Thursday, March 28, 2013

It's Not for the Children

I recently had a conversation, the result of an opinion I had about a particular film, that boiled down to being a question about violence in media and it's effects on children. On the one hand, the person I was conversing with was pointing out that people model the behavior they see, especially the behavior they see repeatedly and often. This is a fair point, and often true. He was suggesting that because children are probably going to be exposed to it, that it's irresponsible to create things, film, television, and fiction in general that depicts violence.

 Now, the person I was conversing with is a friend that I respect and love. There are few people on the planet I trust and respect more. On this particular point we disagree strongly. I don't disagree that people do model the behavior that they see repeatedly. There are two fundamental things I disagree with about the line of reasoning he was following though, and those lines of reasoning drive the conversations about media and violence more often than not, because as he said, people model the behavior they see, and when people hear the same things repeated enough, they begin to repeat them.

I also don't disagree that creation comes with some degree of responsibility either. If you create something, you're responsible for having put that out into the world. You're responsible for the contribution it makes to the particular medium you've chosen to create in. It can be positive, negative or completely ambivalent about positivity and negativity and be much more morally ambiguous. The responsibility of the person who has created it is to make themselves available to give some idea of their intent and the context in which the work stands. They are responsible for attempting to help it find the audience they conceived it for and the community of work it belongs to. That may not always work out as they have planned. Creative works don't necessarily belong to the person who created them once they're released into the world and they can sometimes take on a life of their own. See, if you will as an example, that one of Paul Ryan's favorite bands is Rage Against the Machine. It's one of the better modern examples of the creation losing all context it's creators meant for it in the hands of the audience member/listener. The only way a creation could possibly have ended up further away from it's intent is to have a serial rapist wearing a Bikini Kill T-shirt and singing the bands praises to his perspective victims. Whatever your opinion of either Paul Ryan or Rage Against The Machine, the degree to which their public endeavors are at odds could almost not be any greater. The creators can't control how their creation is perceived or what perspective an audience brings to what they've created. It is the way of things.

This isn't really about my friend. It was his point about children seeing the film in question or, for the sake of argument, any media depicting violence. That is a fundamentally flawed idea, that beyond the conversation with him, has just got to go and it's so often trotted out as reason to censor or censure one creative entity or another, that it's about time those of us in various parts of the creative community start responding to it in a manner that is a little more straight forward and honest. Maybe, I can help in that department, because essentially, I have very little to lose. I have no contracts that can be taken. I have no income stream that can be cut off, and the circles in which I have any reputation at all are so small that in the larger context, they don't really matter. In other words, I have absolutely nothing to win or lose by just being honest about this particular subject of "the children."

I call this line of reasoning the "what about the children" argument. It's fundamentally unreasonable, first. Second, and more importantly, it's utter, complete and unfettered bullshit. As a society, no one really cares about "the children" until they have little to no other recourse or argument in controlling the behavior of adults. Then, they say, "what about the children?" In the really, real world, we don't really care about "the children." Parents and families definitely care about their kids, I'm not saying that's not true. Hell, I have friends and family members whose children I love with all of my heart, and I'm very, very happy these people are raising children. I'm generally happy they're raising children because I'm more than willing to bet those kids are going to grow up to be awesome, beautiful people. All of that being said, no one cares about "the children." Because, "the children" are not your kid. "The children" is always someone else' kid.

Let's be honest about this. Your kid is never going to grow up to be the next infamous serial killer, right? The odds say it's going to be someone's kid though. On the flip side, if your kid got a degree in finance, ended up running some investment house and made a few billion in betting on grain futures, helping to drive the price of grain up and starving a few million people or even just a few thousand people, the overwhelming majority of you would take your parentage check and shut the fuck up, right? Really, honestly. Don't even try to lie about it. You'd be proud of your child for reaching such heights of success. The children who starved to death as a result, well... meh. Your kid just became a millionaire, but they aren't, "the children." And hey, let's not less this slip off as some kind of specifically third world problem either, for those of you who somehow believe we can have more of a responsibility for children in the U.S. and ignore that children are children, no matter what the national lottery of birth says. There are 17.2 million homes in this very country, that don't know where their next meal is coming from. Argue about that all you want, and the reasons for it, but homes often have children in them.

And let's also go back to this idea of "modeling behavior" and what I like to call "repetitive installation." I call it "repetitive installation" because it's based on a series of tests psychologists have done through the years that a human being can, if they choose, keep certain ideas out of their own minds, if they so choose, unless those ideas are repeatedly entered into their consciousness enough. In other words, as an autonomous, conscious being, there's only one thing you have effectively no defense against keeping out of your own mind and personal perspective, repetition. It's this reason, and this reason alone that a particular company will pay to have their commercials shown repeatedly through the same half hour or hour of programming. Through research, they decide that the people watching a certain program are the ones to whom they want to advertise, and then they repeat those advertisements in that short period of time as much as they can. They're essentially installing the idea in your mind, whether or not you like it. They're associating something with their product, and the more they do it, the more likely it is that you're going to end up with their product. The really good advertisements, don't even have anything to do with the product, but you remember them and you remember the product or brand they were advertising, whether or not you have any use for it.

On top of that, most advertising is based in the installing in all of us the idea that we are missing something, that we are somehow deficient. Of course, the answer to that deficiency is the product or brand being advertised. Now, on a singular level, for a specific product or brand, there can't be too pernicious an effect on anyone. On the other hand, given the amount of advertising we're all subjected to on an hourly basis in a day, it's another story. There may not currently be a way to measure the actual cumulative effect all of this has. It's essentially to large to even establish as way to measure without designing and funding a research project whose breadth we've never seen in modern society. It's not an unfounded and insane assumption to think that we're all being subjected to a persistent installation of insecurity and neurosis building mechanics in every hour of the day. None is as effective as television advertising though, because of the degree to which it's passive. Generally, we're not even that interested in the commercials. It's the program between commercials we're interested in, so we're not even fully paying attention to the commercials, but that pattern of persistent repetition is still happening, even though we're not paying full attention to what it is the ads are saying to us or about us. That's why television is the holy grail of advertising. If you, as a company, political entity or anything else, can buy a whole lot of television advertising, you will.

That being true, how many people out there have decided there is no sane reason to have cable television in their homes and that they don't want their children exposed to this cycle of insecurity and neurosis installation on an hourly basis? Just think about that for one second. Generally, people who say they don't have cable in their homes are viewed as a little weird. They're a little off the path, right? It's just the feeling that they're being a little extreme, and they're disconnected from a large aspect of our culture, no? Probably the first thing that pops into peoples minds when they consider an example like this is some kind of religious fundamentalism. Now, I personally have my own axe to grind with religious fundamentalists, because they're certainly not encouraging free thought in their children and the main reason they're cutting the cable is because they want to take up all of the room for installed ideas that a mind can handle.

What about someone like me? I obviously have a deep, deep interest and connection to the creative arts and to creative expression. I don't live alone, so there are some shared decisions that have to be made. One of those was in cutting the cable and getting rid of cable television. We discussed it for a number of months, maybe even a year or more before we both agreed it was a good idea. For my girlfriend, it was a financial decision. We had Netflix, high speed internet and a few different options in Video On Demand services, so it wasn't like we were going to find ourselves without options of things to watch. For me, it was about getting the advertising out of my home. This is where I live, sleep and where we have a home. It's the closest thing I have to a truly sacred concept. For a while, I would watch television and be consistently annoyed by the crap that was coming into my living room uninvited. Whether it was some kind of bald face lie on a political advertisement or some kind of much more seemingly innocuous and underhanded, repetitive suggestion that I was somehow deficient in my existence and life, it finally started to be something I found incredibly unseemly and just plain indecent. Imagine someone coming to your door ten or fifteen times a night and saying, "Hey, you and your partner/wife/husband and kids are nice and all, but really, you're just not cutting it. You should probably do something about that. Look at you, neither of you is really happy enough, are you? Neither of you are really sexy enough, are you? Neither of you is really good enough to the other, are you? I know how to fix all of this..." That's what advertising is, except it's not someone knocking on your door, they're in your living room when you're at home. Every time you pay that cable bill, you're inviting them in. When you're not at home, they're following you around and whispering in your ear all day, because advertising is everywhere and ever present.

So, if you're looking for the kind of emotional and psychological basis in which violence becomes a sound idea, let's not get the cart before the horse. There are countries like Canada and Britain who see all the same movies, play all the same games, and much of the same television we do. One thing they do differently is that they have much more strict ideas about advertising to children. Media can definitely have an effect on how people's world view is shaped, but the number of incidences of violence children see is dwarfed, absolutely infinitesimal in comparison to the number of times in their lives they are told they are personally, existentially deficient. That's not even a question of intent. The overwhelming majority of advertising is created under those auspices. It's not to say that the people creating ad campaigns are sitting in offices coming up with some kind of Machiavellian plan to undermine your autonomy, because that's not what they're doing, at least to how they see it. It's just what we understand advertising to be and how it's done to such a degree that it never even occurs to anyone, either the "consumer" or most of the people creating the advertising.

If "the children" and what they consume so far as media is concerned, were that important, we'd be thinking about that, and doing something about it.

There's another aspect of the "what about the children" argument that really fails. It's the SUV of problem solving in the media. If you have kids, and you need to do a lot of stuff with them, at this point, it's basically an accepted practice that you're going to get an SUV or some similarly inefficient method of transport, because "hey, it's easier and more convenient." It's easier and more convenient now, sure. But if it's "for the children" maybe finding a way to cut that fossil fuel intake is really the best idea. Maybe it's just me, but I'm thinking that it's a better idea to possibly have to squeeze your kids and all their stuff into a much more efficient vehicle of some kind today so that there are things like New York City and California when they're older and have children. Let's also not forget the kind of ecological havoc that climate change is most assuredly going to play on the food supply. Wow. Yeah. An easy and simple way of everyone addressing an everyday problem, right now, is really putting the hammer on those kids future.

Choking off creative expression "for the children" now, is going to have much deeper, more significant long term problems than the idea that your kid, who hasn't been educated in the way that media works and the way that things like metaphor are part of narrative or that basically every single narrative has changed only slightly since Greek and Roman theater and epics. If, as a society actually cared about "the children," we'd be educating kids about things like this, intensively. Media is more ever present now than ever before. It's shaping the way our society handles things and makes decisions more substantially now than probably ever before. It might behoove us to start making it a priority to teach kids about what that means. It might also behoove us to start teaching kids how all of this works, how advertising works, how narrative and perspective work, all of it. It wouldn't hurt to start raising more discerning consumers, if nothing else. Doing that doesn't mean attacking all media as evil either. It means actually making an effort to teach them how to figure out what is good to them, why and what the effect of that is going to be. Pull back the curtain, expose the wizard. That's the only way to start to have any real effect on how we all, including our children, think about media.

Pointing fingers at people who have created something because you think it's going to corrupt a child in some way, is an SUV solution. It's easy, simple, right now and it will do more long term harm than the media or creative endeavor you're attacking. Chilling creative expression, in almost any way, is going to leave them in some serious pickle when they've got to start coming up with ways to express, deal with and try and find solutions to the problems created by the number of SUV solutions the last three generations (including my own) have made.

There's another aspect to this that's interesting too. The "what about the children" argument can generally only come from people who are at the time, in the kind of position or have the kind of social privilege to feel as if most or all things are created for them. That's just not the case. Yes, you may be in one of the hallowed demographics for whom billions of dollars are spent to attract you, and therefore are much more likely to have things created for you, but the truth is, not everything is for you. There are thousands, probably millions of hours of things created which are in no way meant for me. The new Justin Timberlake record is selling like the thing could cure cancer, but it's not for me. I know that. The record company knows that. Hell, if Justin Timberlake met me, he'd know that. Amazon and iTunes, two companies I buy things from and who will occasionally send me emails with ads for different products, never even bothered. It's not for me. I know it's there because I exist in the same world as the people it is for. Good for them, I hope they enjoy it, honestly. Most of them aren't getting emails telling them a new Charles Mingus collection is coming out or the Criterion Collection is releasing another Michael Powell film or that Umair Haque has released a new long form essay in e-book format either. Many of them may not even know what those things are, and that's fine, because they are the people for whom the majority of mass entertainment is created, and at this point, those things are not created for mass entertainment. They're for people like me.

And let's be very, very, very clear here. When you require that something is made for everyone, what you get is something that's made for the lowest common denominator, because the lowest common denominator is part of everyone. That might sound elitist, and to some degree it probably is, but on this, I'm definitely willing to be a little elitist. I don't think I am inherently different or better than anyone else, though certain experiences I've had may have been different, which have shaped my attitudes about these things differently. That's not to say I'm not willing to engage mass media and mass communication, I obviously am. I'm not completely beyond enjoying different things that are made for the masses, it's one of the things I've always loved about film. When you grow up feeling as weird and out of place as I did, and you find at least something that gives you some way to identify with the people around you, you embrace it. I can enjoy a well made Hollywood blockbuster as much as anyone else. What I define as good might be different from many other people (I'm looking at you Avatar), but when they're good, I really enjoy them (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, or The Avengers). So, just calling something "lowest common denominator" because it's meant for a mass audience doesn't sit well with me either. "Lowest common denominator" in my own estimation is something that doesn't even bother to offer the audience something other than shock or spectacle. There's either no attempt to tell a story or to take all of the creative aspects of a project seriously, and instead to focus directly on providing either a kind of mesmerizing spectacle or such a shock that there's nothing else to it. Like, say, the recent remake of Clash of the Titans or Battle: Los Angeles.

The difference between something that has mass appeal being popular and something that is directed at the lowest common denominator is that one is a direct insult, taking advantage of just how little the audience they're dealing with knows about the media they're consuming (that lack of education, I was alluding to before), and the other isn't doing that. One is delivering the best story and experience it can, while also trying to be inviting to as many people as possible where the other is a pile of turds being thrown in our faces because the creators or at least the financial minds don't think we know the difference between bowl of turd and a really great home made goulash. See: Transformers: Rise of the Fallen for a near perfect example. Whatever you do, don't pay to see that thing though. And if you don't have the kind of substance abuse problem that requires you abstain from mind altering substances, get really drunk or really stoned first. Actually, if you have access to some kind of narcotic pain killer, take one of those and then have a beer and smoke a joint. Render your conscious mind as incapacitated as possible first. I didn't even write a review for that film because I felt like talking about in any way degraded the concept of film as an art. Dropping every print to the bottom of the ocean would make me squeal with glee, but I'm not campaigning for that either.

In line with that same idea that making sure everything created is for everybody and might not possibly be beyond someone's capacity, there's something else to consider. How exactly does something come to be able to be mass media and have mass appeal? How, could all of those different individuals all come to the same sets of points of understanding that are necessary to tell any kind of story in a mass communications medium? It's actually pretty simple. Conformity and culturalization. We are a culture that values conformity, especially among children, and definitely into adulthood, above all else. We send kids to schools where we teach all of them the same things, and essentially try to teach all of them to think the same. Within that, there are social stratas and circles that require and enforce conformity even further. Media plays a big part in that. There are consequences to non-conformity in childhood and adolescence that equally harsh as those in adulthood, but most adults don't take them very seriously. The rash of suicides surrounding "bullying" episodes makes complete sense in that context. Those children didn't fulfill their duties to conformity in some way, and the consequences were definitely severe. Bullies, are just about always, reinforcing the cultural norms they believe they most engender or identify with. They're not just the "bad kids" who beat people up for their lunch money. That's the simplest one to deal with. The others, are much harder to handle, including when they're focused on some aspect of mass media as the thing that defines their individual power. This is what the geek bullies have become, and what they're getting from the media they're using to that end, has nothing to do with anything the media itself contains. 

The thing that is really behind the "what about the children" argument though is ultimately simple. Given the number of examples I've already given related to just how uninterested we are in "the children," it can't actually be about that. What it's really about is that adults want to control what other adults can see, hear and say because they're uncomfortable with it themselves. It essentially no different than the idea that seeing couples of the same sex or a transgender individual showing affection with their partner is going to somehow turn someone gay or transgender. You're afraid that deep, deep down, you might be gay or transgender. You're afraid that seeing these images is going to help activate those feelings in you. The chances are very good that you're not gay or transgender though, because then you'd be gay or transgender, instead of being a homophobe/transphobe. That's kind of how it works. These are people who are terrified of the violence they feel might be lurking within themselves.

Another part of this though, especially when it comes to violence in media is that for some people, the prospect that violence is actually a part of life, is an unbelievable thing. I've been a victim of real life violence, of a very ugly variety, at the hands of children, in the most random way, as a child myself. I can guarantee you the media they were watching had nothing real to do with any of that. They may have been watching certain varieties of violent media in some attempt to find something that would help them come to terms with the violence and emotionally disturbing events in their own lives, sure, because people always turn to stories to try and help them understand things that confuse them, even if it's just the story of a friend who has been through something similar. Media didn't give those kids that violence. It came from the real world for them. It was part of their lives, and at the age they were, they weren't capable of understanding that the only way to beat it was to stop it. I will defend your right to create anything you want, every single day. The minute you bring real violence into the world for any reason other than the last effort of self defense, you deserve the consequences you get, and I hope that you find whatever it is that helps you to never need to feel like you should do that again. Creating a fictitious work which includes depictions of violence and creating actual violence are so far away from each other in the real world that the only way someone can connect them that tightly is if they are completely ignorant to, at least one, if not both of those poles on the spectrum. If you want to make sure children aren't going to be committing acts of violence, make sure that their lives involve as little real life violence as possible and when they do experience it, make sure someone can help them understand the experience as much as possible. Give them an SUV solution, and you'll see more violence in the future.

There's only one more thing I'm going to say about all of this, and it should be self evident, but maybe it's not. If your kid is over the age of say, 6 maybe 7 or 8, and that child is still having a hard time understanding the Pokemon doesn't exist or there is no Witch Mountain, or whatever the thing of today is, there's a problem. If your kid thinks iCarly is unfolding before their eyes, and someone is following this child around with a camera, filming that child's life while it unfolds, you have problems on your hands of such a serious magnitude that I can't even begin to describe them. I can give you a hint of where the top of that particular rabbit hole is though... What happens if someone starts following your kid around with a camera? Yeah... Get that shit under control. Quick.  

Really, all of this controversy and uproar is not for the children. As a society, we don't really care about the children. We might care about our individual kids, but even that, to a large degree is about the reflection our parentage puts on us. "Do people think I'm a good parent?" So, please, from now on, when you're going to attempt to find some reason to blame creative expression for some kind of social ill, please make sure you're really taking aim at the right source and make sure that your standing on ground that can support the weight of your argument. Don't say it's "for the children," because it's only in the absolutely most rare occasions that it's actually for the child. We don't give a fuck about "the children."

As for me, I'm now enjoying the understanding of the inevitable. The world that is going to be left to "the children," is probably going to be a horror. Between climate change, the way things are increasingly headed in the Middle East, the kind of dystopian science fiction present we're experiencing here, and the utter inability of the actual news media to even attempt to work to lay out a nuanced and complicated set of ideas about the range of problems we face, on top of our complete disinterest in a nuanced and complicated description of those problems really kind of says to me that I may have actually scored big in being in the last generation who is probably going to experience a majority of their lives with relative stability. I'm going to enjoy it and make the most of it. I don't have kids who are going to have to live with the decisions of the last few generations. While we're hurtling toward an end fashioned out of ignorance and willful blindness, I'd at least like to continue to be entertained and have the occasional appearance of real art to continue to encourage me to participate in something.

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