on “violence” and “obscenity” shift easily according to what the attackers needs to happen. In 1996 Bob Dole railed against “violent movies.” Then Schwarzenegger threw a few million dollars into the pot and offered to show up at rallies Suddenly Dole was praising Arnold’s movies as “depictions of heroism,” the kind of action movie we should have. Ignoring the fact that Raw Deal and Total Recall were among the nastiest movies ever made—not only in the intensity of their violence but in the sadism of their protagonist and the twistedness of their messages.

The same with mainstream sitcom producers or record companies who support Clinton. They know her attention will always be on more marginal, easily isolated entertainers that won’t turn out to be very important as contributors or fundraising hosts.

Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas argues that cultural anxiety is a tool used to push right wing agendas. You make the point that much of this cultural anxiety comes from a fear of the future and projection of our fears onto our children. Do we have as much to fear from our fantasy culture as we have to fear from the effects of this cultural anxiety Why do you suppose political progressives are so resistant to the kind of critical thinking you try to model in Killing Monsters? (Maybe that’s two questions)

First, yeah: the culture of anxiety is far, far more pernicious to children and adults than anything we’re likely to see in our make-believe. I think entertainment has very little power if we say “someone made that up to shock us” and “it doesn’t matter.”

As for progressives...I think it’s mostly just that they feel they have to steal as many issues as they can from the right without compromising the core progressive issues that they need to stick to. They figure they’re not going to lose any votes (or at least any likely votes) by yelling about violent video games and rap songs, but they might by seeming to be “soft on family values.”

Underlying that is the elitism of educated progressives. They still see themselves as having to take care of less well-educated people, which means that their reliance on upper-middle-class standards of taste and the research of people with PhDs will always be seen as more “correct” than the direct experience of kids, teenagers, immigrants, and lower-middle-class or working-class people who comprise most of the audience for the entertainment attacked. This is one reason that attacks on shows like The Sopranos or Six Feet Under never get much media traction, and why the heat always goes toward rap music and pop of the Britney Spears ilk but rarely toward alternative rock. Poor people don’t partake in it, so they’re not as worked up about it; and educated elites “get it,” so they ignore or deflect criticism, imagining that their children won’t be affected by it. The basic progressive model is that “those people” are being led astray by crass (probably right-wing) profiteers, and we liberals need to protect them from themselves.

What’s more dangerous, violent video games or politicians who have problems distinguishing between video game violence and reality? Clinton has consistently supported the Iraq war and is now pushing for an increase in the size of the Army by 80,000 troops. How do you suppose such hawkishness compares with fantasy media in terms of aggravating real world violence?

I think killing real people is a bigger problem than killing badly animated pseudopeople on a computer screen. And I think arguing from the Senate floor that America should be sending its young men and women to their deaths for a disastrous colonial venture is more likely to distort our thinking about violence than watching superheroes fight in a cartoon.

My one hope is that the costs of real war will help Americans remember (maybe for longer this time) that real violence isn’t fun and exciting, and you don’t get a happy ending after two hours. Hawks like Clinton may help us that way.

Jones’s 2004 book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book will come out in a soft cover edition in October. Dave Marsh called it, “by far the best book about comic book history I’ve ever come across. Best written, best told, most informed, best at seeing the big picture and grasping the little details essential to frame that picture.”


Blogger Dove With Claws said...

Welcome to the blogosphere, y'all. This will definitely be my latest regular cyberspace destination.

6:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that voting for a war that kills real people is worse than fake violence. I do think that fantasy has LOTS of power though. Also,Never before have people had so much free time to devote to entertainment. Also,especially with movies,the special affects are so realistic, that it's like witnessing a real act.

12:38 AM  
Blogger bartian63 said...

I think what anonymous says is true, but--

a) fantasy's power cuts both ways, and the negative and positive need to be looked at together;

b) realistic violence may be healthier than unrealistic violence, in terms of maintaining a perspective on violence;

c) the bi-partisan politicians who scapegoat fantasy violence vote for real violence over and over again.

1:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In any angles, war is still not an option to stop an act of violence. The reason why there is violence is because of war. People become hostile and close their minds towards peaceful healing. In reality, there are a lot of ways to combat violence, and war is not the real option.

1:12 AM  

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