Date: Sat, 8 May 99 13:19:28 EDT
From: Henry Jenkins

Prof. Jenkins Goes to Washington

So many people have asked for the details that I've decided to write out
a personal narrative that can circulate where-ever anyone wishes.

This is the story of how a mild mannered MIT Professor ended up being
called before Congress to testify about "selling violence to our children"
and what it is like to testify.

Where to start? For the past several months, ever since my book,
appeared, I've been getting calls to talk about video game violence. It
isn't a central focus of the book, really. We were trying to start a
conversation about gender, about the opening up of the girls game market,
about the place of games in "boy culture," and so forth. But all the media
wants to talk about is video game violence. Here is one of the most
economically significant sectors of the entertainment industry and here
is the real beach head in our efforts to build new forms of interactive
storytelling as part of popular, rather than avantgarde, culture, but the
media only wants to talk about violence. These stories always follow the
same pattern. I talk with an intelligent reporter who gives every sign of
getting what the issues are all about. Then, the story comes out and
there's a long section discussing one or another of a seemingly endless
string of anti-popular culture critics and then a few short comments by me
rebutting what they said. A few times, I got more attention but not most.
But these calls came at one or two a week all fall and most of spring term.

Then, when the Littleton shootings, they increased dramatically.
Suddenly, we are finding ourselves in a national witch hunt to determine
which form of popular culture is to blame for the mass murders and video
games seemed like a better candidate than most. So, I am getting calls
back to back from the LA TIMES, THE NY TIMES, The Christian Science
Monitor, The Village Voice, Time, etc., etc., etc. I am finding myself
denounced in The Wall Street Journal op-ed page for a fuzzy headed
liberal who blames the violence on "social problems" rather than media
images. And, then, the call came from the U.S. Senate to see if I would
be willing to fly to Washington with just a few days notice to testify before
the Senate Commerce Committee hearings. I asked a few basic questions,
each of which feared me with greater dread. Turned out that the people
testifying were all anti-popular culture types, ranging from Joseph Lieberman
to William Bennett, or industry spokesmen. I would be the only media
scholar who did not come from the "media effects" tradition and the only
one who was not representing popular culture as a "social problem".
My first thought was that this was a total setup, that I had no chance of
being heard, that nobody would be sympathetic to what I had to say, and
gradually all of this came to my mind as reasons to do it and not reasons
to avoid speaking. It felt important to speak out on these issues.

A flashback: When I was in high school, I wore a trenchcoat (beige,
not black), hell, in elementary school I wore a black vampire cape
and a medallion around my neck to school. I was picked on mercilessly
by the rednecks who went to my school and I spent a lot of time
nursing wounds, both emotional and some physical, from an essentially
homophonic environment. I was also a sucker for Frank Capra movies --
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington most of all -- and films like 1776 which
dealt with people who took risks for what they believed. I had an
amazing high school teacher, Betty Leslein, who taught us about our
government by bringing in government leaders for us to question (among
them Max Clevland, who was then a state legislature and now a member
of the Commerce Committee) and sent us out to government meetings to
observe. I was the editor of the school paper and got into fights
over press censorship. And I promised myself that when I was an
adult, I would do what I could to speak up about the problems of free
speech in our schools. Suddenly, this was a chance.

I also had been reading Jon Katz' amazing coverage on the web of the
crackdown in schools across America on free speech and expression in
the wake of the shootings. Goth kids harassed for wearing subcultural
symbols and pushed into therapy. Kids suspended for writing the wrong
ideas in essays or raising them in class discussions. Kids pushed off
line by their parents. And I wanted to do something to help get the
word out that this was going on.

So, it didn't take me long to say yes.

I was running a major conference the next day and then I would
have one day to pull together my written testimony for the Senate.
I didn't have much in my own writings I could draw on. I pulled
together what I had. I scanned the web. I sent out a call for some
goth friends to tell me what they felt I should say to Congress about
their community and a number of them stayed up late into the night
sending me information. And I pulled an all nighter to write the damn
thing which was really long because I didn't have time to write short.
And then, I worked with my assistant, Shari Goldin, to get it proofed,
edited, revised, and sent off to Congress. And to make arrangements
for a last minute trip.

When I got there, the situation was ever worse than I had imagined.
The Senate chamber was decorated with massive posters of video game
ads for some of the most violent games on the market. Many of the
ad slogans are hyperbolic -- and self-parodying -- but that nuance
was lost on the Senators who read them all deadly seriously and with
absolute literalness. Most of the others testifying with professional
witnesses who had done this kind of thing many times before. They had
their staff. They had their props. They had professionally edited
videos. They had each other for moral support. I had my wife and son
in the back of the room. They are passing out press releases, setting
up interviews, being tracked down by the major media and no one is
talking to me. I try to introduce myself to the other witnesses.
Grossman, the military psychologist who thinks video games are
training our kids to be killers, won't shake my hand when I wave it in
front of him. I am trying to keep my distance from the media industry
types because I don't want to be perceived as an apologist for the
industry -- even though, given the way this was set up, they were
my closest allies in the room. This is set up so you can either be
anti-popular culture or pro-industry and the thought that as citizens
we might have legitimate investments in the culture we consume was
beyond anyone's comprehension.

The hearings start and one by one the senators speak. There was
almost no difference between Republicans and Democrats on this one.
They all feel they have to distance themselves from popular culture.
They all feel they have to make "reasonable" proposals that edge up
towards censorship but never quite cross the constitutional lines.
It is political suicide to come out against the dominant position in
the room.

One by one, they speak. Hatch, Lieberman, Bennett, the Archbishop
from Littleton.... Bennett starts to show video clips which removed
from context seem especially horrific. The fantasy sequence from
Basketball Diaries reduced to 20 seconds of Leo DiCaprio blasting away
kids. The opening sequence from SCREAM reduced to its most visceral
elements. Women in the audience are gasping in horror. The senators
cover their faces with mock dread. Bennett start going on and on
about "surely we can agree upon some meaningful distinctions here,
and CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER...". I am just astonished by the sheer
absurdity of this claim which breaks down to a pure ideological
distinction which has neither aesthetic credibility nor any
relationship to the media effects debate. Basketball Diaries is an
important film; CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER is a right wing potboiler!
Scorsese is bad but Spielberg is good?

Meanwhile, the senators are making homophobic jokes about whether
Marilyn Manson is "a he or a she" that I thought went out in the
1960s. These strike me as precisely the kind of intolerant and
taunting comments that these kids must have gotten in school because
they dressed differently or acted oddly in comparison with their more
conformist classmates.

By this point, we reach the hour when the reporters have to call in
their stories if they are going to make the afternoon addition and so
they are heading for the door. It's down to the C-Span camerawoman
and a few reporters from the game industry trade press.

And then I am called to the witness stand. Now, the chair is
something nobody talks about. It is a really really low chair and
it is really puffy so you sit on it and your butt just keeps sinking
and suddenly the tabletop is up to your chest. It's like the chairs
they make parents sit in when they go to talk to elementary school
teachers. The Senators on the other hand sit on risers peering down
at you from above. And the whole power dynamics is terrifying.

Grossman starts to attack me personally, claiming that a "journalism"
professor and a "film critic" have no knowledge of social problems.
It takes me a while for the attacks to sink in because they are so far
off the mark. I am not a journalism prof. and I am not a film critic.
I am a media scholar who has spent more than 15 years studying and
writing about popular culture and I do think I have some expertise
at this point on how culture works, how media is consumed, how
media panics are started, how symbols relate to real world events,
how violence operates in stories, etc., etc. and that's what I was
speaking about.

I am doing OK with all of this. I am surprisingly calm while the
other people speak, and then Sen. Brownback calls my name, and utter
terror rushes through my body. I have never felt such fear. I try
to speak and can hardly get the words out. My throat is dry. I reach
for a glass of water and my hands are trembling so hard that I spill
water all over the nice table. I am trying to read and the words
are fuzzing out on the page. Most of them are handwritten anyway by
this point because I kept revising and editing until the last minute.
And I suddenly can't read my writing. Cold sweet is pouring over
me. I have visions of the cowardly lion running down the halls in OZ
escaping the great blazing head of the wizard. But there's no turning
back and so I speak and gradually my words gain force and I find my
voice and I debating the congress about what they are trying to do
to our culture. I take on Bennett about his distorted use of the
BASKETBALL DIARIES clip, explaining that he didn't mention this was
a film about a poet, someone who struggles between dark urges and
creativity, and that the scene was a fantasy intended to express
the rage felt by many students in our schools and not something the
character does let alone something the film advocates. I talked about
the ways these hearing grew out of the fear adults have of their own
children and especially their fear of digital media and technological
change. I talked about the fact that youth culture was becoming more
visible but it's core themes and values had remained pretty constant.
I talked about how reductive the media effects paradigm is as a way of
understanding consumers relations to popular culture. I attacked some
of the extreme rhetoric being leveled against the goths, especially
a line in TIME from a GOP hack that we needed "goth control" not "gun
control". I talked about the stuff that Jon Katz had been reporting
about the crackdown on youth culture in schools across the country and
I ended with an ad-libed line, "listen to your children, don't fear
them". Then, waited.

The Senator decided to take me on about the goths, having had some
staff person find him a surprisingly banal line from an ad for a
goth nightclub which urged people to "explore the dark side". And
I explained what I knew about goths, their roots in romanticism
and in the aesthetic movement, their nonviolence, their commitment
to acceptance,their strong sense of community, their expression of
alienation. I talked about how symbols could be used to express many
things and that we needed to understand what these symbols meant to
these kids. I spoke about Gilbert and Sullivan's PATIENCE as a work
that spoke to the current debate, because it spoofed the original
goths, the Aesthetics, for their black garb, their mournful posturing,
and said that they were actually healthy and well adjusted folks
underneath but they were enjoying playing dark and soulful. The
Senator tried repeating his question as if he couldn't believe I
wasn't shocked by the very concept of giving yourself over to the
"dark side". And then he gave up and shuffled me off the stand.

The press warmed around the anti-violence speakers but didn't seem
to want to talk to me. I just wanted to get out of there. I felt no
one had heard what I had to say and that I had been a poor messenger
because I had stumbled over my words. But several people stopped
me in the hallway to thank me. And dozens more have sent me e-mail
since having seen it on C-Span or heard it on the radio or seen the
transcript on the web or heard about it from friends. And suddenly
I feel better and better about what had happened. I had spoken out
about something that mattered to me in the halls of national power and
people out there had heard my message, not all of them certainly, but

I know the fight isn't over -- at least I hope it isn't. There will
be more chances to speak, but I felt like I had scored some victory
just by being there and speaking. Someone wrote me that it was all
the more powerful to have one rational voice amid a totally lopsided
panel of extremists. People would see this was a witch hunt of sorts.
I'd like to believe that.

THe key thing was I got a statement into the record that was able to
say more than I could in five minutes and people can read it on the
web at:

What follows is the text of my oral remarks which are rather different
from the written statement because I was still doing research and
writing on the airplane.

I am Henry Jenkins, Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies
Program. I have published six books and more than fifty essays
on various aspects of popular culture. My most recent books, THE
AND COMPUTER GAMES deal centrally with the questions before this
committee. I am also the father of a high school senior and the
house master of a MIT dormitory housing 150 students. I spent my
life talking with kids about their culture and I have come here today
to share with you some of what I have learned.

The massacre at Littleton, Colorado has provoked national soul
searching. We all want answers. But we are only going to find valid
answers if we ask the right Questions. The key issue isn't what the
media are doing to our children but rather what our children are doing
with the media. The vocabulary of "media effects", which has long
dominated such hearings, has been challenged by numerous American nd
international scholars as an inadequate and simplistic representation
of media consumption and popular culture. Media effects research most
often empties media images of their meanings, strips them of their
contexts, and denies their consumers any agency over their use.

William Bennett just asked us if we can make meaningful distinctions
between different kinds of violent entertainment. Well, I think
meaningful distinctions require us to look at images in context,
not looking at 20 second clips in isolation. From what Bennett just
showed you, you would have no idea that THE BASKETBALL DIARIES was
a film about a poet, that it was an autobiographical work about a
man who had struggled between dark urges and creative desires, that
the book on which it was based was taught in high school literature
classes, and that the scene we saw was a fantasy which expressed his
frustrations about the school, not something he acts upon and not
something the film endorses.

Far from being victims of video games, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold
had a complex relationship to many forms of popular culture. They
consumed music, films, comics, videogames, television programs. All
of us move nomadically across the media landscape, cobbling together
a personal mythology of symbols and stories taken from many different
places. We invest those appropriated materials with various personal
and subcultural meanings. Harris and Klebold were darn toward dark
and brutal images which they invested with their personal demons,
their antisocial impulses, their maladjustment, their desires to hurt
those who had hurt them.

Shortly after I learned about the shootings, I received e-mail for
a 16 year old girl who shared with me her web site. She had produced
an enormous array of poems and short stories drawing on characters
from popular culture and had gotten many other kids nationwide to
contribute. Though they were written for no class, these stories
would have brightened the spirit of writing teachers. She had reached
into contemporary youth culture, including many of the same media
products that have been cited in the Littleton case, and found there
images that emphasized the power of friendship, the importance of
community, the wonder of first romance. The mass media didn't make
Harris and Klebold violent and destructive and it didn't make thi girl
creative and sociable but it provided them both with the raw materials
necessary to construct their fantasies.

Of course, we should be concerned about the content of our culture
and we all learn thing from the mass media. But popular culture
is only one influence on our children's imaginations. Real life
trumps media images every time. We can shut down a video game if
it is ugly, hurtful, or displeasing. But many teens are required
to return day after day to schools where they are ridiculed and
taunted and sometimes physically abused by their classmates. School
administrators are slow to respond to their distress and typically can
offer few strategies for making the abuse stop. As one Littleton teen
explained, "Everytime someone slammed them against a locker or threw a
bottle at them, they would go back to Eric and Dylan's house and plot
a little more".

We need to engage in a rational conversation about the nature of
the culture children consume but not in the current climate of moral
panic. I believe this moral panic is pumped up by three factors.

1) Our fears of adolescents. Popular culture has become one of the
central battlegrounds through which teens stake out a claim on their
own autonomy from their parents. Adolescent symbols from zoot suits
to goth amulets define the boundaries between generations. The
intentionally cryptic nature of these symbols often means adults
invest them with all of our worst fears, including our fear that our
children are breaking away from us. But that doesn't mean that these
symbols carry all of these same meanings for our children. However
spooky looking they may seem to some adults, goths aren't monsters.
They are a peaceful subculture committed to tolerance of diversity and
providing a sheltering community for others who have been hurt. It
is, however, monstrously inappropriate when GOP strategist Mike Murphy
advocates "goth control" not "gun control."

2) Adult fears of new technologies. The Washington Post reported
that 82 percent of Americans cite the Internet as a potential
cause for the shootings. The Internet is no more to blame for the
Colombine shootings than the telephone is to blame for the Lindbergh
kidnappings. Such statistics suggest adult anxiety about the current
rate of technological change. Many adults see computers as necessary
tools for educational and professional development. But many
also perceive their children's on-line time as socially isolating.
However, for many "outcasts," the on-line world offers an alternative
support network, helping them find someone out there somewhere who
doesn't think they are a geek.

3) The increased visibility of youth culture. Children fourteen and
under now constitute roughly 30 percent of the American population,
a demographic group larger than the baby boom itself. Adults are
feeling more and more estranged from the dominant forms of popular
culture, which now reflects their children's values rather than
their own. Despite our unfamiliarity with this new technology,
the fantasies shaping contemporary video games are not profoundly
different from those which shaped backyard play a generation ago.
Boys have always enjoyed blood and thunder entertainment, always
enjoyed risk-taking and rough housing, but these activities often
took place in vacant lots or backyards, out of adult view. In a world
where children have diminished access to play space, American mothers
are now confronting directly the messy business of turning boys into
men in our culture and they are alarmed at what they are seeing but
the fact that they are seeing it at all means that we can talk about
it and shape it in a way that was impossible when it was hidden from

We are afraid of our children. We are afraid of their reactions to
digital media. And we suddenly can't avoid either. Thee factors may
shape the policies that emerge from this committee but if they do,
they will lead us down the wrong path. Banning black trenchcoats or
abolishing violent video games doesn't get us anywhere. These are the
symbols of youth alienation and rage -- not the causes.

Journalist Jon Katz has described a backlash against popular culture
in our high schools. Schools are shutting down student net access.
Parents are cutting their children off from on-line friends. Students
are being suspended for displaying cultural symbols or expressing
controversial views. Katz chillingly documents the consequences
of adult ignorance and fear of our children's culture. Rather than
teaching children to be more tolerant, high school teachers and
administrators are teaching students that difference is dangerous,
that individuality should be punished, and that self expression should
be constrained. In this polarized climate, it becomes IMPOSSIBLE
for young people to explain to us what their popular culture means to
them. We re pushing this culture further and further underground and
thus further and further from our understanding.

I urge this committee to listen to youth voices about this controversy
and have submitted a selection of responses from young people as part
of my extended testimony.

Listen to our children. Don't fear them.
Henry Jenkins