Date: Sun, 9 May 1999 22:57:20 -0700 (PDT)

Moral Panic after Littleton?

Irvine -- In the two weeks after Littleon, the headlines still evoke fears of teen violence with blame cast on video games, movies and other manifestations of popular culture. Prof. Henry Jenkins, who specializes in popular culture and heads the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, is concerned that there is a moral panic emerging. Last week, he testified before Congress, but felt his was a lone voice in a tidal wave of hysterical rush to judgement. See below for his e-mail posting about his not so positive experience on the Hill.

Jenkins is the guest on Subversity this Tuesday, May 11, 1999, from 5-6 p.m. Pacific time, on KUCI, 88.9 FM in Orange County, and on the Web at He will be interviewed by show host Daniel C. Tsang.

To chat with Jenkins during the show, call (949) 824-5824 or send e-mail to:


Prof. Henry Jenkins' posting:

It was suggested that you would find this account of my testimony before the
U.S. Senate of interest and so I am passing it along to you. Feel free to
distribute it on your list.

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, FROM BARBIE
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
avant garde, 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, between CASINO and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN,
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

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 enough. 

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

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 CHILDREN'S CULTURE READER and
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 view.

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