Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Seeing With Fresh Eyes

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 Rome:

“A monk, named Telemachus, left his native Asia and was led by an inner voice to go to Rome. Upon arrival, he followed the rowdy crowds to the Coliseum. There the monk saw two gladiators fighting, to the death, with swords.

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

Consuming Kids

What A Girl Wants


1 comment:

Mike Vandeman said...

Last Child in the Woods ––
Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,
by Richard Louv
Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.
November 16, 2006

In this eloquent and comprehensive work, Louv makes a convincing case for ensuring that children (and adults) maintain access to pristine natural areas, and even, when those are not available, any bit of nature that we can preserve, such as vacant lots. I agree with him 100%. Just as we never really outgrow our need for our parents (and grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.), humanity has never outgrown, and can never outgrow, our need for the companionship and mutual benefits of other species.

But what strikes me most about this book is how Louv is able, in spite of 310 pages of text, to completely ignore the two most obvious problems with his thesis: (1) We want and need to have contact with other species, but neither we nor Louv bother to ask whether they want to have contact with us! In fact, most species of wildlife obviously do not like having humans around, and can thrive only if we leave them alone! Or they are able tolerate our presence, but only within certain limits. (2) We and Louv never ask what type of contact is appropriate! He includes fishing, hunting, building "forts", farming, ranching, and all other manner of recreation. Clearly, not all contact with nature leads to someone becoming an advocate and protector of wildlife. While one kid may see a beautiful area and decide to protect it, what's to stop another from seeing it and thinking of it as a great place to build a house or create a ski resort? Developers and industrialists must come from somewhere, and they no doubt played in the woods with the future environmentalists!

It is obvious, and not a particularly new idea, that we must experience wilderness in order to appreciate it. But it is equally true, though ("conveniently") never mentioned, that we need to stay out of nature, if the wildlife that live there are to survive. I discuss this issue thoroughly in the essay, "Wildlife Need Habitat Off-Limits to Humans!", at http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande/india3.

It should also be obvious (but apparently isn't) that how we interact with nature determines how we think about it and how we learn to treat it. Remember, children don't learn so much what we tell them, but they learn very well what they see us do. Fishing, building "forts", mountain biking, and even berry-picking teach us that nature exists for us to exploit. Luckily, my fort-building career was cut short by a bee-sting! As I was about to cut down a tree to lay a third layer of logs on my little log cabin in the woods, I took one swing at the trunk with my axe, and immediately got a painful sting (there must have been a bee-hive in the tree) and ran away as fast as I could.

On page 144 Louv quotes Rasheed Salahuddin: "Nature has been taken over by thugs who care absolutely nothing about it. We need to take nature back." Then he titles his next chapter "Where Will Future Stewards of Nature Come From?" Where indeed? While fishing may bring one into contact with natural beauty, that message can be eclipsed by the more salient one that the fish exist to pleasure and feed humans (even if we release them after we catch them). (My fishing career was also short-lived, perhaps because I spent most of the time either waiting for fish that never came, or untangling fishing line.) Mountain bikers claim that they are "nature-lovers" and are "just hikers on wheels". But if you watch one of their helmet-camera videos, it is easy to see that 99.44% of their attention must be devoted to controlling their bike, or they will crash. Children initiated into mountain biking may learn to identify a plant or two, but by far the strongest message they will receive is that the rough treatment of nature is acceptable. It's not!

On page 184 Louv recommends that kids carry cell phones. First of all, cell phones transmit on essentially the same frequency as a microwave oven, and are therefore hazardous to one's health –- especially for children, whose skulls are still relatively thin. Second, there is nothing that will spoil one's experience of nature faster than something that reminds one of the city and the "civilized" world. The last thing one wants while enjoying nature is to be reminded of the world outside. Nothing will ruin a hike or a picnic faster than hearing a radio or the ring of a cell phone, or seeing a headset, cell phone, or mountain bike. I've been enjoying nature for over 60 years, and can't remember a single time when I felt a need for any of these items.

It's clear that we humans need to reduce our impacts on wildlife, if they, and hence we, are to survive. But it is repugnant and arguably inhumane to restrict human access to nature. Therefore, we need to practice minimal-impact recreation (i.e., hiking only), and leave our technology (if we need it at all!) at home. In other words, we need to decrease the quantity of contact with nature, and increase the quality.


Ehrlich, Paul R. and Ehrlich, Anne H., Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearances of Species. New York: Random House, 1981.

Errington, Paul L., A Question of Values. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1987.

Flannery, Tim, The Eternal Frontier -- An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples. New York: Grove Press, 2001.

Foreman, Dave, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior. New York: Harmony Books, 1991.

Knight, Richard L. and Kevin J. Gutzwiller, eds. Wildlife and Recreationists. Covelo, California: Island Press, 1995.

Louv, Richard, Last Child in the Woods -- Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005.

Noss, Reed F. and Allen Y. Cooperrider, Saving Nature's Legacy: Protecting and Restoring Biodiversity. Island Press, Covelo, California, 1994.

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Vandeman, Michael J., http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande, especially http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande/ecocity3, http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande/india3, http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande/sc8, and http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande/goodall.

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