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Commentary

BLAME THAT TUNE: Adolescent Speech and Moral Panics

By Nan Levinson

“Are you as outraged as I am at how TV is undermining the morals of children... encouraging them to have premarital sex ... encouraging lack of respect for authority and crime ... and shaping our country down to the lowest standards of decency?” asks Steve Allen from beyond the grave in an ad appealing to television sponsors.1 Never mind that he used to know better back in the days when he pointedly hosted Lenny Bruce on his TV show. Even if their umbrage is less intense, thoughtful adults regularly equate distasteful expression with danger and warn of contagion, as if adolescent attitudes were a communicable disease.

The focus is usually that perennial of parental concern, popular culture. With its glorification of anarchistic impulses, casual violence and half-formed sexuality, what entertains America's and increasingly the world's kids is a lightning rod for societal anxiety and an ideal target for reformers bent on saving the young from themselves. When enough adults hop on the “Blame that Tune” bandwagon, the result is a moral panic, a term first used in 1971 by British sociologist Jock Young,2 though the phenomenon has been around for a long time. It begins when an interest group, such as a church or school organization, condemns some aspect of the culture as an attack on the social order.

Though the original target is usually one specific thing – crime comics in the 1950s, crime-glorifying rap lyrics forty years later – the campaign quickly expands into an effort to stop many things – all comics, all hip-hop – and to blame those things for whatever goes wrong in kids’ lives. What these reformers really want is censorship, but since they don't have legality on their side, they rely on public pressure. They deploy research to prove a causal relationship between antisocial behavior and the thing under attack, enlist the support of politicians, who hold hearings to give a gloss of impartial assessment, and bring their cause to the media, which push for an official response.

In time, other groups form to defend civil liberties or to champion what is being disparaged or to say that kids aren't so bad or to charge that the campaign misses the real cause of societal breakdown. They too marshal evidence to buttress their position and call for action, since, in moral panics, doing something is more important than doing the smart thing.

Nowhere have moral panics played themselves out with more drama and dudgeon than in post-World War II, America, where the marketing of adolescent rebellion combined with new technologies to create a separate youth culture that many parents don't understand, don't like and can't control. The dominant anxiety centers on depictions of sex and violence in a variety of media that are said to lead (usually young) viewers and listeners to act sexually or violently or both. Rather than ask why Americans find violence so entertaining and sex so scary, we warn each other that the words and images are “harmful to minors,” a charge that is occasionally debated in degree, but seldom rejected outright.

Popular culture does influence our attitudes and behavior, just as it reflects our interests and concerns, but how and to what extent this happens is less clear than campaigners on any side of the debate claim. Absent good understanding of cause and effect, we end up confusing moral positions with safety measures.

An early moral panic came in reaction to comic books. As Amy Kiste Nyberg notes in Seal of Approval, comic books were “a new medium altogether ... that relied on the interaction of words and pictures to tell stories in a unique way ...”3 They challenged authority by removing kids’ entertainment from adult control, and adults reacted predictably. In the 1930s and early 40s, critics complained that comic books would spoil kids for better literature; plus, the small print would ruin their eyes. The Catholic Church and education groups pressed newsstands not to sell comics, and some communities even staged public burnings. Then, in 1948, a child psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham was quoted in Colliers magazine as saying that comic books had a harmful effect on children's psyches, and the charge shifted from comics as bad lit. to comics as a cause of juvenile delinquency.

Wertham was a social reformer with impressive credentials and his argument was more nuanced than he is generally given credit for, but he assumed the mantle as head anti-comics crusader willingly. Using anecdotal evidence from his practice, he asserted that comic books caused “psychological mutilation” of children.4 “Educated on comic books, they go on to a long postgraduate course in jails.” Presaging an argument of anti-porn feminists, he wrote, “There are laws according to which it is a punishable offense to ‘contribute to the delinquency of a minor.’ Yet the text, pictures and advertisements in crime comic books do that constantly.”5 Also, like the anti-porn feminists, he aligned himself with conservative religious groups to push for legislative sanctions. As usual, the argument was that such sanctions would not be censorship, but the necessary protection of children, a sentiment nicely embodied in Seduction of the Innocent, the title of Wertham's influential book on the harm of comics. Seduction was published in 1954, just before the Kefauver congressional committee held hearings on juvenile delinquency, and since delinquency was by then assumed to be linked to comic books, they got investigated too.

The committee buried evidence and discredited witnesses who didn't support its position, but its central purpose seemed to be to get the comic book industry to police itself, and in that, it succeeded. Later that year, the Comics Magazine Association enacted a comics code. Modeled on Hollywood’s well-established Production Code, the comics code read like an early, enthusiastic manual for political correctness, proscribing, among many things, disrespectful portrayals of ”established authority,” divorce treated humorously, double entendres, excessive slang and bad grammar.

Distributors refused to sell comic books that didn't display a seal of compliance. As a consequence, horror and crime comics publishers went out of business, but after a period of readjustment, other publishers thrived, and today, comics may be as violent and sexual as before, if not more so.

Children, we are told repeatedly, are innocent, meaning, I suppose, that they lack knowledge of themselves and awareness of what they don't yet know. But adolescents are quickly introduced to knowingness, if not understanding, and forbidden knowledge, when discovered, looms larger for having been hushed up. “Innocence is a state in which we try to maintain our children; dignity is a state we claim for ourselves,” says South African writer J.M. Coetzee in Giving Offense,6 which may be why a lot of child rearing seems aimed at breaking the anarchistic back of childhood.

Well, fair enough. The charms of adolescent anarchy pall quickly, and somebody needs to be in control while kids come to terms with societal rules and norms. Popular culture, with its idealizing of adolescent rebellion and its endless capacity to irritate and strut – Combs's Bad Boy Records, Eminem's Anger Management Tour – isn't much help. Kids seem programmed to reject their parents' cultural touchstones to seek out their own, but why do adults, including baby boomers who were served their own set of dire predictions about the things that entertained them, seem equally destined to repeat this ritual of speaking bitterness about kids and their culture?

Even the vocabulary changes little. In the 1930s, William Cardinal O’Connell of Boston denounced crooning as “a man whining a degenerate song, which is unworthy of any American man.”7 In the fifties, Frank Sinatra wrote that rock n' roll was “the most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear” (to which Elvis replied, “You can't knock success”8). Recently, The New York Times described Eminem as “a white rapper who has successfully burrowed his way to the nauseating depths of degradation and self-loathing.”9

What these and other performers have in common is that they are play-acting, but the rub for those distressed about kids and words is probably less what the creators of vexing images say and do, or even that their audiences won't be able to make the distinction, than that adults are losing control. Senator Orrin Hatch poignantly told Congress, “The knowledge of our children's lives without which we cannot hope to fulfill our responsibilities as parents seems increasingly out of our grasp.”10

Typically, the response to losing control is to push for more control, and so we get ”zero tolerance” policies, which ignore that democracy is predicated on tolerance and maturity on the capacity to make distinctions. Young people have always had to make their way through the words, images and ideas they encounter. They need guidance in figuring out how to respond to those they dislike or fear, and until they can protect themselves, they need some kinds of protection. Among the necessary protections are their civil rights. The lessons and responsibilities of free expression are not learned in a vacuum, but by living with and practicing them. Denying those rights to kids, even in the name of safeguarding them, is a real harm to minors.

July 22, 2002

This is an excerpt from Outspoken: Free Speech Stories (2003). This chapter recounts the stories of three young men punished for their words and images: Mike Diana, a comic book artist convicted of obscenity; Richard Taylor, a graffitist whose contribution to a mural project was deemed disrespectful of police and destroyed; and Paul Kim, whose satirical Web site led his high school principal to undermine his college and scholarship applications.

Nan Levinson teaches journalism at Tufts University and is a member of the Free Expression Policy Project’s advisory board.

Copyright Nan Levinson 2003.    Published with permission of the University of California Press.

For more on harm to minors and media-effects studies, see Not in Front of the Children, or go to the Issues section of the FEPP Web site.

 NOTES

1. Boston Globe, Nov. 12, 2002.

2. Kenneth Thompson, Moral Panics (NY: Routledge, 1998), 2.

3. Amy Kiste Nyberg, Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code (Jackson, MS: U. Press of Mississippi, 1998), 5.

4. Quoted in Nyberg, 47.

5. Fredric Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent (NY: Rinehart, 1954), 155, 167.

6. J.M. Coetzee, Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1996), 14.

7. Quoted in Garry Giddens, Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams (Boston: Little Brown, 2001), 202-03.

8. Quoted at www.sinatraarchive.com

9. Bob Herbert, "In America: A Musical Betrayal," New York Times, Jan. 29, 2001.

10. Senate Judiciary Hearing on Hate Crime on the Internet, Sept. 14, 1999.


The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The FEPP website is now hosted by the National Coalition Against Censorship. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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