growing up in a culture of fear: from Columbine to banning of MySpace
I’m tired of mass media perpetuating a culture of fear under the scapegoat of informing the public. Nowhere is this more apparent than how they discuss youth culture and use scare tactics to warn parents of the safety risks about the Internet. The choice to perpetually report on the possibility or rare occurrence of kidnapping / stalking / violence because of Internet sociability is not a neutral position – it is a position of power that the media chooses to take because it’s a story that sells. There’s something innately human about rubbernecking, about looking for fears, about reveling in the possibilities of demise. Mainstream media capitalizes on this, manipulating the public and magnifying the culture of fear. It sells horror films and it sells newspapers.
A few days ago, i started laying out how youth create a public in digital environments because their physical publics are so restricted. Since then, i was utterly horrified to see that some school officials are requiring students to dismantle their MySpace and Xanga accounts or risk suspension. The reason is stated simply in the article: “If this protects one child from being near-abducted or harassed or preyed upon, I make no apologies for this stance.” OMG, this is insane.
In some ways, i wish that the press had never heard of these sites… i wish that i had never participated in helping them know of its value to youth culture. I wish that it remained an obscure teenage site. Because i’m infuriated at how my own participation in information has been manipulated to magnify the culture of fear. The culture of fear is devastating; it is not the same as safety.
Let’s step back a few years. Remember Columbine? I was living in Amsterdam at the time and the coverage was brilliant – the Dutch press talked about how there was a school shooting by kids who felt alienated from their community. And then the US coverage started pouring in. Goths (or anyone wearing black, especially black trench coats) were marked as the devil incarnate. Video games were evil and were promoting killing. Everything was blamed except the root cause: alienation. There were exceptions though. I remember crying the first time i read Jon Katz’s Voices from the Hellmouth where numerous youth poured out their souls about how they were treated in American education systems. Through his articles, he was able to capture the devastation of the culture of fear. My professor Henry Jenkins testified in Washington about how dangerous our culture has become, not because there are tools of rage, but an unchecked systematic creation of youth alienation. He pleaded with Congress: “Listen to our children. Don’t fear them.” And yet, we haven’t. In response, youth went underground. Following one of his talks, a woman came up to him dressed in an array of chaotic pink. She explained to Henry that she was a goth, but had to go underground. What kind of world do we live in where a color symbolizes a violent act?
We fear our children. We fear what they might do in collectives. We ban them from public spaces (see “Mall won’t allow teens without parents”). We think that we are protecting them, but we’re really feeding the media industry and guaranteeing the need for uncountable psychiatrists. Imagine the weight that this places on youth culture. Imagine what it’s like to grow up under media scrutiny, parental protectionism and formalist educational systems.
During the summer of 1999, i was driving cross-country and ended up at an outdoor rave outside of Denver, Colorado. I was sitting in my tent, writing in my diary when a group of teens wrapped at my door asking if they could come in and smoke because it was too windy outside to light the damn thing. I invited them in and we started talking. They were all from Littleton and had all dropped out of school shortly following Columbine and were now at a loss for what to do. I asked them why they dropped out, expecting that they would tell me about how eerie the school was or how they were afraid of being next. No. They dropped out because the media was hounding them everywhere they went. They couldn’t get into the school without being pestered; they couldn’t go to the mall or hang out and play basketball. They found underground venues for socialization. Here we were, in the middle of a field outside town at a rave, the only place that they felt safe to be themselves. The underground rave scene flourished in the summer of 1999 outside Denver because it was a safe haven for teens needing to get away from adult surveillance and pressure. Shortly later, the cops busted the party. I went and pleaded with them, asking them to let the kids camp there without the music; they had the permits for camping. No; they had heard that there were kids doing ecstasy. Let’s say they are – you want them to drive on drugs? Why not let them just camp? The cops ignored me and turned on bright lights and told the kids that they needed to leave in 10 minutes or they would be arrested. Argh! I’m not going to condone teenage drug use, but i also know that it comes from a need to find one’s identity, to make sense of the world removed from adult rules. These kids need a safe space to be themselves; overzealous police don’t help a damn thing.
How do youth come of age in this society? What good is it to restrict every social space that they have? Does anyone actually think that this is a good idea? Protectionist actions tends to create hatred, resentment. It destroys families by failing to value trust and responsibility. Ageist rhetoric alienates the younger generation. And for what purpose?
The effects are devastating. Ever wonder why young people don’t vote? Why should they? They’ve been told for so damn long that their voices don’t matter, have been the victims of an oppressive regime. What is motivating about that? How do you learn to use your voice to change power when you’ve been surveilled and controlled for so long, when you’ve made an art out of subversive engagement with peers? When you’ve been put on drugs like Strattera that control your behavior to the point of utter obedience?
We drug our children the whole way through school as a mechanism of control and wonder why drug abuse and alcoholism is rampant when they come of age. I’ve never seen as many drugs as i did at pristine prestigious boarding schools. The wealthy kids in our society are so protected, pampered. When given an ounce of freedom, they go from one extreme to the other instead of having healthy exploratory developments. Many of the most unstable, neurotic and addicted humans i have met in this lifetime come from a position of privilege and protectionism. That cannot be good.
We need to break this culture of fear in order to have a healthy society. Please, please… whenever you interact with youth culture (whether you’re a parent, a schoolteacher or a cafe owner), learn from them. Hear them from their perspectives and stop trying to project your own fears onto them. Allow them to flourish by giving them the freedom to make sense of their identity and culture. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t risks – there are. But they are not as grandiose as the press makes them out to be. And besides, youth need to do stupid things in order to learn from their own mistakes. Never get caught up in the “i told you so” commentary that comes after that “when i was your age” bullshit. People don’t learn this way – they learn by putting their hand in the fire and realizing it really is hot and then stepping back.
Post-Columbine, we decided to regulate the symptoms of alienation rather than solve the problem. Today, we are trying to regulate youth efforts to have agency and public space. Both are products of a culture of fear and completely miss the point. We need to figure out how to support youth culture, exploration and efforts to make sense of the social world. The more we try to bottle it into a cookie-cutter model, the more we will destroy that generation.
In line with Henry’s claim to Congress, i want to plead to you (and ask you to plead to those you know): Listen to the youth generation – don’t fear them and don’t project your fear onto them.
(Note: my use of the term “kids” references the broader youth population using a slang very familiar to subcultures where an infantilized generation reclaimed the term for personal use. I am 27 and i still talk about my friends as kids. What i’m referencing is youth culture broadly, not children and not just teens.)