youth in the digital era

Thursday, March 2, 2000
5:00 - 7:00 p.m.

Bartos Theater
MIT Media Lab

20 Ames Street

The "moral panic" that surrounded the shootings in Littleton, Colorado sparked dramatic responses from the on-line community. Jon Katz's "Voices from the Hellmouth" series on became the focal point for teenagers to respond to the crackdown on cultural diversity in the schools. In this testimony to Congress, Prof. Henry Jenkins demanded that American politicians "listen to our children." In this candid and controversial conversation, Katz and Jenkins will compare notes about American politics, teen culture, the education system, and the power of the internet. Katz will also read selections from his new book, GEEKS, which provides a context for understanding how digital media are changing what it means to be young in America.


Henry Jenkins is Ann Fetter Friedlaender Professor of Humanities and Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program. He has published widely on contemporary media. His books include a study of movie comedy in the 1930s and Textual Poachers, an influential account of media audiences. His recent books include The Children's Culture Reader and From Barbie to Mortal Kombat.
Jon Katz is the author of Geeks, Running to the Mountain, and Virtuous Reality, as well as six novels. He has written for Wired, New York, GQ, and The New York Times and was twice nominated for the National Magazine Award for articles in Rolling Stone. He writes for, Hotwired, and Free!, the Freedom Forum's Website. He lives in Montclair, New Jersey with his wife, Paula Span.



I will read a piece that is in the current issue of Independent School that sort of summarizes some of the debates that have taken place in the wake of Littleton and may provide some background on how the two of us come together to be part of this conversation. In Risk and Blame, anthropologist Mary Douglas describes the cultural basis for witch hunts in traditional societies. "Whether the witch is able to do harm or not, the attribution of a hidden power to hurt is a weapon of attack against them. A successful accusation is one that has enough credibility for a public outcry to remove the opportunity of repeating the damage." A moral panic starts with an unspeakable tragedy which sparks an attempt to ascribe blame and responsibility to those targets that are already the subject of anxiety. Douglas notes, "Though anyone can accuse, not all accusations will be accepted. To be successful an accusation must be directed against victims hated by the populace. The cause of harm must be vague, unspecific, difficult to prove or disprove." Once one accusation sticks, it becomes easier to pile on charges and the rush to judgment overwhelms our ability to rationally assess the evidence. Moral panic shuts down self-examination at the very moment when real problems demand careful consideration. Several weeks after the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Co., the United States Senate Commerce Committee launched a series of hearings chaired by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Ark.) on the "marketing of violent entertainment to children." Introducing the investigation, Brownback explained, "We are not here to point fingers but to identify the causes of cultural pollution and seek solutions." The phrase, "cultural pollution," of course, already presumed a consensus that popular culture was a worthless irritant responsible for various social harms. Brownback was prepared to sweep aside constitutional protections: "We are having endless debates about First and Second Amendment rights while our children are being killed and traumatized." Brownback focused his ire on forms of popular culture that met youth rather than adult tastes: "I am willing to bet that there aren't many adults who are huge fans of teen slasher movies or the music of Cannibal Corpse and Marilyn Manson." Sen. Orin Hatch (R-Utah) declared Manson's music tremendously "offensive to everyone in America who thinks," a category that seemingly does not include a significant number of high school and college students who are fans of Mr. Manson's music. William Bennett, former Secretary of Education and self-proclaimed guardian of American virtue, called on Congress to make "meaningful distinctions" between works that used violence to tell a larger story such as Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan, or Clear and Present Danger, and works that gratuitously exploited violence, such as The Basketball Diaries, Cruel Intentions, or Scream. His so-called common sense distinction was at heart an ideological one, separating works that offered adult perspectives from those which expressed youth concerns. Though they understood the hearings as a ritual humiliation of the entertainment industries, the senators were feeding a cultural war that was more and more focused on teenagers. As GOP operative Mike Murphy explained in that week's Time, "We need Goth control, not gun control." Hatch engaged in homophobic banter about whether Manson was a ´he or a she" while Brownback accused members of the Goth subculture of giving themselves over to "the dark side." Such comments reinforced bigotry and fear. Adult fears about popular culture were being transferred towards those people who consumed it. The Goths were a relatively small subculture whose members drew inspiration from Romantic literature and who constructed their personal identities by borrowing from the iconography of horror films and S&M pornography. The group could claim a 20-year history without much public attention because they had previously not been associated with violent crime. However, the Columbine shooters had been mistakenly identified in some early news reports as Goths, and as a result this group was singled out in the post-Littleton backlash. From the outset, Congress was unlikely to set federal policies to regulate media content, which would not have sustained constitutional scrutiny. They counted on public pressure to intimidate the entertainment industry into voluntarily withdrawing controversial works from circulation. Manson canceled some concerts. MGM stopped selling The Basketball Diaries, and the Warner Brothers Network withheld the airing of the season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer until midsummer. The biggest impact of the moral panic, however, would be felt in the schools -- both public and private -- as teachers and administrators increasingly saw their students as threats to public safety and suspected popular culture of turning good kids into brutal monsters. Online journalist Jon Katz remarkable series, Voices from the Hellmouth, circulated hundreds of first-person accounts of how American schools were reacting to the shootings. As Katz reported, "Many of these kids saw themselves as targets of a new hunt for oddballs -- suspects in a bizarre, systematic search for the strange and the alienated. Suddenly, in this tyranny of the normal, to be different wasn't just to feel unhappy, it was to be dangerous." Many schools took away Web and Net access. Many kids were placed into therapy based on their subcultural identifications or interests in computer games or certain kinds of music. Students were punished for taking controversial positions in class discussions or on essay assignments. In one case, a student was suspended for wearing a Star of David to school because his teacher thought it was a gang insignia. Another was sent home for wearing a black coat that was officially part of his ROTC uniform. One school district banned heavy coats altogether. Knowing little or nothing about the popular culture consumed by teens, teachers, principals, and parents were striking out blindly. Other educators took risks, challenging the crackdowns on Goths in their schools and bringing the materials that Katz had gathered back into their classrooms for dialogue with their students. Local journalists investigated Katz's reports and found them accurate. Civil rights organizations were confronting a record number of complaints from students who felt their constitutional rights were being infringed. Then-presidential candidate Dan Quayle added fuel to the fire with a speech attacking the concept of students­ rights as an unjustified interference with classroom discipline, insisting, "Our children cannot learn in an environment of chaos. If we're going to make an error, err on the side of school safety."