Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Drinking From a Fire Hose: The Brainwashing of America’s Youth

DISCLAIMER: Ok, this one's kinda long, but by now,
we should be used to e's angry rambling, right?

Their grandparents fought in World War II and traveled with the USO; this generation fights aliens with X-Box controllers. Their parents fought in Vietnam or staged sit-ins to protest a cause; this generations’ version of a “sit-in” is a Real World marathon. Their older brothers and sisters went to concerts in the ‘90s to free Tibet; this generation tuned into Live 8 online because Bono was cool. For the past 200 years, America’s social development has been moved forward by the efforts of 10 generations. We are now standing at a crossroads, waiting for the present generation of youth to make their decision: whether to help out or chill out.

It can be argued that this generation of American youth is in danger of leaving a legacy of minimal contribution to society. I am fully aware of the counter-arguments that can be presented in contrast to my position. I’ll take a minute to indulge White (1957):
A noted commentator was speaking. His intent audience nodded their heads in assent as he made on point after another that struck home. “Our youth,” he said, “now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority. They show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

The impassioned speaker was not a Dr. Wertham frightening the wits out of the Parent-Teachers Association of Scarsdale with his oversimplified message that comic books are turning American children into psychological cripples. Although the speaker’s words were as timely as many of the criticisms of mass culture in America, he had never visited this country. In fact, he never left his native Greece. For our speaker, as you now may have guessed, was Socrates, and the period was the Fifth Century, B.C.”

Ok, I understand. It’s a social convention to bitch about how the current generation will be responsible for the degradation of society. But hear me out here; the extent of social activism among this generation is the Lance Armstrong bracelet. And what could be a better use of a dollar than letting everyone know you’re trendy because you contributed to charity? Fortunately for charity, it has become fashionable to be a humanitarian. Everyone from celebrities to college sororities has a philanthropic cause. Unfortunately, the depth of actual concern for society among current youth is questionable. Community service has evolved into a résumé builder for law school, and civic duty is equated with a conscious effort not to wear spandex in public. Thankfully, social activism isn’t completely dead among this generation; just ask any group of teens how they feel about the fate of peer-to-peer file sharing. Young people everywhere are engaging in their own form of civil disobedience with the assistance of illegal file sharing programs. They apparently believe that, like speech, music should be free. Unfortunately, it is abundantly clear that America’s youth has shirked personal accountability and any responsibility to society in favor of catching the latest episode of My Super Sweet Sixteen.

Shunning individualism, today’s youth have joined a socially accepted cult that worships at the “10-spot” on MTV. The ultimate goal is to reach “group actualization” by eliminating personal idiosyncrasies in order to fit one of the archetypes represented by their favorite Real World character (militant black man, flamboyant homosexual, innocent-but-eventually-slutty Southern girl…). One cannot completely undervalue the contributions to society that the MTV generation has made; they have created an over-exposed icon out of an heiress with a homemade sex flick and have fully explored the possibilities of reality television to the point of beating a dead genre. The role models of the MTV generation are not great scholars, revolutionaries or leaders; they are television characters. Pick up the latest edition of Cosmo Girl and you will find it filled with opportunities to take quizzes to discern which Friend or character on Sex and the City you most resemble. Never mind that the target readership for such magazines is not old enough to smoke cigarettes or buy alcohol, much less compete with the bedpost notches of the fictional Samantha Jones. Even when actual people serve as role models for our youth, the messages they convey are questionable. With serial bride Jenny from the Block as an idol for young women everywhere, it’s remarkable that certain contingents think legalizing gay matrimony would jeopardize the institution of marriage.

The thoughts of America’s youth are about as profound as a toaster strudel, but then, can you blame them? We’ve got 13-year-old “Cosmo Girls” running around in mascara and micro-minis, and sixth-grade boys doing more than simply fantasizing about sleeping with their teachers. Who has time to adopt a cause when they are busy trying to be a sex symbol? With the help of historical role models, it seems that previous generations of youths have found a cause for which to take a stand – civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, environmental rights – yet the current generation of young adults is content to be consumed with “celebreality.” Just walk into a Starbucks and you will find teenage discussion centering on the latest TomKat gossip, information on Jen’s recovery from Brad, and inside tips on how to achieve the weight class of your favorite Olsen twin. Celebrity gossip is the new form of “current events,” facilitated by an array of tabloids and fashion magazines. If they take an interest in “real” current events at all, The Daily Show, a news satire, serves as this generation’s primary news source.

It is far too simple to blame your local young person for the degradation of society. Every effect has a cause. I find that the Spice Girls make a convenient target. With the rise in success of the Spice Girls came the concept of “Grrrl Power,” which subsequently evolved into the new accepted brand of feminism. With this new feminism came the right to create your own spice title, consisting of “Something Spice,” and the ability to demand that if someone wanted to be your lover, they had to get with your friends. How is it possible that this isn’t responsible for the destruction of subsequent generations? A female Menudo-esque group, the post-Milli Vanilli success of the Spice Girls influenced and motivated successive generations of no-talent musical artists, such as the Backstreet Boys, N*Sync, Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson. Without these five “Spice-y” women recruited by a casting call in Great Britain, our American culture might have missed the opportunity to make cultural icons out of people like Kevin Federline.

The true reality is that over a century’s worth of momentum from the Industrial Revolution through the civil rights movement has stalled with the MTV generation. It would seem the media proliferation that occurred at the end of the twentieth century would have only encouraged the spread of ideas, rather than promote the spread of one mindset. Therein lies the biggest problem. As amusing as it may be to point out the vapid nature of the young adult demographic, a fair amount of their thought processes have been shaped by their constant exposure to the media. The producers of MTV and FOX News have decided what the priorities of this generation should be, and no one has stepped out of android mode to question the dominant ideology. Whether critics want to label Madonna, the Spice Girls or Paris Hilton as deviant forces within society, the fact is, they’ve all been made cultural icons by our media. This generation has immediate access to knowledge like no other generation has had, and the ability to utilize technology in a way their parents don’t understand.

In terms of information, teens today are virtually drinking from a fire hose. Thanks to the promulgation of technology, young adults are perpetually bombarded by media messages, especially those encouraging behaviors unsuitable for their age group. The portrayal of teenagers on television is never age-appropriate; alcohol consumption is glorified and characters are often shown engaging in sexual activity at an age when their hormones haven’t even kicked in. Childish innocence is disdainful and many adults recognize that kids are “growing up faster than they used to.” Naïveté is associated with prudish ignorance and young people are trying to be “sophisticated” and “mature.”

Teenagers gauge acceptable behavior by the reality they construct from the popular culture messages they receive. All of their peers may not be drinking and having sex, but their exposure to the media makes it seem that way. Little girls want to bare their midriffs and emulate Christina Aguilera, without any understanding of the message they are communicating. While a hiked-up T-shirt and low-slug pants pose no imminent threat to society, it symbolizes the reality that no one actively questions concepts that are being passed as conventionally accepted standards.

I’m not suggesting a direct-media-effects theory, where watching one episode of Law & Order causes violent tendencies, but there is no denying that ideas continually reinforced in several media will have an eventual impact on the receivers of the messages. Today’s youth is being willingly brainwashed by the dominant media agenda. While society awaits this generation’s decision on their preferred level of social activism, it is interesting to consider which prospect might be worse: the idea that America’s youth might screw things up, or the possibility that they can be willed to not care.


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