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September 3, 2006

Slamming Media Effects

I wrote this on my blog on Friday in response to Sam Ford's recent focus on the subject. I wanted to post it here as well, to play off the points he made previously:

Some of you thought Ian and I were playing a little rough with each other. Wait till you hear about the kind of rough treatment that media effects researchers have been getting lately.

CMS graduate student Sam Ford recently told the story here:

In 1999, a team of professors from Wake Forest University made headlines with a quantitative study that found a correlation between watching professional wrestling and participating in fighting while on dates among teenagers, in a study that also highlighted other potential negative behaviors associated with watching pro wrestling.

While the study was not published at the time, it did receive a substantial amount of attention and was covered by most of the major news outlets. Then, last week, when a written essay based on the study and releasing the full results of the study was published, major media outlets once again reported on it.

WWE Owner Vince McMahon was livid. On last week's episode of Monday Night RAW, WWE announcer Jim Ross lashed out and the study and promoted Mr. McMahon's response to be made available on the WWE Web site for fans, and also on the company's corporate site for investors.

That response claimed, among other things, that the study was "junk science" and that the findings were both dated and unsubstantiated. Of course, in true McMahon fashion, Vince went on to say that the study was produced by "some obscure professor who finally got someone to read his paper and is trying to get his name in the media." WWE certainly didn't hide from the issue, even linking to the study on its Web site to bring further attention to the results from fans and engage in a dialogue, although WWE was definitely issuing their response in "wrestling promo" mode.

McMahon brought on board a ringer -- his own academic -- Dr. Robert Thompson, the head of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. Thompson -- who works loosely in the cultural studies tradition -- offers his own critique of the Wake Forest research:

What always worries me about these kinds of studies is that they imply a cause; this study claims nothing more than a correlation...So many people immediately see these studies, and they suggest that wrestling is causing these things, and I don't think that is a done deal by any stretch of the imagination....Whether you can make the step that says people who watch wrestling become more a lot more difficult to prove, and I don't think these studies prove it. I think it would be very, very difficult to put together a study that could actually control enough variables that you could demonstrate that.

Then, a University of Cincinnati sociology graduate student (and self proclaimed wrestling fan) Michael M Wehrman wrote an editorial for the Pro Wrestling Torch, a key publication in the wrestling fan community, claiming that Thompson's credentials for commenting on the matter were "highly questionable" since he comes from a humanistic rather than social science background.

Wehrman concludes that the Wake Forest Study "is fairly shallow, lacks relevant control variables, and seems overreaching in its conclusion," but Wehrman is convinced that he has the background to make such a judgment because he is a social scientist and Thompson doesn't because he's a humanist. In other words, nobody can beat up my kid brother except me.

The War Between Effects and Meanings

So, let's stop right there and explore the issue of expertise for a moment. Where media violence is concerned, we face a fundamental problem. A high percentage of the work done in the media effects tradition -- a specific strand of social science research -- has arrived at the conclusion that consuming media violence has some vaguely defined relationship to real world aggression. There is wide disagreement about how much influence, what kind of influence, etc. A high percentage of the work done in the humanistic tradition has arrived at the exact opposite conclusion -- looking at media violence in terms of the meanings it generates within a cultural context as opposed to the direct effects or influence it exerts over the people who consume it. I discuss these two models of how media operates as "the war between effects and meanings" in an essay included in Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers. I wrote this essay is response to the Limbaugh decision, a ruling in a Federal court which found that computer games were not protected by the First Amendment because they did not convey meanings. (This ruling has since been overturned). Here's part of what I say:

Gamers have expressed bafflement over how Limbaugh can simultaneously claim that video games do not express ideas and that they represent a dangerous influence on American youth. Reformers, in turn, are perplexed that the defenders of games can argue that they have no direct consequences for the people who consume them and yet warrant Constitutional protection. To understand this paradox, we have to recognize a distinction between "effects" and "meanings." Limbaugh and company see games as having social and psychological "effects" (or in some formulations, as constituting "risk factors" that increase the likelihood of violent and antisocial conduct). Their critics argue that gamers produce meanings through game play and related activities. Effects are seen as emerging more or less spontaneously, with little conscious effort, and are not accessible to self examination. Meanings emerge through an active process of interpretation; they reflect our conscious engagement; they can be articulated into words; and they can be critically examined. New meanings take shape around what we already know and what we already think, and thus, each player will come away from a game with a different experience and interpretation. Often, reformers in the "effects" tradition argue that children are particularly susceptible to confusions between fantasy and reality. A focus on meaning, on the other hand, would emphasize the knowledge and competencies possessed by game players starting with their mastery over the aesthetic conventions which distinguish games from real world experience.

Social scientists often act as if their research existed outside of a political, economic, or social context -- as if their findings remained in a world of pure scientific examination. But in fact, the kind of work being discussed here is going to be picked up and deployed by a range of political groups to serve their own causes. In the process, the qualifications and nuances of scientific debate is going to get striped aside. In the end, it doesn't matter whether this is a good or bad study, draws valid or invalid conclusions, deals with causation or correlation. As far as moral reformers are concerned, it is a good study if it can be used as a weapon in the culture wars. The findings are being used as a blunt instrument -- a foreign object, to use a WWE term -- that is being deployed to inflict as much damage as possible on one's opponent. That's how they are going to be played in the news coverage; that's how they will be deployed by reform groups; and that's how they will be mobilized by politicians.

Where I fault at least some of the social scientists working in this space is their refusal to accept responsibility for what happens to their findings when they enter the political process. I believe that a true scientist has an obligation to the truth. In other social policy debates -- such as the debate about porn and violence -- other social scientists -- Edward Donnerstein for example -- did stand up and challenge the distorted use of his findings.

Creating Monsters

In my essay, "Wrestling with Theory, Grappling with Politics" for Nick Sammond's anthology, Steel Chair to the Head, I discuss some of the cultural politics which forms a backdrop for this debate, starting by exploring what it might mean to "demonize" wrestling and other forms of popular culture:

Literary critic Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has constructed a theory of the cultural work which the category of the monster performs. The monster, he suggests, "notoriously appears at times of crisis as a kind of third term that problematizes the clash of extremes." Monsters are "disturbing hybrids ...[with] externally incoherent bodies;" they embody the contradictions and anxieties shaping a society undergoing profound change. Old modes of thinking are breaking down and the construction of monsters represents a last gasp effort to hold them in place. This is why wrestling is so often figured as monstrous and perverse. The WWE is a horrifying hybrid -- not sports, sports entertainment; not real, not fake, but someplace in between; appealing to the 'white trash' working class and the college educated alike; courting kids and appealing to adolescents on the basis of its rejection of family values; existing outside the cultural mainstream and yet a commercial success; appealing to national pride even as it shoots a bird at most American institutions; masculine as hell and melodramatic as all get out.

Cohen tells us that the monster is born from a category crisis. Thus, the undead may be considered monsters because they are liminal figures existing betwixt and between life and death. We might call wrestling the "unreal" since it stands on the border between fact and fiction. Activist David Grossman uses the "fakeness" of wrestling to justify larger claims about audience susceptibility: ""People tell me, 'you can't tell me that a 6-year-old in Flint, Mich., couldn't tell the difference between fantasy and reality.... And I say, 'Well, you know, how many adults do you know who think professional wrestling is real?" In their video, Wrestling with Manhood (2002), Sut Jhally and Jackson Katz argue that television wrestling may be the most dangerous kind of media violence because it passes itself off as real yet acknowledges no real world consequences. Referring to a moment in Wrestling With Shadows (2000), when Mick Foley's children become horrified after watching their father in the ring, Jackson Katz asks, "If Mick Foley's Kids can't see behind the illusion, what chance do kids have who have never been taken behind the curtain?"

One can certainly understand why this category confusion would be of concern for many of these writers. Their own literal-mindedness knows no limits. For them, to represent something is to advocate it; to advocate it is to cause it. Wrestling With Manhood, for example, depicts wrestling spectators as moral monsters and at one point, compares them to the folks who watched and did nothing to stop Hitler's rise to power. (You know an argument is kaput when it resorts to the Nazi card!) The filmmakers never acknowledge that these fans, who come to ringside in costume, mimic the catchphrases, waving signs they hope will get on camera, might see themselves as part of the performance, enacting, spoofing, taking pleasure in the imaginary roles and fantasy values on offer. The narrator explains: "Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this is not only what's going on in the ring but the reaction of the crowd, which is wildly cheering what can only be described as a psychic and physical violation. A stadium full of seemingly normal boys and men cheering and getting off on the control, the humiliation, the degradation." Consider the rhetorical work done here by the word, "seemingly," -- as if the deceptiveness of the WWF extended to its audience, who are "seemingly normal" but actually ghouls and monsters. And this same literal-mindedness surfaces in the phrase, "which can only be described." As far as Jhally and Katz are concerned, the wrestling spectacle can only be understood in one way, even though what has fascinated the writers in this collection is the sheer range of meanings such moments might carry.

We respond to the threat of the monster through moral panic; confronting something we don't understand and can't really classify, our normal human response is to run like hell. We can hear such panic in the words of David Walsh, the head of the Institute for Media and the Family:

In the world of pro wrestling, it is appropriate to swear, to make obscene
gestures, to engage in violent behavior, and to objectify women. This is a
violent, unpredictable place where it is okay, for anyone to give in to any
impulse. It is a place where people are rewarded for being loud, crude and
aggressive. Sexual violence, simulated sex acts, foul language, and over-the-
top crudeness are the norm. And the more often kids watch this world on their
TV screens, the more these attitudes and actions seem normal in the real world.

As Cohen suggests, the monster is a figure of transitions and boundaries. The monster calls "horrid attention to the borders that cannot -- must not -- be crossed." The monster is thinkable (though regretfully so), where-as what lies beyond the monster is truly unthinkable. Film critic David Denby refers to popular entertainment as "a shadow world in which our kids are breathing an awful lot of poison without knowing that there is clean air and sunshine elsewhere." Senator Joseph Lieberman refers to a "values vacuum in which our children learn that anything goes." In other words, to move into the realm of popular culture is to move into a twilight zone, a "shadow world," a "values vacuum," "a violent, unpredictable place" where rules and constraints break down. And the biggest fear of all is that the monster will cross over from that alternative reality into our own.

The monster can have no legitimate point of view. The monster has no culture, generates no meaning, and respects no values. The monster exists simply to negate the moral order. Evoking a metaphor straight out of a David Cronenberg film, Leiberman compares contemporary popular culture to "an antibody which has turned against its own immunity system." Former professional wrestler turned evangelist, Superstar Billy Graham, describes his visceral response to the WWE: "I didn't want this stuff coming into my house, my eyes, or my mind. It made me physically ill to my stomach." The WWE muddies the water, mucks up cultural hierarchies, disturbs moral oppositions, and churns up emotional reactions. No wonder critics call it cultural pollution. This is also why the WWE so often proclaims itself to be 'politically incorrect,' relishing its own "barbarian" status, taking pleasure in committing antisocial acts and pissing off those who would police our culture.

Say nothing else about it, moral panic provokes ideological consensus, carves up the world into simple black and white categories, which seem, on the surface, so commonsensical that they are nigh on impossible to dispute. Politics makes for strange tag teams. Orthodox Jew Joseph Lieberman climbs into the ring, hand in hand, with the Christian right, a move all the more remarkable when you consider how often both sides evoke religious language to justify their efforts to police morality. David Grossman, a military psychologist who claims to have taught marines how to kill, joins hands with the Lion and the Lamb Foundation, a organization of concerned moms who feel that violence should never be considered "child's play." For some, wrestling is dangerous because it is so ruthlessly patriarchal and reactionary; for others, because it embodies moral relativism. For some, it is a symptom of a world without gatekeepers and for others, the dangers of media concentration. For most, it is frightening because it crosses class boundaries. They all agree that what we have got to do is protect our children against its seductions and temptations. After a while, the specific ideological claims get absorbed into a more generalized rhetoric of horror and disgust.

Cultural tastes and interests are a central building block of our identities; we use our consumption of popular culture to map who we are and who we are not. As Pierre Bourdieu has noted, perhaps the most powerful way to defend our tastes is through the negation of other tastes. But, the negation of a cultural form necessarily spills over into (and often intentionally taps) our hostility towards specific cultural, social, and ethnic groups who are closely associated with those forms. The concept of "law and order" surfaced in the 1960s and 1970s as a code word for racism, allowing Republicans to appeal to Southern Whites with a covert reassurance that they would keep disorderly blacks in line. Similarly, at a time when it would be offensive to directly attack racial or sexual minorities, the rhetoric of "cultural pollution" functions as a code word for racism, homophobia, class war, and generational conflict. Listen to former Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork's description of a culture "slouching towards Gamorrah": "Even those of us who try to avoid the repellent aspects of popular culture know about it through a sort of peripheral vision. The rap blasts out of the car window waiting beside you at the red light; blatant sexuality, often of a perverse nature, assaults the reader in magazine advertisements." Consider how differently this would read if it were Frank Sinatra or country music blasting from the car stereo or if he were protesting the persistence of hetrosexism. If we can keep these forms of culture in line, perhaps we can also control the people who consume them. This connection was made explicit in GOP operative Mike Murphy's post-Columbine comments that "we need goth control, not gun control."

Proponents of the cultural pollution argument are quick to note that they have many minority supporters, and thus cannot be accused of racism. Yet, members of a minority community use culture war rhetoric to police their own borders and separate themselves from unsavory aspects of their own culture.. Eric Michael Dyson, for example, has mapped the tension between jazz and church music in the early twentieth century or jazz and hip hop in the later twentieth century. Expressions of disdain towards godless or trashy music helped to police class and generational boundaries within the African-American community; Jazz and later hip hop were depicted as a threat to the goals of assimilation and upward mobility. So, different groups for different reasons might share a common agenda in terms of policing cultural borders (even if they are pursuing that agenda from different cultural positions or interests).

Writers in the Cultural Studies tradition often characterize the culture war rhetoric as "right wing," "ultraconservative" or "reactionary." As we do so, we are constructing our own monsters, seeking to draw a sharp distinction between those "whackos" over there who want to censor our culture and "nice, thoughtful liberals" like ourselves who would never think of doing that kind of mischief to the Constitution. But, like most attempts to resolve the ambiguities and ambivalence surrounding the monstrous, such representations provide us with a false sense of security. To be sure, conservative Republicans were among the most visible proponents of the culture war rhetoric, as reflected in Daniel Quayle's attempt to displace concerns about the economic causes of poverty onto the breakdown of family values in Murphy Brown, Jerry Farwell's hysterical responses to the thought that one of the Teletubbies might be gay or suggestion that the ACLU might be to blame for September 11, or Pat Buchanon's commitment of the GOP to a "Jihad" against those forces corrupting the American heart and mind. The initial Democratic responses to these arguments were largely negative. Much of the 1992 presidental nominating convention devoted to ridiculing Quayle's rather narrow conception of family values and dismissing the GOP culture war rhetoric as extremist.

However, some "New Democrats" sought to take social and cultural issues "off the table," appealing to moderate Christians by claiming that Democrats would join forces with Republicans to protect American families from "sickening" forms of popular culture. In 1985, for example, Tipper Gore (Wife of then Democratic Senator Albert Gore), Susan Baker (wife of Republican Senator Howard Baker), and some 17 other Congressional spouses helped to form the Parents Music Resource Center; the group received financial support from Mike Love, from the Beach Boys, and Joseph Coors, the owner of Coors beer, and logistical support from Pat Robinson's 700 Club and the Religious Booksellers Convention. Joseph Lieberman rose to political fame largely on the basis of a series of tactical alliances with cultural conservatives. For example, Lieberman serves on the advisory board of L. Brent Bozell III's Parents Television Council; stood alongside Pat Buchanon, Orrin Hatch, and Colin Powell to support an anti-Hollywood petition written by the conservative think tank, Empower America; and has worked closely with David Walsh's Institute for Media and the Family in condemning the video game industry. Leiberman himself described William Bennett as " my brother in arms, because we are engaged together in fighting the culture wars." He explained, "For the better part of two years, we have formed an unofficial, bipartisan partnership to coax, cajole, shout and shame the people who run the electronic media." As former WWF superstar Mick Foley notes, "whenever anyone accuses the PTC of being ultraconservative, he [Bozell] throws Joe Lieberman in their face." Significantly more Democrats joined the culture war following the shootings at Columbine, where one by one liberal Senators stood up at various congressional hearings and denounced the entertainment industry for inspiring teen shooters. It is striking that both candidates on the 2000 Democratic national ticket were men who had been early Democratic backers of this cultural agenda. One lasting legacy of that election is that it will be significantly more difficult for future Democratic candidates to label that perspective as reactionary or extremist.

When media effects research enters into the public debate, it gets taken up as proof that popular culture is a monstrous force in our lives and gets mobilized in support of a moral and political agenda which has little or nothing to do with academic disagreements about methodology or validity. McMahon may have come in slugging but then he at least understood that this was going to be a knife fight or a pissing match, anything but a discussion of scientific findings.

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