There is a common parable politicians tell to elicit goodwill and exemplify the power of people to change. The story’s origin has a historical basis and many readers may know the short tale of a monk who visits
“A monk, named Telemachus, left his native
Telemachus jumped between the gladiators shouting, “In the name of Christ, forbear!”, and was immediately run through with a sword. When the crowd saw the monk lying dead in a pool of blood, they fell silent and were filled with remorse. The crowd slowly dispersed one by one. When the Emperor heard the story of the brave monk, he decreed an immediate end to the gladiator games.”
As a child I loved this story. As an adult, even after I learned the version from my childhood was not entirely truthful, I appreciated the story for its insight into the darkness and light that inhabits all of us. The true story is as nuanced as human nature. Telemachus did step bravely between two enormous gladiators in an attempt to stop the fighting; however, the parting gladiators did not kill him. The crowd, furious at the disruption of their entertainment, stoned the monk to death.
The impetus and date gladiator fighting ended is debated by historians. I like to believe that Telemachus’ act did have some influence on the Emperor. Perhaps the monk’s reaction to the scene and his actions reframed the games in the eyes of decision makers and the population.
I am reminded of this story and of the Coliseum when I watch television. I imagine that the chanting and jeering; the glassy-eyed bloodlust in the eyes of spectators at the Jerry Springer Show or the World Wrestling Foundation effectively conjure the atmosphere and crowds at the gladiator games.
I often think that we need people like Telemachus to help us see anew our own culture. We are so immersed in the sights and sounds of mass media that it is almost impossible to gain perspective. We’re assaulted with images- it often seems to me that these influences have permeated the very air around us. Television is in stores, doctor’s offices, restaurants, barber shops, schools, and some churches. Television’s bluish glow and inane sounds float on the evening air when I am out for a night walk. It feels like a culturally toxic amniotic fluid in which we all breathe and float. Yet, television is actually an isolating experience. I think communities need to use television and media collectively to help reveal its own dark side.
At our last Safe Schools Coalition Meeting, we showed a wonderful film called, “What a Girl Wants”. The piece is a short work by the Media Education Foundation that examines how media portrays girls and young women and the effects of popular culture on development. The film showed a collection of recent ad campaigns with young icons such as Brittney Spears. Professionals in education and socials services were in attendance. As we watched, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the images. One arresting ad had appeared in a popular teen girl’s magazine. The glossy page showed Brittney Spears in pig-tails, bending provocatively over a white, child’s bicycle complete with flowered basket wearing impossibly tiny pink underwear that had the word “Baby” across her bottom. The image purposely posed her as a prepubescent little girl. What is the message here and just as alarmingly, who is the intended consumer?
What I found interesting is that I had previewed the film alone and had not felt the same shock and embarrassment that I felt when viewing with others. Like most of us, I reached the Britney Spears saturation point years ago. I no longer really saw her –she had become just another brand name (now replaced with the newer, younger, and more marketable Miley Cyrus). I needed the eyes of others, whom I respected, juxtaposed with those images to help me see with fresh vision. They became my Telemachus.
While I worry about the path we are collectively traveling and often suffer from cultural indigestion, I am also very hopeful. History repeatedly shows that after dark ages, comes renaissance. Additionally, there are many people working diligently to help us re-examine the media and images we are consuming and that are consuming are children. People like Jackson Katz, Jean Kilbourne, Mary Pipher, Richard Louv and many others. The work of Jackson Katz can be viewed on You Tube for free. I also have a growing library of films produced by the Media Education Foundation and have planned a series of free parent film screenings and workshops and discussion groups which will begin this fall.
Links to You Tube Media Education Previews
What A Girl Wants