Columns

Much ado about words

Sending our kids a message of trust is the best thing we can do. Talk to them—and talk to them some more

Charles Gordon March 12 2001
Columns

Much ado about words

Sending our kids a message of trust is the best thing we can do. Talk to them—and talk to them some more

Charles Gordon March 12 2001

Much ado about words

Columns

Charles Gordon

Sending our kids a message of trust is the best thing we can do. Talk to them—and talk to them some more

Perhaps because we live in one of the freest countries in the world, and perhaps because our right to free speech is rarely challenged, those little moments of real or attempted censorship create quite a stir. It’s good that they do: if we don’t have to defend our rights, they wither away.

Early in the year, writers gathered in Ottawa to protest the jailing of a Cornwall, Ont., high-school student for threats he is alleged to have made. Some of the threats were contained in an essay he wrote for a drama class. The details of the case were fuzzy, owing to a publication ban, and so the trumpets of outrage were somewhat muted. But the point was made, in a characteristically Canadian way: we’re not exactly sure about the facts, but if the facts are as they seem to be, we don’t like it.

Farther from home, but closer to the mainstream of the Canadian attention span, is the controversy over the American rapper Eminem’s appearance on the Grammy Awards broadcast last month.

Eminem’s lyrics can be sexist and violent; they contain words not often heard on television, and certainly not American television, which is considerably more straidaced than ours.

The point has been made that Eminem assumes another voice in his raps, just as a novelist might, and could just as easily be condemning the sentiments expressed as advocating them. It is a point that can definitely be made about another, considerably older band, Steely Dan, that picked up several awards on the same night. In the new album, Two Against Nature, are songs expressing the views of a pimp and a man with incestuous ambitions. Earlier albums have featured the voices of a Los Angeles coke dealer, a heroin addict, a mass murderer and even, if you are up on your Steely Dan trivia, Adolf Hider.

But Steely Dan is composed of 50-year-olds, recognized as being capable of irony, that valuable baby boom commodity, whereas Eminem is young, a rapper, and must therefore, adult society reasons, mean everything he says. So the president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Michael Greene, felt constrained to address the academy and the television audience before Eminem’s performance: “We can’t edit out the art that makes us uncomfortable,” said this middle-aged man in a suit. “Remember, that’s what our parents tried to do to Elvis, the Stones and the Beatles.”

It was quite a fine speech, actually, and it should not have been necessary. After it, Eminem took to the stage and performed with the aid of the venerable Elton John, an obvious

Charles Gordon is a columnist with The Ottawa Citizen.

symbol of the rock establishment’s support. Eminem’s song Stan was written in the voice of a deranged fan and was not easy to follow. “At least three curse words could be heard during the performance,” said the Associated Press account of the Grammys.

At least? Here is music that inspired a large protest from many directions and people aren’t exactly sure how many bad words are in it—as opposed to the music of a controversial Canadian, Alanis Morissette, who also performed at the Grammys, in 1996. Her song You Oughta Know unmistakably contained a word that had to be bleeped out for the American networks.

And we all survived, didn’t we? That is worth noting as we ponder the extreme measures people are now taking to protect their children from evil influences. This goes beyond movie classification and warning labels for CDs and warning messages on TV programs—innocent enough instruments that may, however, merely call kids’ attention to a forbidden fruit.

Parents are making desperate attempts to keep the horrors of the Internet away from their children. Experts are urging parents to keep the family computer in the kitchen, the better to monitor the chat-room conversations their kids are having with their friends. Some parents have learned how to peep inside hard drives to take note of the sites where their children have been— a procedure most computer-sawy kids can thwart easily. However, there is now software available to enable parents (and suspicious spouses) to check undetected what is on their loved ones’ screens.

In the end, does any of this make a positive difference? Probably not. First, it is just about impossible to keep up with the technology. Anybody remember the V-chip? It was going to clean up TV

The Internet is going to go where it wants, regardless of what we do. And more important, the attempt to control and monitor it makes spies of us all. Everything we do says “we don’t trust you,” which is not sending the best message to our kids.

And sending a message of trust is the best thing we can do. Admit that we can’t control what they see and hear. Acknowledge that they probably see and hear a lot of things we’d prefer them not to. Talk to them about that. And talk to them about that some more. And trust that the values they have absorbed from us are strong enough to withstand porn sites, Eminem, Jerry Springer and all the other dubious gifts of adult society.

The alternatives are worse.