May 23, 2008

Speech given at Downtown Toronto Rotary Club Luncheon, May 23, 2008 at the National Club

By: Rose A. Dyson, Ed.D.,

Chair: Media Working Group Science for Peace/President, Canadians Concerned About Violence In Entertainment <

Title: Media Violence and Climate Change: What are the connections?


So, what does media violence have to do with climate change? Quite a lot, actually. Today, 51 of the worldís 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. Take the example of the video game, Grand Theft Auto Part IV, released earlier this month. It is already considered one of the most lucrative entertainment launches in history. 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 are accelerating and intensifying.

Meanwhile, on the issue of Climate Change

every day, the media call for effective policies to deal with it.

Some suggestions, which surfaced in my email box earlier this year, posted by the International Business and Professional Womenís Assn, are these:

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 from World War II.

7. Environmental labels warning of the consequences of a purchase.

Now letís take a look at whatís happening in the cultural industries amid all these urgent warnings.

Vast amounts of fossil fuel continue to light up sets, and power vans and vehicles required for a single film, TV or commercial shoot - aside from the packaging and distribution costs. In April, when she addressed the Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce, in defense of Bill C-10, Canadian Heritage Minister, Josee Verner pointed out that, in the past 12 years, taxpayers have contributed over $22 billion to the audio-visual industry. Those of us who appeared before this Committee in support of the bill, have witnessed a tsumani of opposition from the entertainment industry over a clause in the bill that would eliminate tax credits for extremely violent and pornographic productions deemed to be contrary to the public interest. We agree with the federal government, that this involves discretionary funding and has nothing to do with censorship.

And what about the TV sets themselves? Last December, the Globe and Mail ran an article 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 screens. But for every old set shredded, 600 new ones 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 and climate change. Indeed, it is estimated that 40 percent of all Internet use now involves pornography. Is this is a good use of time and energy, human or otherwise, in an era of shrinking non renewable resources?

Letís look at some other leading edge kinds of entertainment out there for our amusement today? Reporting for the Globe and Mail on last yearís 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, 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. The industry counters alarm from educators and health professionals by pointing to their rating system where only 15 percent are 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 and World WARCRAFT 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 weíre more apt to give out an award for audacity for such a production. I donít have time to get into examples but one was 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 in January. Much has been said about the code of silence and fear among teachers and superintendents but nothing so far about how it applies to the media industries, themselves, who are always quick to find fault in other sectors for social ills but tend to avoid acknowledging their own culpability. One rare departure appeared in The Toronto Star earlier this week when journalist, Gary Pieters, pointing to guns and video games, expressed concern about the gradual erosion of our right to feel safe and our responsibility to make others feel safe as the boundary between entertainment and vicitmization fades.

What About the Research?

Findings on the harmful effects of such entertainment, released into the public domain, 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. Findings involving the use of MRI techniques, reported on back in March, 2004 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? 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. What this indicates is a woefully inadequate job on the part of pediatricians and family doctors to educate parents on the issue. There is new evidence that children who watch TV or video games before the age of two actually show slower vocabulary development 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. The kind of accusations of government censorship we are now witnessing over Bill C-10 are par for the course whenever public objections to content are raised. 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 childrenís 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 DiCaprioís film, The 11th Hour, by all experts interviewed 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 they are well educated and technologically- savvy.

So why is all this happening? Speculation varies. One British journalist thinks that itís 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 websites, rife with beheadings and insurgents attacking either U.S. or Arab targets (depending on the playerís preferences), army trucks and cars blowing up as in the Grand Theft Auto series, 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 Gerbnerís 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.

What we have is a National Code of Silence and Fear

The current scenario was inevitable. We have an increasingly polluted cultural environment, which gets protected under the guise of liberalism, diversity and freedom of expression. These trends are now accepted as a normal part of our cultural and social fabric. Mainstream newspapers and television outlets rely on them for advertising revenue.

Politicians are much more inclined 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 than to stand up to the industry as the Harper Government is now attempting to do on the issue of Bill C-10. As I pointed out to the Ontario Government appointed panel on "Roots to Youth Violence" chaired by former Chief Justice Roy McMurtry when I met with members in April, the McGuinty Government must stop adding to the problem by fueling and encouraging the production of harmful content with government hand-outs.

In February, it was announced that, through the Ontario Media Development Corporation, they were investing $1 million in the development of two video game proto types in collaboration with Canadian game developers, Digital Extremesí and Silicon Knights. The formerís prototype is a third-person action game with an old school horror theme for Xboxs, Sony PlayStations and PCs. The latterís game is a third-person action/psychological thriller and will employ many Ontario community college and university educated designers. The next question we might ask, is why creativity with such ominous overtones is being encouraged at all, in our institutions of higher learning.

Of course, the Toronto District School Board announced plan for safe schools hinges on funding, but surely it is a no brainer that this involves more than the $3.9 million earmarked by the province to hire more social workers, policemen and psychologists to deal with cyberbullying and expelled students. One wonders if officials from the Ministry of Culture ever talk to those in the Ministry of Education. It is time all applications for funding were 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 Di Caprio 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.

Popular culture marketed 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 in todayís world, are up against enormous odds on how to rear their children. More emphasis in schools on what involves good parenting is long overdue. Media literacy is part of the answer but should emphasize ways in which media detracts from eco literacy. 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 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 to violence as entertainment, the marketing of junk food to children and their sexual exploitation. The Scandinavian countries, Malta, Greece, Turkey and New Zealand adopted such standards years ago, with the U.K., Switzerland and Italy joining the list last year. The bill introduced in the Ontario Legislature in April of this year to ban advertising of food and drinks to children in response to the growing obesity problem is a start but it should be expanded to include violent entertainment as well.

Bill C-327, is up for second reading in the House of Commons soon. It is an attempt to invigorate the clout of the CRTC to deal with violence on television. Last month, at its hearings on regulation of broadcasting distributions and discretionary programming services, I urged the CRTC, who is toying with the idea of deregulating all advertising on television by September, 2009, to resist objections from the industry run Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, which insists that Canadian children are already adequately protected from violence on televison by them. Evidence released in 2004, ten years after the Council was first set up, by researchers at Laval University in Quebec City found that acts of violence on Canadian TV had risen 286 percent with 81 percent of it before 9:00 p.m., the watershed hour established for the protection of children. This is a clear indication that self-regulation does not work without a little help from government.

What else can we do to address the problem? We could all be asking our favorite candidates or incumbents - municipal, provincial and federal -about their position on cultural issues - 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 - About steps being taken to bring us up to date on legislation restricting ads to children. We should ask these questions between elections as well. Letís 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