From the Science for Peace forum on Power, Politics, and Human Rights, in Toronto Dec.11, 1991
Today it is widely recognized that we are living in an information age. One outgrowth of this development is that popular culture is now a leading U.S. export.
By popular culture I mean things such as TV programming, films, videos, rock music, magazines, computer games and related accessories. For example the sale of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle toothbrushes, bedsheets, cookies, T-shirts and similar commodities, up to 600 in number, had by the middle of 1991 reached a record one billion dollars world-wide. Increasingly, it is youth who are the target consumer group for these products.
Particularly in the '80s, the trend in mass media was toward mergers and conglomerates, meaning fewer owners of more and more media. When Time and Warner merged in 1989, they rep-resented over 18 billion dollars in cultural capital and predicted that before the end of the century all media would be owned by five or six conglomerates such as themselves.
One characteristic of popular culture has been steadily rising levels of violence in entertainment media despite 30 years of research demonstrating harmful effects. In the past, confusion over results has tended to be fuelled by opinion surveys conducted by vested media interests, usually in response to expressions of alarm on the part of the public following a major commission report such as the U.S. Surgeon General's Report which came out in 1972. These have been used to justify lack of self-regulation, which has been promised but almost never applied. Governments have tended to side with industry, conveniently bending to industrial indignation about "censorship," meaning any restriction of their freedom to do whatever they please with our children's value systems.
On the basis of this historical record, it is easy to conclude that a significant portion of the modern economy is based on ideological child abuse. The minds and values of at least a generation of young people have been carelessly exposed to free market forces in the communications industry with little regard for the consequences. Certainly, not all young people, particularly those who grow up in stable home environments with supervision and plenty of alternative sources of amusement to offset heavy television viewing habits, have been or are likely to be too adversely affected by mass media. Indeed, there are some positive benefits in terms of wider perspectives to be gained.
On the other hand, it is no accident that we have rising levels of violence, suicides, mean world outlooks, crime, racism and intolerance to civil liberties with role models for our children such as Rambo, the Turtles and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
When over 200 groups in the U.S. protested Bush's appointment of Schwarzenegger as chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports in 1990, asking for a kinder, more gentle nominee, Bush said he thought Schwarzenegger was uniquely qualified to address and influence national health and fitness issues among youth. The Canadian government said nothing, despite the fact that the American cultural industry automatically considers Canada a part of its domestic market.
Although the last municipal election in Toronto was fought on the issue of crime prevention there was virtually no discussion on the role played by mass media in fostering crime. There is, of course, plenty that can be done at municipal levels of government from the standpoint of bylaws restricting the open display of this material for rental and purchase and posters advertising movies with extreme violence.
In the last decade Reagan's deregulation of children's TV resulted in a trend toward half-hour commercials as children's programming made linkages between toys, cereals, games, and most importantly, "lifestyle" advocating consumerism and the glorification of violence as fun. An example is the Captain Power series on interactive TV brought out by Mattel Toys in 1989. In Canada, participation on the part of a child required the purchase of a toy machine gun that marketed for 40 dollars. During the '8Os, there was an 800% jump in war toy sales in the U.S. and a 600% jump in Canada due to deregulation.
Again, except for the province of Quebec, Canadian governments stood by and did nothing. In 1989, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld legislation developed in the province of Quebec that would ban advertising geared toward children 13 years and under on the basis of research showing harmful effects. It had been vigorously fought within the Quebec Court system by Ir-win Toys Ltd. of Toronto. Ideally, similar legislation would be developed by the other provinces as well.
Instead, other governments in Canada have, for the most part, been just as committed to the deregulation trend as the American governments have been. An example is in the tax breaks given to film producers by the previous Liberal administration in Ontario in an effort to create a kind of Hollywood industry of the North. The Friday the 13th television series was actually shot in Toronto. It was concerned Americans who finally forced it off the air except for re-runs.
Early in 1992 it was announced that the City of Toronto, jointly with the province of Ontario, would hire a full-time agent in Los Angeles to solicit film and video production in Ontario. So far, there has been no promise of regulation on the basis of violent content.
Another example of government violation of fundamental human rights emerges in the irresponsible performance on the part of the Ontario Film Review Board, operated under the auspices of the Provincial Ministry of Consumer and Corporate Affairs. It is one of the most lax in North America. In their classification of violent films and videos, they broke the law and approved widespread distribution of hardcore pornography in September of 1990. This was a clear capitulation to lobbying pressures from distribution companies, always eager to capitalize on as much of the youth market as possible.
For several years now films and videos that once would have been classified as restricted are falling into adult accompaniment and parental guidance categories. The message going out to young people is that grown-ups think this entertainment is basically okay, however scary and upsetting they may find the mayhem, brutal violence and explicit sex. Those at Queen's Park who oppose this solution express concerns that nobody ever writes in to complain.
One encouraging new development has been the Supreme Court of Canada decision on February 27, 1992 to uphold as constitutional the obscenity provision in Section 163 of the Criminal Code in what is known as the Butler Case. It has been determined that depictions of violence toward women in videos violate their right to equality on a collective basis and that this takes precedence over individual rights to freedom of expression or possession. There is cautious optimism that this decision will make it easier to include scenes of violence in the definition of obscenity for classification purposes as well as charges for unlawful distribution.
According to George Gerbner, a major researcher in this area at the University of Pennsylvania who recently launched the Cultural Environment Movement: "Media violence creates a cult of desensitivity, intimidation, and terror."
This drift, he says, leads us inevitably toward the silent crumbling of our social and political infrastructure.
We must reclaim our civil liberties and differentiate between corporate freedom of expression (which usually means freedom of enterprise,) and individual freedom of expression.
We must also reclaim the basic principles of liberal education and self-government and mobilize as consumers. Only then are we likely to start making real progress in reducing human rights violations, in Canada or elsewhere. In other words, until we start making links between human rights violations and violations to our global environment both natural and cultural, we are not well focused in dealing with the current crisis.
Action Suggestion: Write to the Ontario Film Review Board and voice your dissatisfaction with their loose guidelines. For more information or to join Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment, contact Rose Dyson through the Department of Adult Education at the (OISE), (416) 923-6641.
Rose Dyson is a doctoral candidate at OISE and Chairperson of Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment.