January 20, 2008

TORONTO ROTARY CLUB SPEECH, January 16, 2008, Toronto Lawn and Tennis Club

Title: What does media violence have to do with climate change?


So, what does media violence have to do with climate change? Quite a lot, actually. Today, 51 of the world’s 100 largest economies are corporations. The top 200 corporations have almost twice the economic clout of the poorest four-fifths of humanity. Among popular culture commodities, pornography and video games, most of them violent, are still top U.S. exports. These have overtaken film and television production and distribution in recent years. And while old forms of media are being transformed by new ones on the Internet as My space, YouTube, and endless blogs swallow up advertising revenue lost to mainstream media, the familiar problems of harmful effects remain and if anything, are accelerating and intensifying.

Potential Policy Initiatives in Response to Climate Change

- Frequent, almost daily proposals in both mainstream media and on the Internet.

Here are some suggestions which surfaced recently in my email box from the International Business and Professional Women’s Assn. I think they originated in Australia:

1. A new economic model that values natural capital with full cost accounting.
2. A carbon tax with the polluter paying.
3. Restricting ads to information rather than creating a desire to consume.
4. Institutional restructuring.
5. Encouraging new ways of living by changing basic systems of production and consumption.
6. Compulsory rationing of products which some of us recall during World War II.
7. Environmental labels warning of the consequences of a purchase.

Now let’s take a close look at what is actually happening in the cultural industries amid all this handwringing...

Vast amounts of fossil fuel continue to light up the sets and power vans and vehicles required for a single film, TV or commercial shoot - aside from the packaging and distribution costs. The fuel costs are there even as digital computer imaging becomes more popular in the production process. And what about the TV sets themselves? Recent coverage in the Globe and Mail focused on a TV recycling plant near Pearson International Airport where overworked technicians scramble to keep up with the demand for removal of lead and other harmful metals from old fashioned tube style sets as viewers switch to flat screen sets. But for every old set later shredded, 600 new sets are manufactured for distribution in China.. Similar stories abound about the life cycles of computers and other forms of communications technologies.

Pornography continues to fuel the worldwide sex slave trade in women and children, identified by the UN as the largest illegitimate form of business in the world today. Meanwhile, alternative sources of livelihood, in poverty stricken developing countries, in particular, continue to shrink in the aftermath of globalization - widely regarded by climate experts to be the single most serious threat to the environment. Indeed, it is estimated that 40 percent of all Internet use now involves pornography. Clearly not a good use of either time or energy, human or otherwise, in an era of shrinking non renewable resources. In our case, especially at Toronto’s City Hall where it was reported in the Globe last August that among the hundreds of entries on the Wikipedia website edited from computers on the City of Toronto website was an update on an entry listing of Playboy videos.

What are some other leading edge kinds of entertainment out there for our amusement today? Reporting for the Globe and Mail on last year’s annual video game trade show in Los Angeles, Scott Colbourne, wrote that Sony, a giant in the field, released a jealously guarded trade secret involving plans for the entire family to communicate with each other by accessing content over broadband internet to play exciting new games with titles like Stranglehold and Final Fantasy Part IV. According to Doug Lowenstein, President of the Entertainment Software Association, who spoke at a conference on the Responsibility of Media Leaders beyond Prime Time in Colorado last year, 83 percent of parents are now involved in buying software and games such as Play stations and Xboxes, at a cost of around $3-400 each. He followed up with soothing reassurances that the industry’s rating system is adequate with only 15 percent actually rated “mature”. Catalogues available in most shopping malls hold the key to why this is the case. Extremely violent video games, with titles such as Killzone liberation, World WARCRAFT etc. are already rated suitable for teens. Not much left over for the “mature” category.

In Toronto last year Rockstar Productions made its own contribution to the world of entertainment with the extra-ordinarily violent video game, Manhunt 2, banned in the UK and other countries but with no objections here. In Canada we’re more apt to give out an award for audacity for such a production i.e. The film documentary, Death of a President at the TIFF in 2006. The dots between violence in society and violence in entertainment remain stubbornly unconnected. Consider the reaction in the wake of the Falconer Report on School Violence released last week. Much has been said about the code of silence among teachers and superintendents but nothing so far about how it applies to the media industries, themselves, who once again are quick to find fault in other sectors for social ills but conveniently avoid acknowledging their own culpability.

What About the Research?

Alarming research findings on the harmful effects of such entertainment, released into the public domain periodically, are usually quickly neutralized to ensure that the debate never gets beyond proof of harmful effects and onto policy. In 2001, a leading Japanese brain specialist found that playing Nintendo video games renders parts of the brain inert. The corporate giant approached him and quickly became his number one research donor. Now, Dr. Kawashima reciprocates by calling for more research and for the gaming industry, its back to business as usual. New findings involving the use of MRI techniques, were reported on in The Globe and Mail as far back as March, 2004. These demonstrate that brain cells which normally counsel empathy are shut down in teens who play violent video games. Did any of this come up in the 1000 page Falconer Report on School Violence released last week? Not to my knowledge.

For children just emerging from the womb, aggressive marketing yields $1 billion U.S. in annual sales for Brainy Baby and Baby Einstein videos. Protests have come from the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, based at the Harvard University Medical School. The American Pediatrics Academy recommends no screen time at all for children under the age of two, yet only 6 percent of parents are actually aware of this, indicating a woefully inadequate job on the part of pediatricians and family doctors to educate parents on the issue. Indeed, findings released by the CCFC several months ago indicated that children who watch TV or video games before the age of two actually show slower development of vocabulary skills than those who experience no screen time at all.

What about censorship?

In the U.S., court challenges have been brought forward against the video game industry, usually as class action lawsuits from relatives of murdered victims, similar to what we have seen in the past involving the sales and use of tobacco. In Canada, virtually nothing along these lines has happened yet. Although in recent years, in the U.S., 9 circuit courts have struck down state attempts to regulate video games on the basis of First Amendment considerations, child advocates persevere. In fact there are growing demands for the Amendment, itself, to be updated. More and more scholars, from a variety of disciplines, are calling for a reinterpretation of both the Amendment and the definition of healthy economic activity in response to looming environmental disasters.

Corporate encroachment into the lives of our children has been relentless for decades and for the most part, remains unchecked. According to the Canadian Teachers Federation as of December, 2003, in Ontario, over 30 percent of schools were selling advertising space to corporations - in hallways and cafeterias and on sports team uniforms. As a society, we have turned over our children’s value systems to media giants whose primary motives are profit. Consumerism, materialistic world outlooks, a tendency to resort to violence as a conflict resolution strategy, and a sense of entitlement to instant gratification are personality traits that are much more likely to emerge in such a learning environment than reverence for a Green Earth. According to David Suzuki, over $500 billion is spent annually by the advertising industry to get any of us on the Planet to buy things.

A key point emphasized over and over again in Leonardo DiCaprio’s film, The 11th Hour, by other experts interviewed as well was that global warming and the coming energy crisis are not the problems. They are symptoms of deeper, entrenched cultural and societal problems. Massive changes to our conceptions of truth, freedom, individual and human rights, and how we see ourselves in relation to the Earth as a whole must change dramatically in the next few years if we are to survive as a species.

Indeed the threat to our survival goes well beyond the issue of climate change.

Violent video and computer games are not only contributing to the culture of fear in our schools and communities but are helping to fuel terrorism. It is estimated that there are now around 5,000 websites associated with extremist groups, many used for recruiting young converts. Almost all terrorist activities in recent years have actually been executed by members of diaspora communities, whether in Spain, England, Holland or Canada, often well educated and technologically- savvy.

So why is all this happening? Speculation varies. One British journalist thinks that it’s a graduation from gangstra rap for young testosterone propelled male teens, to Islam, as a kind of status symbol. Many bring with them skills and lifestyles associated with urban youth gangs where guns, violence and extremism are the norm. Another factor often cited, is the growing legions of unemployed young males as structural change, downsizing and economic transition reduce opportunities for meaningful employment.

So what can be done about the mushrooming web forums, rife with beheadings and insurgents attacking either U.S. or Arab targets (depending on the player’s preferences), cars blowing up as in the Grand Theft Auto series - extremely popular video games in Canada among young male teens, Grade 7 and up - U.S. army trucks blowing up and snipers shooting soldiers, police officers or other law enforcement personnel? Indeed, one of the central themes in popular culture for young people for decades, has been a tendency to undermine all authority figures, parents and teachers included. The subsequent rise in government promises for tougher law and order measures and the increasing focus on national security issues was predictable. It resonates with the late George Gerbner’s definition of “ the mean world syndrome” as one of the harmful effects from entertainment violence to the community at large. Perhaps the real question is - How have we allowed things to get so bad despite thousands of studies warning us of harmful effects, among them two U.S. Surgeon General Reports and similar, follow-up studies here in Canada.

A National Code of Silence

Rising levels of violence on the part of youth should not surprise us. Given the widespread tolerance of harmful effects within an increasingly polluted cultural environment, most of which get protected under the guise of liberalism, healthy diversity and freedom of expression, the current scenario was inevitable. In Canada, public discussion on the issue of media violence and its harmful effects has virtually disappeared from the radar screen, as these trends have come to be accepted as a normal part of our cultural and social fabric. Indeed, they remain a vital part of mainstream newspapers and television outlets who rely on the lucrative advertising revenue these commodities bring in. Compliant politicians at all levels of government continue to squander millions of our tax dollars with grants, development incentives, tax credits and shelters, on violent and pornographic films, television programs and video games. Applications for funding should be carefully monitored for their impact, not only on the cultural environment but the natural environment as well. A lesson is to be learned from Leonardo DiCaprio who concludes the credits in his film, The 11th Hour, with the statement that it was produced with the smallest possible impact on the environment.

Municipally, denial is also the norm as hand wringing mayors and councillors grapple with rising levels of urban youth gang and school violence, avoiding the elephant in the room posed by harmful influences from popular culture commodities such as gangstra rap music and video games, because of the huge economic revenues brought into cities like Toronto and Vancouver by production crews.

Proliferation of popular culture as entertainment for profit driven purposes, laced with themes of sex and violence because they sell well on a global market and translate easily into any language, will have to change, if we are to begin to shift to a paradigm of sustainability and reverence for a green Earth. Parents are up against enormous constraints in today’s world, both financial and social on how to rear their children. More emphasis on what involves good parenting being taught in our schools is long overdue. Media literacy taught in our schools is part of the answer but is not enough. Ways in which media detracts from eco literacy is also needed. Ways in which the advertising industry knowingly undermines family cohesion through the use of marketing tactics such as “the nag factor” and “pester power” need to be better understood and resisted.

In his article in the September, 2007 issue of Harper’s Magazine, entitled “SCHOOLHOUSE CROCK: Fifty Years of Blaming America’s Educational System for Our Stupidity”, Peter Schrag points out that money is hardly the issue. Funding for public schools has never been higher. But neither has the number of tasks charged to the schools which, in the hope of getting more money, they have eagerly taken on”. Meanwhile new teaching challenges are being added to the mix. It was reported in The National Post last August that a survey completed for the Ontario College of Teachers indicates that 84 percent of respondents reported being the object of cyberbullying from students. Against the backdrop of this kind of information it is easier to understand the culture of fear among teachers and administrators as well as students permeating Toronto schools.

In Canada, it is time policy making at all levels of government measured up to standards which already exist in the province of Quebec and other parts of the world where advertising to children is banned on the basis of research showing harmful effects. Such rules apply whether commodities involve violence as entertainment, the marketing of junk food to children or their sexual exploitation. Like the Province of Quebec - where the legislation first emerged as a municipal by-law - several European countries, Malta, Greece, Turkey and New Zealand adopted such standards years ago, with the U.K., Switzerland and Italy joining the list last year.

But in Canada, trends are unfolding in the opposite direction. Last January Bill C-327, brought before the House of Commons in an attempt to invigorate the clout of the CRTC to deal with violence on television, was defeated by both Conservative and Liberal MPs. They sided, instead, with the industry run Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, whose spokesman, Ron Cohen, insists that Canadian children are already adequately protected from violence on televison. They chose to ignore evidence brought forward that in 2004, ten years after the Council was first set up, researchers at Laval University in Quebec City found that acts of violence had risen 286 percent with 81 percent of it before 9:00 p.m., the watershed hour established for the protection of children. In other words, they concluded that we can leave it to the fox to guard the henhouse.

It gets worse. In May, the CRTC actually decided the time had come to eliminate restrictions on advertising entirely by September, 2009. Fortunately the announcement spawned a nation wide outcry from media scholars across the country. On May 30, Paul Boin at Windsor University called for Chairman, Konrad Von Finckenstein’s resignation and spearheaded a coalition to protest the decision. I joined the chorus by initiating correspondence with both the Minister of Heritage and the CRTC.

What else can we do to address the problem? In Canada, we have election campaigns all the time - municipal, federal and provincial. The closest we ever get to any kind of clearly articulated positions on cultural policy are promises of either more or less funding for the CBC and the Canadian cultural industries. We should all be asking our favorite candidates or incumbents about their party’s position on cultural issues. What is his or her position on the millions of tax dollars now swallowed up by both foreign and domestic television, film and video game producers with no questions asked as to the nature of the content? What is the party’s platform position on these issues? What steps are being taken to bring us up to date on legislation restricting advertisements to children? We should approach them with these questions between elections as well. Let’s all be more persistent. We cannot allow our politicians to fail us by ignoring the roots to our media violence problems, both systemic and overt. The stakes are too large.

********************************************************************** Rose Anne Dyson, Ed.D.
Chair: C-CAVE and the Media Working Group - Science for Peace (University of Toronto)
Editor- The Learning Edge
Author of MIND ABUSE: Media Violence In An Information Age
Co-author of MEDIA, SEX, VIOLENCE and DRUGS in the GLOBAL VILLAGE and Terrorism, Globalization & Mass Communication