Not In Front of the Children

GUEST: Marjorie Heins, Esq.
VTR: 5/16/2001

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my subject today is provided by the new Hill & Wang book, “Not In Front Of The Children: Indecency, Censorship and the Innocence of Youth”.

My guest is its author, First Amendment attorney, Marjorie Heins, Director of the Free Expression Policy Project of the National Coalition Against Censorship. As Publisher’s Weekly notes, “In her book Ms. Heins argues potently that the age-old idea of protecting children from corrupting influences has reached dangerous proportions in the U.S.”. And she certainly does take the most detailed and painstaking issue with the harm to minors position at its core.

Yet my own academic background as historian of American life and thought and then my twenty years in Hollywood as Chair of the industry’s voluntary movie rating system have convinced me, at least, that most Americans feel strongly it is not folly, but rather the beginning of wisdom to distinguish between ourselves and our still developing younger children. And that to discriminate between ourselves and them is not to discriminate against them. So that there are some areas of disagreement as well as many areas of agreement with my guest.

And for the sake of our discussion today I’d like to offer the same kind of clarification and caveat she wisely sets forth at the beginning of her so evocatively titled, “Not In Front Of The Children”. For Ms. Heins doesn’t want her readers misled into thinking that what she is writing about, or defending is child pornography involving actual, physical abuse, rather than exposure to words, images and idea. It is instead generally speech and thought she means to defend. Not punishable acts.

Well, similarly, in our discussion today, and perhaps we can come back to them another time, I’d like not to focus on the many prudish, puritanical and I certainly agree, often very foolish efforts that have been made throughout our history to separate young people from human sexuality as far as possible. In fact, further than is possible, as we all ought to know by now.

So that though I’m not a lawyer, I hope my guest will let me follow suit and just stipulate my greater rather than lesser agreement with her about matters sexual and language based. Precisely, so that we can today focus instead on the much more compelling issue, not of ideas and speech, but rather of ever harsher and increasingly more explicit violence in the media, in all the mass entertainment for profit media, movies, music, television, cable, video games, now even the computer. Focus instead on the potential of that violence to pose a real and present danger to the general welfare of our nation.

And so to begin today, I would ask Ms. Heins directly, when we do focus not on sexuality and dirty words, but rather on the ever further and further way out extremes of mass media entertainment for profit violence, doesn’t she have some more understanding of and perhaps even empathy for that constant refrain, “not in front of the kids”, and when it comes to such media violence, doesn’t she, too, want to ask and perhaps even answer the perennial question … “where to we draw the line?” That’s the question I would ask you today.

HEINS: Well, thank you for that great introduction. I guess the first thing would be to ask what one means by violence. And secondarily, is the entertainment world today really more violent than in past eras when we had Roman circuses, public executions, people congregating in the central part of town to watch somebody drawn and quartered in the most gruesome fashion. Even scary fairy tales and horror movies and books that were spine tingling have been a staple of literature and the other arts down through history.

So the subject of violence is complicated. And it’s, it’s a big … it always has been a big theme in art and literature and entertainment. When you come to the present era, of course, we have many more media. Many of which have the capacity to bring violent depictions into our homes and our imaginations in very dramatic fashion. I’m not sure that it’s any worse, or different from the way it has been in history. I know that it is certainly a subject that has been of human interest. And many depictions of violence … it’s hard to distinguish between depictions of violence that we think might have a harmful influence. And those that might have a cathartic influence. Or some kind of instructive influence. When you see a war movie, when you see a Shakespearean play, which can be extremely gruesome, when you see a horror movie some people will get truly traumatized and frightened. This goes for adults as well as children … will be … will find it exciting and adrenalin producing and like the scare. And it’s perfectly cathartic for them.

So, my first quarrel with the kind of generalized notion that we have so much gruesome media violence today and it must be bad, is to ask … to take a step back and think a little more carefully about the history of violence as a theme in art and entertainment. And to try to make distinctions among different ways in which violence is portrayed.

And I think ultimately the individual parent has to be the one to decide what is going to be frightening or otherwise traumatizing for his or her individual child. And it becomes unproductive for society as a whole, and certainly for government to try to rate different kinds of entertainment according to the violence content. And then make some stipulations about different age groups for which this may or may not be quote “harmful”.

HEFFNER: Well, you certainly are well expressing the industry’s point of view.

HEINS: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: The entertainment industry have to give you an A plus, or a hundred percent for that point of view. That indeed we have had violence in the past. That, indeed, there is an argument to be made for the catharsis theory, a modern argument that’s very much accepted these days. I notice that in your book you do refer to catharsis and I wondered why, at a time when most people in the medical, psychiatric field have rejected catharsis as a major point in the analysis of media violence. Why you keep coming back to it.

HEINS: Well, I would disagree with your statement that most people in the medical and psychiatric field have rejected it. On the contrary, I think it’s well recognized that the cathartic experience, the cathartic response to whatever kind … of literature, entertainment happens to appeal to a particular individual is a well established phenomenon. There has been one school of psychology, generally referred to as the social learning school. There are many different views about human behavior, how it develops; human aggression, whether it’s inborn in part. To what extent it is triggered by one’s experiences in early childhood and to what extent media may play a factor for some already predisposed people to act aggressively.

But of all those different theories and fields of psychology, it was the Social Learning School which really grew out of a kind of extreme behaviorism and rejection of Freudianism or anything, any kind of humanistic or holistic view of the human personality. The Social Learning School that became prominent in the fifties and sixties; and as I trace in the book, it’s really a product of the politics of TV violence, which in its turn is an extension of the politics of other kinds of “harm to minors” based censorship. What is really going on here is fears and anxieties which are expressed in symbolic kind of gestures, like censorship laws. And then the justification becomes “we gotta protect the kids” because … there is a lot of anxiety and fear about the way … about the vastness of the culture, the variety of influences in the culture, the ways in which kids are … the difficulty of growing up in our culture. So we end up with these symbolic kinds of concerns.

And it really started in the fifties and sixties as the book traces. And the Social learning psychologist got a lot of funding to do a lot of studies, which if you start looking at them and trace it from the sixties and seventies all the way through the actual experiments that were done yielded very dubious, ambiguous conclusions.

HEFFNER: Well, I …

HEINS: … but the results were manipulated and it really, when you look at this literature and start studying it, it’s really quite astonishing, the extent to which the kind of result orientation of this particular school of psychology, and really just … not that many people … a few leaders who became very prominent as a result of the government study and becoming active in the American Psychological Association, giving testimony before Congress. Really astonishing manipulation of data … results come out as no results. Even if you accept the notion that you can draw scientific conclusions about the development of human behavior and human personalities through laboratory experiments, which is a dubious proposition, the results were not particularly encouraging to their hypothesis. So they would re-do the data and they would slice it up differently. And they would try to find some statistically significant positive connection between the exposure of a group of children in a laboratory setting to some film clips … some violent film clips. And subsequent behavior in a play simulated aggression situation. And then they announced “We’ve disproved catharsis”.
I don’t think that conclusion is universally, or even widely agreed with, I think …

HEFFNER: You say …

HEINS: … it’s gotten a lot of publicity …

HEFFNER: You don’t think it’s been universally, you and I both know nothing has been universally… All right. Let me, let me understand … you’re a lawyer

HEINS: Indeed.

HEFFNER: … who believes that the psychiatric profession and the psychological profession have basically embraced the catharsis theory.

HEINS: No, I didn’t say that.

HEFFNER: At long last.

HEINS: I didn’t say that. This is a very big and complicated subject. How people respond to all the different kinds of art and literature and creative expression in their lives … I don’t think we can over generalize. I think different people have different responses and we know from our own personal experience what catharsis feels like. It’s a big word for …

HEFFNER: What’s it mean, indeed.
HEINS: … a fairly simple set of phenomena …

HEFFNER: What does it mean … that kids who are exposed to violence … have a constant exposure to violence in the media … are kids who more rather than less … no absolutes here …

HEINS: I talk about some interesting studies in this … in my chapter on media effects toward the end of the book. Of adolescents who are drawn to heavy metal music, and this is a good example. And the Tipper Gore’s of the world would argue, “Well, this heavy metal music makes them into killers. Or it makes them more aggressive”, or it’s certainly harmful …

HEFFNER: Oh, I don’t think Tipper Gore ever said “it makes them into killers”.

HEINS: Okay. Well, I don’t want to beat up on Tipper Gore. But certainly, after Columbine … now Columbine was more about video games than heavy metal music. But these particular studies happen to be heavy metal music … and yes, there is a correlation, which has been found repeatedly between adolescents who are more aggressive and adolescence who favor this particular kind of music. But that doesn’t mean the music causes them to be more aggressive. And what the, the researcher in this particular series of experiments concluded was that there’s a common third variable that accounts for the variation, and this is very common when you do correlational studies. What is at the root of both the preference for heavy metal music and the more aggressive behavior is a disposition toward sensation seeking. Among this particular group of adolescents. And among the adolescents who were interviewed, they themselves said that the music had a relaxing and cathartic effect. They didn’t use the word “catharsis”, of course. But it helped them process their anger. It expressed what they were feeling. So, yes, I’m not denying that there can be harmful effects from some kinds of violent entertainment. Or non-violent entertainment …

HEFFNER: But you certainly don’t accept the notion …

HEINS: … but you can’t generalize …

HEFFNER: … that this presents a clear and present danger to our nation. That the violence that surrounds us in the media, if I understand correctly … you’re saying that the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the pediatricians, etc. are probably not accurate in their concerns about violence in media, but that Professor Fesbach at UCLA, who as you, you write … you said, “One of the few champions of catharsis theory in a field constantly, or increasingly dominated by Social Learning enthusiasts” … you think that Sy has his finger on accuracy here and that by and large we really don’t need to be so concerned …

HEINS: I, I …
HEFFNER: … about violence in the media.

HEINS: … I think there’s a lot of reasons for concern about the culture.

HEFFNER: What?

HEINS: In a lot of difference ways. But I think the answer is not to try to set up rating schemes and Internet filtering schemes or censorship laws in which government or some private group tries to define “indefinable” which is what particular category or type of movie or book or film or video game is harmful …

HEFFNER: What do you think the answer is …

HEINS: … to any statistically meaningful number of kids …

HEFFNER: … you don’t think that is the answer… what is your answer?

HEINS: I think we need media literacy education, which is far more advanced and established in the educational systems of Canada, Australia, Britain and other countries …

HEFFNER: All systems that have rating systems. All countries that have rating systems.

HEINS: We have comprehensive sexuality education … we need comprehensive sexuality education instead of, as I describe in my chapter in the book, which I call “The Ideological Minefield of Sexuality Education”, Congress has now mandated, or rather funded, heavily funded a kind of … what they call abstinence …really abstinence unless married preaching of sex education which denies, which is ideologically driven, rather than driven by public health concerns, or any real understanding of the needs of adolescence and deprives them of important health information. And misleads them about the effectiveness of contraceptives. We have instead of truly useful … if Joe Lieberman and the others in Congress who are constantly beating up on the entertainment industry, and I have no great love for the entertainment industry … but the kinds of censorship proposals that they are constantly advocating are dangerous to free expression, are dangerous to the intellectual freedom interests of youth and infantilizing to teenagers …

HEFFNER: You know I feel …

HEINS: … if they would get off this constant kind of headline grabbing dumping on entertainment and really roll up their sleeves and start coming up with constructive solutions to the concerns that lots of adults in this society understandably share about violence video games, or crummy television entertainment, or kids just spending too long in front of the tube …

HEFFNER: What puzzles me …

HEINS: … we could … we could have … we could have … real advances in media literacy which would really educate kids to be discriminating and discerning and to understand a little bit more about media messages.

HEFFNER: Now I can’t help but agree with much of what you say and much of what you write in your book. However, I’m puzzled when it comes to the matter of violence of why you are so willing to embrace a theory, contrary to what you say which has been so largely, and you say in your book that Sy Fesbach is … you don’t say he’s a minority of one … there are others who … ah, ah will agree with him … why not reject catharsis as most psychologists and psychiatrists and pediatricians have, and simply say, as a lawyer, as a First Amendment advocate, you feel it is more important to accept what the media will present us in terms of violence that appeals to kids … it’s more important to do that than to touch one hair on the head of the First Amendment. And let it go at that …

HEINS: Well …

HEFFNER: … instead of taking … becoming a partisan for the catharsis theory.

HEINS: Oh, well, I’m not talking about partisanship. What I’m trying to do and what this book was motivated really by after years of experience litigating censorship cases and finding that this harm to minors assumption at the core of it was not thought about very much. The intent of the book is to stimulate thought about what would really be the best ways to educate and socialize children and adolescents into the common values we share.

I’m not a partisan for one theory or another. I do think that the particular school of psychology that has gotten excessive funding and excessive attention because of the politics of this issue … does not represent … over simplifies what is a very subtle and nuanced and complicated area, which is how each individual human brain processes a vast range of different entertainment and artistic expression. You cannot generalize about whether, you know, “Schindler’s List” or “The Accused” or “Bonnie and Clyde” or thousands of other examples of good films that are violent … you can’t generalize about what effects they will have. And we know there are many, many different effects of the media and culture in our lives. It’s very powerful. And it can be instructive. We can see violent entertainment that is simply escapist and relaxing. And that’s one form of catharsis. We can be horrified and it can galvanize us to action. And we can be frightened. Which may or may not be such a good thing … being frightened is not always such a bad thing. And yes, there are some already pre-disposed troubled individuals who might be foolish enough to copy some violent act that they, that they have seen in the media. And I am not a partisan for any single theory of human behavior.

HEFFNER: But you’re convinced …

HEINS: I’m asking …

HEFFNER: … but your convinced they’re just some … right? You’re convinced that what we see on the air, what we see in video games, the violent content all around us … you’re convinced that this can’t be that important.

HEINS: No. I wouldn’t say that.

HEFFNER: What would you say then?

HEINS: I would say that it is impossible … what I care about as a First Amendment lawyer is not the legalities, the legal technicalities of it. It is an appreciation for the productions of the human mind. Imaginative expression as well as the kind of research you do as a historian. And that that kind of expression be appreciated in its nuance and complexity and not divided up into simply-minded letter or number ratings. V for violence, or V2 for a lot of violence, or S for a lot of sex, or N for a little bit of nudity. Those … as somebody who loves art and literature … those kinds of simple minded, reductive approaches to the world of imagination are offensive to me. And I think there are better ways to address our … the concerns that we share about what we find offensive in media entertainment. Or productive of bad messages that we don’t want … that we want kids to be able to recognize and evaluate and reject. An affirmative approach is like media literacy, which I say is far more advanced in other societies, would be greatly to our advantage. And, you know, the concern that really motivated this book was we seem to be stuck in our politics here, in this kind of rhetoric about protecting the kids, protecting the kids, without any real, serious careful thought about child development, methods of education …

HEFFNER: Well, may I take …

HEINS: … and the education is getting …

HEFFNER: … exception to that …

HEINS: … short shrift in this country, as a result.

HEFFNER: …..because, look, you know as well as I do … that the people who are most concerned with education of the young, with child development … are the very people who are going, and to your dismay, testifying before the Congress …

HEINS: Let me tell you an anecdote … I was at an … this is not an anecdote, it’s a very instructive story, and it supports my point that this stuff is about politics, not science. I was on a panel ….

HEFFNER: It’s about children, it’s not about science, it’s not about politics …

HEINS: It’s about the politics …

HEFFNER: It’s about money and children.

HEINS: … and kids … and about money for research funding. But let me tell you the story.

HEFFNER: Your money for the entertainment industry. But go ahead, I don’t want to interrupt you.

HEINS: Thank you. About two weeks ago, I was on a panel on violence in the media …

HEFFNER: But I have to say we only have three minutes …

HEINS: Okay … at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center. I was there with Richard Rhodes, a journalist who has done some interesting investigative work uncovering some of the really quite surprising disingenuousness of some the leading psychologists in the Social Learning School. Two other people on the panel, a representative of the American Psychological Association, which has been the leading professional association arguing that it is absolutely proven by social science studies that violent entertainment has harmful effects. And a member of the Board of the American Medical Association, which recently signed on to a statement last year, sort of agreeing with that. The first thing the representative of the AMA said was, “It was very controversial when our Board discussed signing on to this statement. The Articles we were given seem to suggest that there was some proven connection. Now that I have read more including Ms. Heins’ article (which I had written for the Freedom Forum, but it’s really a condensation of the material in this book), I really question whether that …those claims of scientific proof are valid”. And he said, “We signed on to it essentially for political reasons because we need”, he was extremely candid, “there are things we, the American Medical Association need from Senator Brownbeck and the other Senators who are pushing us for this. It is a political issue, it is not about educating kids”. And even the guy from the American Psychological Association was extremely equivocal and backed off radically from the kind of definitive statement … social scientists will, will readily acknowledge this is not an area where you can hard proof. At most you have, as I describe in the book, probablistic causation.

HEFFNER: Would you agree, in the 30 seconds left, that most American parents given the probablistic approach, would say “probably the violence garbage in our media is harmful. It’s not good for the kids, it’s probably bad for the kids.”

HEINS: I, I haven’t polled parents and so I really have no opinion on that. I think … what I’ve tried to express to you in this half hour is there is a lot of violent content in art and literature, some of it is garbage to some people. A lot of it is not. And, and to some extent I’m regretful that this whole discussion has focused on media violence because …

HEFFNER: Why?

HEINS: … there’s a lot more in this book which puts the media violence issue into the broader context of the history of censorship directed at kids, how it evolved, how our concepts of adolescence evolved. Ways in which adolescents have been separated out from adult society, rather than integrated in. There’s material about school censorship, a lot of valuable literature …

HEFFNER: But what you’re saying now …

HEINS: … has been taken out of school libraries.

HEFFNER: … but what you’re saying now won’t be heard or seen because they told me to say good-bye and I must … disagreeing with you though I do … say good-bye and thank you for joining me on The Open Mind.

HEINS: Thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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