Sunday, June 24, 2007

Short History of Ludicrous Claims about Violence in the Media

I first got a clue about the history of misinformed people blaming the media for everything from violence to sex in real life at an auction about 50 miles north of New York City, a few decades ago. I bid a buck for a box of old magazines, sight unseen.

At the bottom, I found an August 1910 issue of Good Housekeeping, which contained an article entitled, "Motion Pictures: A Primary School for Criminals", by some professor - a William McKeever - in the Midwest. McKeever wrote,

What is going to be done with the motion picture shows ... grinding out their reels of excitement and enchantment before the eyes of the motley throng of men and women, boys and girls? ... These moving pictures are even more degrading than the dime novel, because they represent real flesh-and-blood forms, and impart their lessons directly through the senses.

McKeever is justly lost to history - I don't know any one who cites him, other than me, as a choice example of pseudo-scholarly detachment from reality. He had no evidence for his claims, just his own Puritanical imagination. Times haven't changed much, have they...

In the 1950s, television and comic books both took a beating from the world of academe. Watching tv was said to make us stupid, reading comics was said to engender violence. Except, once again, there was no real evidence. Just wrong, learned opinions.

In fact, evidence contradicted all the negative claims about television, and there were plenty. Jerry Mander, in his Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (1979), claimed watching it not only made you illiterate, but could give you cancer!

On the more plausible victim of television - literary - Mander apparently missed Gene Maeroff's "Reading Achievement of Children in Indiana Found as Good as in '44" in the April 15, 1978 New York Times. Because, sure enough, that study showed that precisely during the early reign of television, there had been no decline in literacy at all.

Facts, pesky facts. These always seem to get in the way of the William McKeevers, Jerry Manders, and Jack Thompsons of the world. To them, it seems so obvious that movies, tv, and now videogames are to blame, that evidence is an afterthought. You take it where you can get it. If you find an organization like the American Psychological Association which says there is causation between playing violent videogames and having violent attitudes - even though it's correlation not causation - well, hey, that's good enough, you can use it to go on a rampage that falsely claims that playing videogames causes not attitudes but real life violence, including killing.

New, cutting edge media always seem to attract this kind of attention. I have no doubt that when humans first started speaking, some non-speaking close cousins of our ancestors were not too happy about that. Had they been able to think, they might have even realized that new modes of communication propel our evolution as a species, and that speaking signaled the end of their non-speaking days. They might have done all they could to make speaking illegal or whatever passed for that back then.

Fortunately for us, they failed.

As will the current denouncers of video games.

See also I Went Face-to-Screen with Jack Thompson

Following comments entered on original post of 23 April 2007. Feel free to comment further right here.


I see you have included a short list of people who like to specialize in the nonfalsifiable hypothesis. Much of what they say is not just wrong it is actually meaningless. I'll admit I don't expect much change when it comes to confusing opinions for facts. I suspect some of it is childhood conditioning, but that is just a guess. grins
Posted by: George at April 24, 2007 09:28 PM

Great article, it's always nice to hear the voice of sanity rise above the clamor of the self-serving alarmists.
Posted by: Alex at April 30, 2007 12:43 PM

Thanks, George and Alex. The claims would be laughable, if they didn't do so much damage - encouraging censorship, and distracting us from the real causes of these problems.
Posted by: Paul Levinson at April 30, 2007 04:22 PM

I believe that novels where also scoffed at by poets when they first came around. It is a fascinating cycle, that I think every person in the academic realm needs to learn about. That way, when there getting the itch to criticize a new medium they can let it go, rather then acting as a cog in the wheel.
A few days ago Salman Rushdie was on the Colbert Report to bemoan the dwindling number of book reviewers in the newspapers. He was claiming that the public at large would lose a necessary service that brought the best books to light. The internet has more then stepped up to replace this function, and I couldn't believe the genuine concern that Rushdie had.
Posted by: tobydog at May 13, 2007 06:08 AM

Good points, Tobydog. Rusdie is an example of someone who has so internalized the media of his day - in his case, the printed novel - that he can't recognize an equivalent development if it's not on paper...
I talk about this syndrome, as well as the more general point that new media are almost always distrusted, underestimated, misunderstood, thoughout The Soft Edge: A Natural History and the Future of the Information Revolution
Posted by: Paul Levinson at May 13, 2007 10:55 AM
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