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Cultural implications of media violence norms

Illustrated book cover for Frederick featuring a mouse standing behind two rocks. He has a peaceful expression on his face. He is holding a bright red poppy flower.

This post originally appeared in the Indy Star on December 15, 2014.

The nation struggles to explain why violence is so much a part of its daily experience. Senseless murders. Sports stars committing domestic violence. Perpetrators playing “knockout games” on public streets. School principals dealing with widespread bullying. The causes of violence are many, complex and difficult to assess. One contributing factor to the disturbing culture of violence, to be sure, is the drenching of our society with portrayals of violence through “entertainment” media.

It is impossible to fully quantify how big of a role mediated violence plays in creating real-life violence, but common sense tells us that cultures define themselves by the stories told within those cultures. And the stories told in American culture today are obsessed with violence, often of the most sordid and demented kind. Violence is legitimized through its glorification in broadcast and cable television, movies and video games. America’s cultural “leaders” in Hollywood and the corporate towers in New York are not literally pulling triggers or hitting people on street corners, but their influence in defining our culture is unmistakable.

NFL veteran Ben Watson of the New Orleans Saints held the media industry accountable in a television interview reflecting on the unrest in Ferguson, Mo. “As a culture, in general, we do glorify violence, whether you are looking at Hollywood, whether you are looking at music, or whether you are looking at pop culture,” Watson said. He went on to urge parents to teach children the difference between violence on television and in real life, “While this (violence) may be cool on TV, it’s not cool in real life.”

Prime-time television broadcasts violence every night. Research by the Parents Television Council confirms that a weapon is displayed every three minutes. Psychopaths and serial killers often are portrayed as protagonists. Women are often the targets of sick violence, as evidenced in the CBS drama “Stalker.” That show opened this fall with a young woman being trapped in a car, doused with gasoline and then incinerated while the car careened down a hill and exploded, all while the victim was screaming.

Apologists for the media industry excuse the peddlers of “entertainment” violence by defending the producers’ rights to exercise free expression and artistic license. But this has nothing to do with rights. This has to do with cultural leadership. As for artistic merit, it doesn’t take much creative genius to develop blood-splattered, context-free plots in which people are tortured or blown up.

Those apologists will also point out that violent crime has modestly decreased in the nation over the last 20 years. This reasoning seems to suggest that since rates have declined, the crime that remains is nothing to worry about. The overall decline in crime is, of course, no thanks to the media. It is thanks to policing efforts, school interventions and, quite simply, an aging population.

Then there is the tired argument that parents just need to be more responsible for their own kids’ viewing. True enough, but parents hardly have a fair fight in shielding kids from big media’s relentless violence parade in television, film, music and video games. This red-herring excuse also ignores the impact of mediated violence on rational adults. Recent research by the Annenberg Public Policy Center shows parents themselves become desensitized when exposed to media violence and, consequently, are more willing to allow their kids to absorb such content.

None of this is to say that violence has no place in dramatic presentations. But the violence being peddled as entertainment is too often highly graphic and void of any consequence or moral reflection. As Los Angeles Times television critic Mary McNamara wrote recently about the problematic violence in “Stalker,” “It’s that the violence, creepiness and depravity appear to be the point, because nothing of value is offered in balance.”

Culture shapers in Hollywood like to get on bandwagons to speak out against bullying, domestic violence and other such actions. These celebrities, however, are remarkably quiet when it comes to criticizing the mediated culture that perpetuates violence as an entertainment commodity. Clearly, the money generated by violent programming is more important to them than the creation of a more peaceful society.

Solidarity’s Inspiring Effect

Illustrated book cover for Sora and the Cloud featuring a little boy standing on a smiling cloud in the sky. The boy's clothing, hair, and the orange balloon he's holding are blown back by the wind.

The aftermath of the recent deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner is far from over. This time, however, the demonstration came from a more unexpected forum: the congressional staffers. Like many of the other protests, they gathered with hands held up and remained completely silent. The Senate chaplain offered a brief prayer, which pointedly mentioned no specifics of either case (other than a slight emphasis on the word breathing). Their demonstration was a quiet continuation of the slew of protests from across the country — multiple protests in ten major cities have already been staged, as well as countless others on university and college campuses (including DePauw’s).  Continue reading “Solidarity’s Inspiring Effect”

Prindle Intern Spotlight: Conner Gordon

Conner is a junior intern from Carmel, Indiana. He is an Honor Scholar and Political Science major at DePauw.

1. Tell us about an ethics/social justice issue that is particularly important to you.

Most of my campus work/activism has focused on issues of race and privilege, both at DePauw and in the country as a whole. It would be blissfully ignorant to assume that issues of race don’t persist today, and in some ways discrimination has become more entrenched in our society than ever. At DePauw I’ve come to know many who face these struggles on a daily basis, so trying to be an ally and speaking out on these issues has become a primary focus of mine. Continue reading “Prindle Intern Spotlight: Conner Gordon”

“Enhanced Interrogation” versus Torture

On December 9, the Senate released their assessment of CIA documents relating to “enhanced interrogation.” The question of course is whether “enhanced interrogation” was anything other than torture. The report includes multiple accounts of water boarding; one man was water-boarded 183 times. Other CIA detainees were subjected to freezing temperatures, kept in complete darkness with loud background noises, kept awake for 180 hours, and threats were made against their families. One detainee died of hypothermia from being chained to a concrete floor, partially unclothed. These tactics that the CIA call enhanced interrogation certainly appear to be torture.
Continue reading ““Enhanced Interrogation” versus Torture”

Weaponizing Food and the CIA Torture Report

The experience of food is one that runs to the core of our being. As humans, it is such an essential part of our lives that we rarely stop to question its function in everyday life – at least beyond which restaurant to go to after work. It is so central, in fact, that food could certainly become the vehicle for motives far more sinister. Continue reading “Weaponizing Food and the CIA Torture Report”

The “M” Requirement: Building Bridges

Due to recent campus controversies, DePauw University’s administration is in the process of deciding upon an additional distribution requirement to the curriculum. If passed, they will call it the “M” credit for “multicultural”. This new addition would not affect the current students at DePauw, as it would have to be ‘grandfathered’ into the curriculum for future classes.  While there has not yet been any official word on whether or not this new credit will be passed, I believe this M credit would be beneficial for DePauw’s campus. Not only would it fit well with the liberal arts fashion of being a well-rounded, well-prepared individual, but also it never hurts to be more culturally aware of the world and those of different backgrounds. Continue reading “The “M” Requirement: Building Bridges”

Consumerism, Capitalism, and Personal Identity

Shopping hangovers are just as real of a threat at this time of year as the drinking ones. With Black Friday and Cyber Monday just behind us (but Christmas still ahead), it can seem once again like everyone’s busy typing denouncements of consumerism with one hand while grabbing sweet deals and swiping plastic with the other. Amidst the holidays, we are sure to continue to hear complaints that the season has been ruined by a focus on material possessions and rampant “consumerism.”

Few would deny that the western world does exist today in a state of “consumer culture.” By many accounts, capitalism is its cause. Though “consumerism” also refers to political efforts to support consumers’ interests, the term has come to bear a rather pejorative connotation referring to the prominence of consumptive activities in everyday life, especially insofar as consumptive activities seem to be escalating for individuals and societies at an unsustainable rate.

Criticisms of consumerism take several forms, of varying plausibility. Sometimes, critics suggest that people harm themselves in placing too much importance on material possessions. Other critics worry that consumerism destroys the potential for genuine individuality, as through the spread of homogenous mass market products. Au contraire, perhaps consumerism instead fosters individuality, but of a pernicious and illusory sort. Or perhaps the means – and not the ends – of consumerism are morally problematic, insofar as this social state has been brought about through psychological manipulation by advertisers.

Defenders of a basically capitalist order must bite several bullets in the interest of intellectual honesty. It’s true that not all purchases make consumers meaningfully better off. Indeed, the challenge of facing too many choices is a well-known psychological phenomenon. Sometimes people find their behaviors unduly shaped by external sources, and marketing can be amongst them. Expressing individuality (as through consumption) is of dubious moral value when doing so seems to make people isolated and self-absorbed instead of happier.

But what is the alternative? If adults don’t or shouldn’t derive their identities from autonomous personal activities – many of which are consumptive – from where exactly are they supposed to derive them? Liberal progressives (including those of an anti-capitalist bent) also worry about citizens’ identities being shaped too heavily by their arbitrary family circumstances, their race or ethnicity, their religions, and their work lives. But figuring out who we are is an essential feature of the “human condition,” and alleviating one kind of external pressure just makes room for the others to flood in.

Buying things really does often help us to form our mature selves: the way you dress, the way you decorate your home, and the range of your hobbies express a nascent identity, allow you to take it for a test drive, and provide pathways for changing it in a kind of ongoing identity feedback loop. And buying experiences (instead of stuff) shapes humans lives even better yet: restaurant expenditures aren’t just food, they fuel social gatherings. Vacations aren’t just plane tickets, they’re memories to anticipate and then treasure.

And, through a supply-and-demand lens, notice that you can only have it one way or another: when the prices for things go down, people want more of them. It’s implausible to imagine any world in which consumer goods become cheaper (and therefore more widely and equitably available) but ordinary humans don’t buy more at the margin. It signals one’s higher social status to look down on those people waiting in an hours-long Walmart line for cheap televisions and computers, but there’s certainly nothing inherently wrong with taking advantage of deals to get things for your family that would otherwise be financially out of reach.

Capitalism may be the cause of consumer culture, but consumerism is only partially a problem – and, to that extent, capitalism can also provide the solution. When people are generally rich in historical terms, we can afford (figuratively and literally) to spend time criticizing the ways in which they spend their money. Self-help and self-improvement have captured philosophical interest since ancient times, but the circumstances within which we conduct these activities are historically contingent. Navigating the prosperity of a post-industrial world requires consumer habits that can be learned and practiced as part of a balanced life. Though happiness will never be handed to us on a silver platter (or in a shopping bag), we should be glad to find ourselves operating so close to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Have You Sold Your Health? How FitBit, Apple’s “Health” App, and Android “Fit” App could affect your health care costs after DePauw

Cover image for What Bobolino Knew featuring an illustration of a man riding on a donkey with a blue head covering

Work out much? On a diet? Dealing with mental illness? How would you feel if anyone online could track down your medical information down to your sleeping habits?

Health data isn’t a topic we consider everyday, but just as geolocation has become an accepted part of owning a smartphone, our health data is increasingly urged to move from the private sphere into the public sphere. Fitbit, a company that produces wearable, wifi-connected fitness products, promotes sharing your health data with others on social media as a motivator to continue your fitness routine. Apple’s “Health” app and the Android “Fit” App also allow for easy sharing of this data. Not that you have to, or should feel obligated to. These companies have put extensive measures into place to ensure the security of this data, so unless you give away your passwords there’s little risk of it falling into the wrong hands.

But consider the effects of this later on. As health care costs continue to rise, insurance companies are more desperate than ever to find reasons to raise your premiums. Many companies already have access to this information. What if this type of disclosure becomes so normal online that we forget the impact it can have?

Now, I’d like to clarify; I’m not saying stop using these apps and devices. This data can be incredibly helpful to health professionals assisting patients, and is safeguarded from the public eye as long as it is not shared. But just as employers may ask for your social media information to run background checks (check this to see if that’s illegal or not in the first place; it varies by state), insurance companies are starting to ask the same.

Both Aetna and Kaiser are already using reduced costs and co-pays as an incentive to engage in healthy habits, but is this overreach? Should we be punished for being unhealthy? And what might be classified as an unhealthy habit? Would the occasional indulgence count? These policies are being developed at this moment, and will only become more detailed as our public data becomes richer.

What price are you prepared to pay?

This Guest Post was written by Lauren Owensby, a junior at DePauw University.

Reflections on Ferguson and Campus Climate at DePauw

As the Ferguson trial unfolded these past few weeks, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was what the great men who built our country foresaw. When they wrote the Constitution, edited the Bill of Rights and boldly sent out the Declaration of Independence, their world was much different from ours. Many of them believed in the benefit of slavery, didn’t see women as strong-minded individuals and they had to live by candlelight. Although these men lived in a different time period, I would like to believe that their core values of liberty, individual rights, and equality would lead them to embrace the societal changes in the 21st century. So as racism climbs back into the spotlight as a national issue, it makes me think:  How would they want us as Americans to process this trial?

Ferguson brings to light some of the ugly aspects of our judicial system. How juries and courts can make decisions that seem crazy to many Americans, how racism can sometimes unfortunately play a role in those decisions and how a family’s loss can be used as a dinner table topic at Thanksgiving are all things that this trial has made newsworthy. As ugly as this trial was, it has also been beautiful. For me, the Ferguson story has told me that people still care about one another, regardless of race, and that America is not perfect nor will she ever be. We are not a utopia, we are not flowing with milk and honey like the Promised Land; instead, we are changing and actively attempting to be better.  I am thankful for a country where change is okay and citizens have the right to express their displeasure with the government or the judicial system.

When thinking about Ferguson and its impact, I think it’s a good reflective moment for our campus. How can we change in light of the loss of a life? How can DePauw, as a microcosm of the real world, reflect the changes that we want to see in America?  Can we have meaningful discussions about these topics? Our campus is changing and that means something different for every individual. While it’s easy to get swept away in the drama and excitement of Ferguson, I challenge DePauw students to internally think about what this trial means to them and for other students to be okay with the idea that these meanings might differ.  Maybe take the time to intentionally listen to another’s story and instead of judging them for not understanding your point of view, be willing to accept that individual experiences cannot be right or wrong.  Although our student body is diverse in many ways, we all call Greencastle, Indiana home for nine months of the year, we all get late night food from the Hub sometimes, we all spend long nights in Julian or Roy writing papers or studying for tests and we all sometimes get awestruck by how pretty East College is when lit up at night. It is these small everyday similarities that unite our campus and what we should focus on illuminating in discussions.

Student-Athletes: Expectations and Responsibilities

I have been a student athlete for as long as I can remember. From personal experience, it is not an easy task. Learning how to balance schoolwork with a regimented athletic schedule places a lot of pressure on a person. Not only must a student athlete excel in the classroom in order to keep grades for personal achievement and to be eligible to play, a student athlete must also excel in his or her respective sport in order to meet coaching expectations and see the field. For those who have not had first hand experience in this overwhelming juggling act, it is hard to see past the “dumb jock” stereotype that blankets much of society. Sadly, this stereotype was recently reinforced as news of the UNC scandal went viral. This athletic/academic scandal is not only a blow to UNC’s reputation as an accredited and selective university, but also a major disappointment and insult to every student athlete that plays college athletics. Continue reading “Student-Athletes: Expectations and Responsibilities”

Hypocrisy: The Universal Trait of Mankind

Hypocrisy is the practice of claiming to moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform. Hypocrites are usually disliked and seen as lacking moral fiber. Many people claim that nothing annoys them more about a person than hypocrisy. I believe this is because we as a race dislike criticism and to have someone criticize us while doing the same act that is being criticized is seen as absurd and disgusting. Mankind has an interesting history of hypocrisy. I would wager that humans have committed this moral treason since before we were able to recognize it.

We start seeing mass hypocrisy in recorded history around the time of the Holy Roman Empire founded around 800 AD. Many blame the church for the problems around this time. While preaching charity and goodwill, the Catholic Church would demand high tribute and start wars with foreign lands in the name of their religion. The Hypocrisy here is very obvious. Literally preaching values of early Christianity and then violating those same values simultaneously. Eventually the enlightenment would reconstruct Europe, however it’s dissolution in 1806 marks over 1000 years of mass hypocrisy.

Then continuing on into the 19th Century, American hypocrisy emerges. Slavery was seen as perfectly acceptable, yet the Judeo-Christian values held high in American society do not support these actions. In fact in the Old Testament, the Jews were slaves to the Pharaoh of Egypt and in those stories the Egyptians were seen as the antagonists. This moral dilemma was ignored in the sermons of Southern Protestant churches. Of course hypocrisy in politics was not a new concept. That being said, the 19th Century saw public outcry at this corruption. Therefore, some political leaders such as those in New York’s Tamany Hall, spoke out against corruption while continuing to have their back pockets stuffed with funds from criminals and community leaders. Towards the end of the century, we see a hypocritical sentiment within much of the population leading of to and during the Spanish-American War. The hypocrisy comes from many citizens in the United States accusing the Spanish to be evil because of their treatment of Cubans and Filipinos. While Americans were quick to attack Spain for these colonial actions. After the war when Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines fell into U.S. territory, there was never protest when Dole Fruit Company would spend the lives of Filipino and Hawaiian nationals to turn a profit. Spain was not the only target of public hate in the U.S. France, England, Germany, and Belgium all took flack for their colonial holdings. This is despite the fact that American industry was doing the exact same thing.

The 20th Century saw improvements to technology and new world conflicts. World War II, seen as the greatest conflict in human history, reshaped the world as we see it and it’s after effects can still be felt years later. The creation of Israel was one of the first actions taken by the new world paradigm. The new nation was created on top of the existing state of Palestine and received support worldwide. Israel was seen as compensation for the atrocities committed against the Jewish population by Germany and Palestine. Now, around 70 years later, the Palestinians of Israel are treated as second class citizens. In fact, most minorities experience either societal discrimination or institutional discrimination within the borders of Israel. The treatment of minorities in Israel is eerily similar to 1930s German and pre-war Palestinian treatment of Jews. Also in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia still stands as a monarchy, despite receiving support from the U.S., a staunch supporter of democracy, often using it as an excuse to invade other nations. The same can be said about former dictators Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. Both of these rulers were supported and their regimes sustained by the United States. Hussein was even an honorary citizen of Detroit.

There are unlimited examples of this type of behavior in human history and society today. All around the world the act of hypocrisy is condemned yet also practiced constantly. In fact, the act of discouraging hypocrisy is in itself hypocritical. Hypocrisy is as natural for humans as breathing. Rather than getting depressed about this fact, I embrace this realization. A film critic does not have to make films to be able to criticize films. In the same way, we can accept other people’s suggestions even if they are not implementing them.

This Guest Post was written by Benjamin Booher, a first-year at DePauw University.

Is Envy Always Malicious? (Part Two)

This post originally appeared on December 4, 2014.

When I was 8, I started ballet. I was a disciplined kid who took everything seriously, and dance quickly became a great passion of mine. But for many years I wasn’t that good; I felt I lacked the natural physical abilities that bless talented ballerinas.

One day something changed. I was observing the course immediately after mine. In the center of the studio, Laura, the first in her class, was performing a step in which one leg is elevated above 90 degrees. She was very similar to me in many respects, rich in determination but lacking in natural talent, her legs and feet modeled only by hours of obstinate exercise. Her leg was so much higher than mine had ever been! She looked fierce and strong, and I wished I could be like that. But beneath her smiling face, I could see the strain: she was sweating a lot, and her leg was shaking slightly. I felt a complex, painful emotion. I was ashamed both of my inferiority and of minding it so intensely. At the same time, I was inspired and determined to work harder: if she could do that, so could I! I kept dancing, with renewed enthusiasm, and by the time I graduated from my dance school I, too, was the best in my class.

I believe that what I felt that day toward my peer was what we can call emulative envy. It is a kind of non-malicious envy that has two fundamental characteristics. First, it is more focused on the lacked good, rather than on the fact that the envied has it. In my case, I was more bothered by my lack of excellence than by the fact that Laura was excellent. Therefore, this kind of envy has an inspirational quality, rather than an adversarial one. The envied appears to the envier more like a model to reach, or a target to aim to, than a rival to beat, or a target at which to shoot. When the envier is, vice versa, more bothered by the fact that the envied is better than them, than by the lack of the good, the envied is looked at with hostility and malice, and the envier is inclined to take the good away from them.

Second, emulative envy is hopeful: it involves the perception that the envier can close the gap with the envied. When this optimism about one’s chances is lacking, being focused on the good is insufficient to feel emulative envy, because we don’t believe in our capability to emulate the envier. Thus, we may fall prey of what I call inert envy, an unproductive version of emulative envy in which the agent is stuck in desiring something she can’t have, a dangerous state that can lead to develop more malicious forms of envy. In Dorothy Sayers’s vivid metaphor: “Envy is the great leveler: if it cannot level things up, it will level them down” (Sayers 1999).

There are two possible ways of leveling down: in what I call aggressive envy, the envier is confident that she can “steal” the good. Think about a ballerina who secures another dancer’s role not by her own merit but via other means, such as spreading a rumor about that dancer’s lack of confidence on stage. But this kind of “leveling down” is not always possible, or at any rate does not appear possible to the envier. In such a case, the envier is likely to feel spiteful envy, as it may have been in Iago’s case: he could not take away the good fortune Othello had, but he was certainly able to spoil all of it.

Spiteful, aggressive and inert envy are all bad in one way or another, but emulative envy seems void of any badness. Here I cannot detail the ways in which it is different from the other three, but I’d like to conclude this post with one very interesting feature it possesses. Empirical evidence (van de Ven et al 2011) shows that emulative envy spurs one to self-improve more efficiently than its more respectable cousin: admiration. This result is less surprising once we think that admiration is a pleasant state of contentment, and thus is unlikely to move the agent to do much at all. As Kierkegaard aptly put it: “Admiration is happy self-surrender; envy is unhappy self-assertion” (Kierkegaard 1941).

Kierkegaard, S. 1941, The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition For Upbuilding And Awakening (1849), New York: Oxford University Press.
Sayers, D. 1999, Creed or Chaos? Why Christians Must Choose Either Dogma or Disaster (Or, Why It Really Does Matter What You Believe), Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press.
van de Ven N., Zeelenberg M., Pieters R. 2011, “Why Envy Outperforms Admiration,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(6): 784–795.

An Unhealthy Obsession: Pugs and the Demand for Cuteness

Cover image for The Carrot Seed featuring a young boy in overalls dropping a small seed into a divot in the ground

Among my friends, I would be one of the first to readily admit one thing: I love dogs. Pugs, specifically. My personal allegiance to my family’s dog aside, pugs are one of my favorite animals. If I need to take a break from studying or writing a paper, chances are decent that I’ll log on to Tumblr or Youtube for my daily pug fix. When my friends see an article or video about pugs online, they know just who to send it to. And, once I graduate, one of my personal milestones of success won’t necessarily be having children, but rather becoming a proud father to one of the wrinkled, snuffling, bug-eyed beasts.

Continue reading “An Unhealthy Obsession: Pugs and the Demand for Cuteness”

Rap on Facebook and the Supreme Court

A photo of the U.S. Supreme Court

Facebook is a place used for self-expression; many people use it to update others about their lives or post about how they’re feeling. Anthony Elonis, a man from Pennslyvania, used Facebook to rant about his divorce. However, Elonis was not just posting about his ex-wife and the divorce, but posting violent messages such as “there’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.” Elonis was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison for the posts, which also included threats of a school shooting and attack on police. His case is now before the Supreme Court, under the argument that posts to social media are “self-expression,” and that Elonis was writing rap lyrics, which frequently depict violence. Women and ex-wives are violently targeted in popular rap music; Eminem wrote many songs about his ex-wife that involved violent encounters. Elonis’s lawyer argues that those lyrics are intended for entertainment, and Elonis’s posted rap lyrics should be treated in the same manner. Chief Justice Roberts pointed out that since Elonis is not a professional rapper, he had no clear entertainment-only purpose.

Continue reading “Rap on Facebook and the Supreme Court”