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“Can Sitcoms Erase Bigotry?”: What Exclusion Otherizes, Inclusion Normalizes

So it turns out sitcoms can erase bigotry.

That’s the bottom line of a study recently presented before a conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. And it doesn’t even have to be a particularly good sitcom.

To judge, at least, from a screening of its first two episodes, the Canadian sitcom on which the study is based was earnest, amiable, and about as funny as “Schindler’s List.” Apparently, however, Canadian television viewers liked it well enough. “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” a culture clash show about life at a Muslim worship house in small town Canada, premiered in 2007 and ran for five years. Here in the United States, it’s available on Hulu.

Sohad Murrar, a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, used the show to test whether entertainment media can reduce prejudice. She gathered a representative sampling of white men and women between the ages of 18 and 60, first testing them to establish a baseline measurement of their prejudices. Then they were divided into two groups. One was assigned to watch episodes of “Friends.” The other watched “Little Mosque.”

Afterward, when Murrar again tested the groups for prejudice, she found that while the “Friends” group showed no movement, there was a reduction in anti-Muslim bias among those who had watched “Little Mosque.” Nor was this a fleeting thing. Four to six weeks later, the “Little Mosque” group still showed less bigotry.

The study participants, she says, “were identifying with the characters. Just seeing these characters, these Muslims, go through everyday life situations that they themselves could imagine themselves in or they themselves could relate to … kind of led our participants to feel like, ‘Hey, yeah, that’s something I myself could experience.’”

Prejudice, she notes, derives from the identification of an “in” group and an “out” group and the social distancing of the former from the latter. It’s a process some have dubbed “otherization.”

For all that academia and news media might do to combat that process, entertainment media are uniquely positioned to neutralize it. It is one thing, after all, to read statistics or hear arguments on the humanity and equality of, say, African Americans. It is quite another to have Anthony Anderson in your den every week giving you belly laughs or to root for Denzel Washington shooting it out with bad guys on the big screen.

Murrar’s study is only the latest to quantify this. And mind you, some of us didn’t even need a study to know it. Some of us have always regarded the likes of Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll, Ellen DeGeneres and “Will and Grace,” Mary Tyler Moore and “Cagney and Lacey” as the unsung heroes and secret weapons of the movements for African-American, gay and women’s freedom.

Still, Murrar’s study underlines a truth often overlooked when the talk turns, as it has with this year’s snow white Oscar nominations, to Hollywood’s dubious track record on diversity. Namely, that inclusion is not some enlightened sop to political correctness. Nor is it just good business, though it is that.

Rather. Inclusion changes the society itself. It lessens fears, opens eyes, unsticks hearts, makes people better. What exclusion otherizes, inclusion normalizes.

In a nation that has seen Islamophobia rise with the inexorability of floodwaters and racial animus spike to levels not seen since Jim Crow, a nation where Holocaust survivors say a leading presidential contender actually reminds them of Hitler, that’s no trivial thing. There is a great power here and those of us who have been too long defined as “other” must use every form of pressure we can to ensure that that power includes us in the circle of what America deems “normal.”

Or else find more constructive uses for our money and our time.


By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; Featured Post, The National Memo, February 8, 2016

February 10, 2016 Posted by | Bigotry, Entertainment Industry, Prejudice | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“There’s Bound To Be A Next Time”: The Sony Leak Unearthed Juicy Gossip, But The Blackmailers Must Not Win

My heart sinks, to be honest, at the prospect of having to watch The Interview. Judging from the trailers, it’s the kind of crass, juvenile slapstick that’s barely worth a bucket of popcorn and a babysitter – although we can scratch the babysitter, since the only way ever to watch this comedy may  be at home now that the embattled Sony Pictures has cancelled its cinema release. If only someone had mounted a repressive cyber-attack over an unflattering portrayal of North Korean politics in something that’s actually funny, like 2004’s Team America World Police.

But just as everyone felt obliged to order Spycatcher from Australia after the Thatcher government banned its publication, we’ll all feel obliged to watch this film should it ever emerge from what’s left of Sony HQ. The hacking of the company apparently in retaliation for this fictional account of a plot to assassinate the North Korean leader is pure political censorship, a chilling of free speech that threatens far better films and books and journalism. It cannot be allowed to succeed.

The attack on Sony seemed rather harmlessly entertaining at first, when it was all about squirming senior executives being forced to explain leaks about Jennifer Lawrence earning less than her male co-stars, or to grovel over racially charged private jokes dumped in the public domain. Even the mooted involvement of the North Korean government didn’t feel threatening when the studio was being held to ransom by little more than bitchy gossip about Angelina Jolie. Perhaps we’re all too used to watching hackers open up secretive worlds (even if at times they have done so cavalierly, and – in the past – with potentially fatal consequences) to see this for what it really was, namely an attempt to shut debate down.

Or perhaps the reaction was a slow burner because, despite leading a regime described by Amnesty International as “in a category of its own” for torture and repression, Kim Jong-un is so often inexplicably treated in the west as a sort of semi-comical cartoon baddie, a bit like a Bond villain. The oddest thing about this whole saga is that had the British government slashed the BBC’s licence fee in retaliation for a show satirising George Osborne, the response would probably have been angrier and more immediate.

But we should have realised long before cinemas started to receive threats evoking the memory of 9/11 that this wasn’t funny. Even if the White House declined on Thursday to blame the North Korean government directly, the attack on Sony has more in common with the furore over Danish cartoons of the prophet than with mischievous data raids on tax-dodging corporates. Sony has been not just embarrassed but crippled by an attack on its IT infrastructure that exposes the surprising fragility of our digitised world: the ease with which the plug can be pulled.

And while making films isn’t exactly life and death stuff, no secretary should go unpaid at Christmas because someone shut down the computerised payroll in homage to a thin-skinned dictator. No legitimate business deserves to be crippled for offending a totalitarian regime, and no government can be allowed to exercise a veto over the way it is portrayed around the world, whether what we’re talking about is a hissy fit over a comedy or China blocking Google.

If the North Korean government really is behind this attack, in the short term it’s arguably scored its own goal. Sony says it has no current plans to release the film on DVD or streaming services, perhaps because of fears that any distributor could become a hacking target, but it’s hard to believe it won’t eventually emerge somehow.

If nothing else, social media is alive with jibes at Kim Jong-un’s expense, and more people will surely now watch the trailers than would have seen the film in cinemas – just as tabloid outrage over the BBC serialising Hilary Mantel’s book on murdering Margaret Thatcher (talking of fictional assassinations) will probably only remind more people to tune into A Book at Bedtime. All arts censorship really does, whether it’s prosecuting Penguin Books over Lady Chatterley’s Lover or plastering parental advisory stickers on rap CDs, is make the object more exciting.

But in the longer term, there’s cause for concern. What major Hollywood studio is raring to make a film about North Korea now? Will a TV network or publisher think twice about commissioning something on the regime? And how should any platform respond to something like this in the future?

Sony has been criticised for caving in rather than simply collaborating with those independent cinemas still willing to show the film (most of the big chains pulled out after warnings, apparently from the hackers, that the “world will be full of fear” if they screened it). There was, we’re told, no credible intelligence of a terrorist plot. But the studio has a responsibility to cinema staff and cinemagoers that makes this a little more complicated than the robust “publish and be damned” attitude you might get from a paper. Would you risk people dying, however tiny the risk, just to see a half-baked Seth Rogen vehicle?

And to criticise Sony is arguably to gloss over big questions for those media organisations that gleefully published the leaked emails, and thus became awkwardly complicit in a blackmail exercise seemingly conducted on behalf of a prolific abuser of human rights.

Whenever they’re confronted with a juicy leak, journalists need to ask themselves the cui bono question: to whose benefit? And the answer is often pretty unedifying – a spurned lover, a disgruntled MP passed over for promotion, someone wanting cash. That doesn’t mean you don’t publish private information if there is a public interest, as there arguably was in some of this material. If you don’t want to be publicly embarrassed about paying women less than men, maybe don’t pay them less, rather than begging for our sympathy when you’re caught at it.

But when all that’s being revealed is that George Clooney hates getting bad reviews – well, this is the territory of bears and woods and a lack of outdoor toilet facilities, and tougher questions ought to be asked before republishing it, even if the stuff is already everywhere online. We need to think this through before the next time, because there’s bound to be a next time, if only on the grounds that what happened to Sony has given every other repressive regime – or organisation, or culture – on the planet a glimpse of the possible. And that’s not funny.


By: Gaby Hinsliff, The Guardian, December 18, 2014

December 19, 2014 Posted by | Entertainment Industry, Kim Jong-Un, North Korea | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Pro-Torture Propaganda Campaign”: How Political And Media Elites Legitimized Torture

Since the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report, numerous commentators have gestured to opinion polls that show significant levels of public support for the practice. They conclude that the American people are at least partially responsible for the fact that torture was (and probably will be again) formal U.S. government policy. Christopher Ingraham argues in The Washington Post that most Americans are “fine” with torture, while Peter Beinart argues in The Atlantic that torture is “who we are.”

These arguments are partially correct. A majority of Americans (especially Republicans) do support torture in the abstract. And Beinart is particularly correct to note that America’s historical legacy is violent in the extreme — torture and a dozen other brands of systematic violence are central to American history. The fact that nobody in power is going to enforce the law, for the obvious reason that it would be politically inconvenient, is a great stain on American democracy, as David Simon, the creator of The Wire, argues.

But it’s something of a cop-out to blame the American people. In fact, political and media elites are to a very great degree responsible for the state of public opinion on torture. Insofar as torture has been partially legitimized as an American practice, elites are deeply implicated.

But first, we need to deal with the question of the efficacy of torture. There is an ongoing argument among anti-torture advocates about this question, with one side arguing (as Dan Drezner does) that making this case is important on the merits, and the other side (including Nathan Pippenger) saying that such a debate inherently legitimizes the practice. The implication is that if it did work, we would have to consider supporting it.

If torture were, in fact, a great method of producing intelligence, then this would be a queasy question indeed. But we don’t live in such a world. In fact, torture is absolute garbage for intelligence work. This fact is firmly established; look no further than Darius Rejali’s massive book on torture, which is the last word on the subject. I think it would be rather foolish to ignore this, given how solidly we know it to be true. As Daniel Larison writes, we can hold two thoughts in our head at once: “torture is absolutely wrong and absolutely useless.”

But Dick Cheney and many other Republican elites are out there loudly defending torture as good practice. Those assertions, baseless as they are, are reflected in the polls — but that’s not the half of it.

Polls are also at fault. In a fascinating and highly disturbing study from 2010, Rejali and several co-authors compiled a comprehensive list of every poll that asked people about the use of torture against suspected terrorists. They established that when polls provide specific descriptions of the worst kinds of CIA torture, anti-torture sentiment spikes dramatically. When the truth is spelled out, as opposed to being wrapped in the generic term “torture,” the American people are much more strongly opposed to what the CIA has done than is popularly supposed.

It gets worse, though. The authors found that these surveys strongly loaded the questions in favor of torture:

Crucially, in these surveys, the respondent is not asked whether they think torture is effective. The effectiveness of torture is presumed in the question. Respondents are told that the person in custody may be a terrorist and may have information about future terrorist attacks… These are conditions in which it would seem almost patriotic to affirm torture (and dangerous to oppose it). [Symposium: Terrorism and Human Rights]

As we know, this is a false presumption. What it means is that for the last decade mainstream American polling organizations have essentially been conducting pro-torture push polls.

The American entertainment industry has been behaving in a similar fashion. Movies, TV shows, and videogames are swimming in depictions of torture as a quick and easy way of gathering reliable intelligence. A recalcitrant detainee giving up the goods after being beaten is now a reliable action movie trope. The show 24 is probably the worst offender, but there are hundreds of other examples, including Zero Dark Thirty, which claimed, as a matter of the historical record, that torture led to the death of Osama bin Laden. Even Captain America 2, which takes a strong civil liberties stance, has a mock execution sequence. (24 also popularized the ticking time bomb scenario, which we also now know isn’t remotely connected to reality.)

Knowing as we do that torture does not work like this, such depictions and polls are ethically monstrous. The American political and media elite have been, in effect, conducting a blatantly false, pro-torture propaganda campaign, one which, unfortunately, did not stay in the popular culture sphere. As Dahlia Lithwick wrote in Slate years ago, “The lawyers designing interrogation techniques cited [24’s Jack] Bauer more frequently than the Constitution.”

In another piece, Rejali, Paul Gronke, and Peter Miller note that though pro-torture opinion has trended upwards a bit in recent times, Americans are still strongly against techniques like waterboarding, electric shock, and sexual humiliation. They chalk up the conventional wisdom that Americans support torture as “false consensus…a coping mechanism long known to psychologists whereby we project our views onto others.”

Instead of blaming the American people for the mainstreaming of torture, political and media elites should acknowledge their own guilt.


By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, December 15, 2014

December 16, 2014 Posted by | Entertainment Industry, Media, Politicians | , , , , , | Leave a comment


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