Issue 74, Summer 1999

MIT professor Henry Jenkins, Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program and Professor of Literature, testifying at a hearing on youth violence, warned the Senate Commerce Committee not to succumb to a climate of moral panic and embrace misguided and ineffectual proposals to censor youthful expression or the media. In contrast to William Bennett, who had shown the committee video clips from movies like The Basketball Diaries, distorting the impact of violence by showing scenes out of context, Jenkins testified that the film “is about a poet, someone who struggles between dark urges and creativity,” and that the 20-second dream scene of a school-room shooting “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.” He added, “[d]epicting violence is certainly not the same thing as promoting violence.”

“The mass media didn’t make Littleton students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold violent and destructive just as it doesn’t make other students creative and sociable,” Jenkins testified. “It does provide them with the raw materials to construct their fantasies,” he explained, as he described a website of other teens drawing from the same media images, with poems and short stories emphasizing the power of friendship, the importance of community and the wonder of romance.

“Far from being victims of video games,” Jenkins told the committee, “Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had a complex relationship to many forms of popular culture. They consumed music, films, comics, video games, 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 drawn toward dark and brutal images which they invested with their personal demons, their antisocial impulses, their maladjustment, their desires to hurt those who hurt them.”

Jenkins said we should be concerned about the content of our culture and 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, “Every time 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.”

“The moral panic that currently consumes us,” Jenkins believes, is “pumped up” by three factors: Our fears of adolescents and popular culture as a way in which they define their desire for autonomy from their parents; adult fears of new technologies; and the increased visibility of youth culture as children under 15 now constitute about 30% of the population.

“If these factors shape the policies that emerge from the Senate Committee, they will lead us down the wrong path,” Jenkins said. “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…. 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.”