Truths Among Us: Conversations on Building a New Cultureby Derrick Jensen
From acclaimed author Derrick Jensen comes a prescient, thought-provoking collection of interviews with 10 leading writers, philosophers, teachers, and activists who argue against society's belief that corporations and governments know what is best for the future, instead choosing to help acknowledge the values we know in our hearts are rightand
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From acclaimed author Derrick Jensen comes a prescient, thought-provoking collection of interviews with 10 leading writers, philosophers, teachers, and activists who argue against society's belief that corporations and governments know what is best for the future, instead choosing to help acknowledge the values we know in our hearts are rightand inspire within us the courage to act on them. Among those who share their wisdom here are acclaimed sociologist Stanley Aronowitz, who shows that science is but one lens for discovering knowledge; Luis Rodriguez, poet and peacemaker, who suggests embracing gang members as people instead of stereotypes; Judith Herman, who offers a deeper understanding of the psychology of abusers; Paul Stamets, who reveals the power of fungi that is often ignored; and writer Richard Drinnon, who reminds us that our spiritual paths need not be narrowed by the limiting mythologies of Western civilization. Reaching toward a common goal of harmony with the world surrounding us all, these diverse voices articulate different yet shared visions of activism.
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Truths Among Us
Conversations on Building a New Culture
By Derrick Jensen, Theresa Noll
PM PressCopyright © 2011 Derrick Jensen
All rights reserved.
Interview conducted at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, January 20, 1998.
George Gerbner fought fascism for a long time. Born in Hungary, he emigrated to the United States in the 1930s to get away from the Fascists, then returned to Europe during World War II to fight against them. A member of the U.S. Army, he parachuted behind German lines and fought alongside the partisans.
Through much of the twentieth century he fought another sort of fascism, the totalitarianism of corporate conglomerates that effectively govern our country and control our media. He no longer parachuted behind enemy lines. He counted murders and analyzed the stories told on television.
By the time children turn eighteen they have witnessed more than forty thousand murders and two hundred thousand other violent acts on television. They have also seen approximately four hundred thousand advertisements, each delivering essentially the same message: Buy now and you will feel better.
What are the effects of taking in this volume of violence? How do advertisements affect our perception of the world? George Gerbner's analysis moves far beyond facile descriptions of violence begetting violence. The effects are far more subtle and insidious, and they are infinitely more dangerous.
* * *
Gerbner was a founder of the Cultural Indicators Project, an organization formed to study the relationship between violence in the media and society at large, and the Cultural Environment Movement, an umbrella of organizations dedicated to democratizing the media. He edited nine books, including Invisible Crises: What Conglomerate Media Control Means for America and the World; Triumph of the Image: The Media's War in the Persian Gulf, An International Perspective; and The Information Gap: How Computers and Other Communication Technologies Affect the Distribution of Power. He wrote extensively on the relationship between human behavior and the stories that help to form us.
I met George Gerbner in San Francisco on January 20, 1998, while he was on a whirlwind speaking tour. We talked in the corner of a small cafeteria, focusing on the question Gerbner studied for decades: what does it mean to each of us when corporations tell all the stories?
George Gerbner: A few centuries ago, the Scottish patriot Andrew Fletcher wrote, "If I were permitted to write all the ballads, I need not care who makes the laws of the nation." He was right. Ballads, or more broadly stories, socialize us into our roles as men and women and affect our identities. Our parents, schools, communities, churches, nations, and others used to be our society's storytellers, but over the past fifty years this role has been taken over by marketing conglomerates and people who have a great deal to sell. This transformation has profoundly changed the way our children are socialized. It has made a significant contribution to the way our societies are governed. It has changed the way we live.
In the average American household the television is on for seven hours and forty-one minutes per day. That's a lot of time, but that's not the main problem. The main problem is that the stories we see and hear on TV are very limited, despite the deceptive proliferation of cable channels. Shows may vary in style or even plot, but the elements I consider to be the building blocks of storytelling, casting and fate, are strikingly similar across the board. Think about the characters that animate the world of prime-time drama, which is where most of the action and most of the viewing time is. What is their demography? What is the fate of the different groups — men and women, young and old, rich and poor, and so on? The studies I have conducted with the Cultural Indicators Project show that character casting and fate follows stable patterns over time.
Derrick Jensen: What types of patterns?
GG: Men outnumber women in prime-time television two to one, children, elderly people, and nonwhite people are underrepresented, and poor people are virtually absent.
DJ: Please explain why this is important.
GG: Socialization — the telling of all the stories — is what makes us develop into who we are; stories teach us our social roles. People who are well-represented in stories see many opportunities, many choices. The opposite is true for those who are underrepresented, or are represented only in a particular way. For example, women between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five are generally cast only for romantic roles. What message does that impart to young girls growing up? We have a contract with the Screen Actors Guild to study why so many of its female members stop getting calls when they're thirty-five, and only start getting them again when they're old enough to play grandmothers. What does that invisibility teach women about their roles in society? Men play romantic leads until they totter into their graves. How does that affect people's perception of their opportunities for love, sex, and human companionship?
Casting dictates the demography of the symbolic world. Think about the ratios of success to failure and victimizer to victimized experienced by various demographic groups in the world of television. If you look at who is consistently doing what to whom, you see a great homogeneity. It's a strictly regulated and relatively inflexible system.
The over- or underrepresentation of demographic groups in these stories leads to a skewing of the types of stories that can be told. Because most scripts are written by and for men, they project a world in which men rule, and in which men play most of the roles. Scripts are constructed to satisfy the demands of a market — which is not, by the way, the same as the demands of an audience. Because a film or television producer cannot really hope to make money solely in the United States, most producers target their stories for a world market. What themes need no translation? What themes are essentially image-driven, universal? Sex and violence. The demands of an international market reinforce the predilections of male writers.
And society's patriarchal power structure ensures that men are the ones having sex and wielding weapons onscreen. Year by year, you might see a 5–15 percent change, but never a steady trend toward greater diversity.
DJ: How do you know all this?
GG: The Cultural Indicators Project is a nonprofit formed to study not only violence on television, but the relationship between the stories we are told and society at large. Every year we take a sample of characters in prime-time dramatic programming and add them to our database, which by now contains profiles of some forty-five thousand characters. We've been doing this for thirty years, during which time the patterns have been stable.
DJ: I'm still fuzzy on how "casting and fate" affects the real world.
GG: How does schooling affect the real world? By socializing us. Casting and fate work the same way, except the lessons they teach us start in infancy and continue throughout life. Television has become the universal curriculum.
Television and movies project the power structure of our society, and by projecting it, perpetuate it, make it seem normal, make it seem the only thing to do, to talk about, to think about. Once viewers have become habituated to a certain type of story, they experience great consternation if you try to change it. Let's say you try to countercast, or change the typical casting in a typical story. Now a woman wields power. She uses violence. Suddenly, the story gets wrapped up in describing why this is so. It has to revolve around why a woman is doing things that seem scandalous for her, yet normal for a man. Telling a story different from what the audience has come to expect disturbs public sensibilities.
DJ: So in a sense television is representative of the culture.
GG: It is representative of the power structure, not the culture. This means those in power are overrepresented, they're more likely to be successful, and they're more likely to inflict violence than to suffer it.
DJ: Okay. So it's not really representative of the power structure, but instead the fantasies of those in power.
GG: Exactly. It is an agency of the power structure by which those in power represent their fantasies. By doing so they contribute to those fantasies becoming real, becoming a part of the consciousness of each of us.
When it comes to creating stories it is the supply that determines the demand, never the other way around. Just imagine a group of writers talking about ideas, and someone says, "Why is it that most of the time the victim is a woman? Why don't we equalize the scales?" The answer would be, "A violent woman is distasteful."
DJ: But it's not distasteful for us to see Bruce Willis blow away hundreds of people.
GG: To me it is distasteful, but it is also expected.
DJ: What does taking this volume of violence into our bodies do to us? We did not evolve perceiving unreal images. A hundred years ago if you saw someone get slashed with a knife you were probably quite traumatized, because you were witnessing someone's actual injury.
GG: Most of the violence we see depicted is pretty sanitized. It has none of the tragedy, none of the gore. Certainly not on television. Much of it is what I call "happy violence," that is, cool, painless, and spectacular. It's designed not to upset you or gross you out, but to entertain you and deliver you to the next commercial in the mood to buy. I think people are still shocked when they see violence in real life. We have anecdotal evidence of children, when they see somebody actually getting hurt, saying, "That's not like in the movies."
I don't believe that the frequency or explicitness of violence are the primary issues. Violence is a demonstration of power, and the real issue, once again, is who is doing what to whom. If time and again you hear and see stories in which people like you — white males in the prime of life — are more likely to prevail in a conflict situation, you become more aggressive. If you are a member of a group or a gender that is more likely to be victimized in these stories, you grow up more insecure, more dependent, more afraid of getting into a conflict, because you feel your calculus of risk is higher.
That is the way we train minorities. People aren't born a minority, they are trained to act like a minority through cultural conditioning. Women, who are a numerical majority of humankind, are trained to act like a minority. The sense of potential victimization and vulnerability is the key.
Of course not all people react the same way to stories. Women of color may react differently to their sense of potential victimization than men of color. We have to ask, again, how have they been socialized to behave? Who takes what role? What power relationship is being demonstrated? Most of the time people talk about violence as if it were a simple act. But it is a complicated scenario, a social relationship between violators and victims.
For every ten violent characters there are about ten victims. For every ten women who are written into scripts to express the kind of power that white males express with relative impunity there are nineteen women who become victimized. For every ten women of color who are written into scripts to act in an aggressive way, there are twenty-two women of color who are victimized. Your chances of victimization double if you are not a member of the group for whom it is accepted to be a victimizer, who are more likely to be aggressors and less likely to be victims.
DJ: But doesn't that just represent reality? Although in domestic violence women sometimes beat men, it is overwhelmingly the other way.
GG: Children are not born into these roles. Stories teach them how to act, whether they are to act the victim or victimizer, how and toward whom they may or may not express their aggression. Both men and women learn that women are legitimate victims, receptacles for aggression. White males are not acceptable victims. Having shaped reality, these stories then reflect it.
It takes a conscious decision to not conform to the roles assigned to us within these stories. Even our decision to rebel is based on what we have seen; rebellion depends on having something to rebel against, and that, too, is provided in the culture, in the stories.
DJ: Don't these stories then not only determine who does what to whom but also what we see as acceptable modes of conflict resolution? Instead of two people hashing out their differences, we see them fight it out.
GG: Yes, because creating lively and realistic dramatic intercourse takes talent. Most violence on TV betrays a poverty of imagination. It's an easy way out on the part of writers and producers who want to create the cheapest, most easily exported product.
Violence is not even what audiences want. It depresses ratings in every country. But because violence is a universally understood theme, it is still profitable. Even though it's not what audiences want, they have become accustomed to it.
Over time the violence has grown more extreme. In order to stand out in a market already saturated with violence, it is necessary to outdo the others. This is especially true in movies. There used to be about 20 million people going to movies every year. Now, many times that number watch television each night. This means producers of mainstream movies have had to ask themselves what it is that viewers don't get enough of. These producers must not only appeal to expectations emplaced by television, they have to go beyond what television can offer. Extreme violence falls into this category.
The limitations on violence in TV shows are not put into place out of a sense of morality, but because producers know that advertisers don't want to be associated with excessive violence. The message that advertisers send to stations is straightforward: "Deliver the audience to my commercial in a mood to buy. Whatever else you do, that is your job." So in a strange way, advertisers act as a moderating force on the worst of the violence.
DJ: The moderation of advertisers is at best a double-edged sword, though, since it also pretty much guarantees you won't see television programs attacking the corporate structure.
GG: Absolutely. TV producers don't want to bite the hand that feeds them. And it's ironic, because television is broadcast in the public domain. The airwaves are public, not private property. But in the United States, Americans are never told the airwaves belong to them. They think the airwaves belong to the networks.
DJ: CBS isn't going to tell them any differently.
GG: Of course not. Ask yourself, why is there essentially no political diversity in the United States? It's because there's no choice of ideologies on television. You have a single party, consisting of two factions: the Ins and the Outs. When the Outs get in, they do the same thing as the Ins were just doing. You cannot have a democratic government if there are no strong ideological differentiations, which means that you've got to have a capitalist party, a socialist party, greens, indigenous groups, anarchists, a communist party, a fascist party, and so on, each of which should command significant airtime. In all other "democratic" countries that is what the media laws try to do.
It is the First Amendment in the United States Constitution — which states that government shall make no laws abridging freedom of the press — that forbids government from diversifying what goes on the air. The first amendment was designed to assure that the expression of diverse opinions was not prohibited by the government. But the framers of the constitution didn't anticipate precisely what has happened, which is that this country is run by a private, nondemocratic government of, by, and for corporations. This has led to a situation in which a handful of conglomerate directors, maybe five or six men, and they are almost always men, determine the stories that socialize our children.
DJ: And the underlying motive of these directors is to accumulate ever-more power and money.
GG: Power and money. They go hand in hand. They are indivisible.
DJ: But it's not a conspiracy. A friend of mine once told me, "You don't have to have a conspiracy when everyone thinks the same."
Excerpted from Truths Among Us by Derrick Jensen, Theresa Noll. Copyright © 2011 Derrick Jensen. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Derrick Jensen is the author of numerous books, including Endgame, A Language Older Than Words, and This Culture of Make Believe. He lives in Crescent City, California.
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