STEREOTYPES are negative caricatures of a group that create and sustain the belief that all members are the same. One of the most insidious manifestations of stereotyping involves the use of emotionally tagged labels which I call “buzz bomb branding.” Historically, buzz bombs were the nick name for the the ominously buzzing German V-1 rockets whose primitive guidance system enabled them to hit somewhere in or around London during WW2. This type of broad, indiscreet targeting and the resultant fear and dread is exactly what occurs with buzz bomb branding. The negative characteristics of these labels are so culturally ingrained, so universally accepted as unconditional evil, so media-repeated and pulpit-pronounced that no one even thinks to question the monolithic and final judgments they dispense. Buzz bomb labels use moral outrage to create the false belief that all members of these notoriously evil groups must be equally depraved. In essence, the word itself has acquired so much negative momentum that the subtleties and subcategories are ignored and everyone given the label is effectively and often unfairly branded.
Why does this happen? It happens because we like to simplify things and this leads to over-generalization. When you have to make painstaking distinctions and articulate complex shades of gray and clarify ambiguity, it’s much more difficult and troublesome than living in the assurance of a black and white world, where America and freedom and apple pie are good and everything else is evil.
IS IT REALLY THAT SIMPLE? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?
With stereotype labels, the activating word is like a button that is pushed and it brings up an image or a single concept of the worse case scenario. The problem is that there are usually a wide spectrum of people or concepts that have been put in the category that are unfairly judged by this image.
LET’S EXAMINE A PARTICULAR EXAMPLE of this emotional stereotyping: CHILD PORNOGRAPHERS
Section 2256 of Title 18, United States Code, defines child pornography as any visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct involving a minor (someone under 18 years of age). The legal definition of sexually explicit conduct does not require that an image depict a child engaging in sexual activity. A picture of a naked child may constitute illegal child pornography if it is “sufficiently sexually suggestive.”
So child pornography RANGES from videos of very young prepubescent children who are forced or coerced to engage in sexual activity, which is absolutely horrible TO – at the other end of the spectrum – photos of sexually mature 17 year-olds who may willingly pose in sexually suggestive ways while intentionally lying about their age. Not that there is anything good about this “older end” of the spectrum: It is wrong, misguided, it is bad judgment and may be openly abusive BUT sexually suggestive photos of 17 year-olds ARE NOT THE MORAL EQUIVALENT of videos of prepubescent children having sex with adults. Why do we lump them all together with no distinctions?
CONSEQUENCES OF CHILD PORNOGRAPHY
CHILD PORNOGRAPHY SENTENCING
There is now a mandatory five year sentence for “possession with intent to distribute or sell child pornography” OR “production of child pornography”. Without any more details, the legal language is quite sufficient to push the outrage button and many would (understandably) say: Great, this sentence is not long enough! But like a lot of laws, especially drug laws, the language is vague and the real world application can only be seen in a case by case basis. Consider this case:
A 20 year-old man makes a home video of consensual sex with his 17 year-old girlfriend and downloads it to his computer, with his girlfriend’s knowledge and with no intent to share the video with others. CHARGE: child pornography production. SENTENCE: five years. Does this man deserve five years in prison? Why does he face this type of sentence? Because he is on the fringe of the hysteria and he has been caught up in the group and branded.
In addition to the legal consequences, there are the so-called “collateral consequences.” For anyone accused of possessing child pornography, for anyone whose house was searched because of suspicions of child pornography, society’s verdict has already been reached: your career is destroyed and your reputation damaged beyond repair – regardless of eventually exoneration or the exact nature of the crimes. Undoubtedly, many or the worst offenders deserve this, but not all, especially before any legal resolution.
I chose child pornography for this article as an extreme example of how buzz bomb branding works. The point is: there are distinctions to be made even here. It is always important to avoid emotional knee jerk reactions and look at details and understand how over-generalization happens. Let’s consider the cultural context that shapes child pornography.
SAUDI ARABIA DOES NOT HAVE A MINIMUM AGE FOR MARRIAGE
One of the key problems for this “buzz bomb branding”of child pornographers is that our society can’t clearly define “childhood.” When do you stop being a child? Child marriages were common throughout history and even today 146 countries permit girls younger than 18 to marry with the consent of parents or other authorities; in 52 countries, girls under age 15 can marry with parental consent. Of course, this is not the same as child pornography – these child marriages are not, one would hope, being videotaped or photographed. But for a minor to have legally sanctioned sex is not unprecedented. Of course, the younger the girls, the more it becomes an unthinkable abomination to Western sensibilities
CREEPILY SEXUALIZED BEAUTY PAGEANT CONTESTANT
Another problem with child pornography is double standards. Our society acts with instant outrage at the mention of child pornography and at the same time openly engages in the sexualization of minors, in beauty pageants and in marketing teen divas like Britney Spears. In her autobiographical hit “Piece of Me,” Britney declares; ” I’m Miss American Dream since I was 17″ and the media still wants to “put pictures of my derriere in the magazine.”
Yet another problem with child pornography is our society’s understanding of “pornography” in general. Pornography, like fornication, is not a descriptive word – it is a judgmental word. Upper class people enjoy ‘EROTICA” and express their sexuality by MAKING LOVE. Lower class people look at pornography and fornicate!! What’s the difference? Why is “shit” a dirty word and “defecate” an acceptable word? Most German/Anglo-Saxon curse words are considered obscene while the Latin equivalent is considered much more polite. So the push-button outrage, the buzz bomb branding, comes from centuries of hate and resentment against the German / Anglo Saxon influence on the (supposedly) previously clean language and culture. We have a deeply embedded linguistic program that initiates an immediate negative reaction to these words and then commands us to not think any further about nuances and distinctions. Of course, obsession and addiction to anything whether it is drugs, pornography or violence is very wrong, clinically problematic and self-destructive. My point it that it is not “adult” pornography or drugs or guns per se that are the problem – it is their abuse.
CHILD PORNOGRAPHY is a very emotional topic, so let me be crystal clear on my position. It is probably the deepest human instinct to protect our young from dangers and nothing is more horrifying than a child predator. I am ADVOCATING a more precise definition of child pornography that has a more narrow focus. This is not to let anyone off the hook, but to deal appropriately with specific behaviors. In other words, a specific punishment should fit the specific crime. In the case of Child Pornography, I don’t think this will happen unless we rethink our understanding of childhood and pornography.
I want to examine one more simpler example of buzz bomb branding to illustrate the similarity of patterns across categories ( and to end this article on a less contentious note).This category is HORSE THIEF
In the Old West a horse was often necessary for survival. If you stole a man’s horse, you were possibly condemning him to die. Just like child pornography today, it was simply not tolerated. And just like child pornography, distinctions were not made and all horse thieves were treated alike – they were hung. What distinctions could be made in the notorious category of such worthless varmints as horse thieves? I ask the reader to consider Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove to illustrate the answer.
McMurtry distinguishes three types of horse thieves:
1. International Horse Thieves.
More precisely, stealing horses from Mexico. It’s okay for the Texas rangers to cross the border and steal Mexican horses because the Mexicans probably stole them from the US in the first place so they are just “retrieving them.” Consequence: No punishment. ( except the Mexicans might re-steal the stolen horses)
2. Outlaw Horse Thieves.
When the former Texas Ranger Jake Spoon teams up with despicable outlaws, he is hung for being a horse thief.
3. Starving Indian Horse Thieves.
When Captain McCall tracks down some more horse thieves later in the book, he discovers a small band of starving Native Americans who have already killed and cooked some of the horses. Consequence: no punishment.
So apparently there are different levels within this nefarious category. In conclusion – always question emotional responses and simplistic categorizations and watch out for the buzz bombs!