Learning To Hate Americans

Melvin L. DeFleur and Margaret H. DeFleur. Marquette Books, 2003. ISBN 0-922993-05-X

By Rose Dyson (reviewer)

With the help of their foreign graduate students at Boston University, the DeFleurs conducted surveys involving over 1300 teenagers in 12 different countries, assessing their attitudes toward Americans. They ranged in age from 14 to 19 years and live in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, South Korea, Mexico, China, Spain, Taiwan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Nigeria, Italy, and Argentina. Both countries and teens were selected on the basis of convenience, depending on where the students of the DeFleurs originated and had existing ties that could facilitate inquiry.

The central issues investigated were evaluative beliefs -- the teen's impressions, views and attitudes -- toward individuals and their families who live in the United States. Care was taken to determine whether there was a difference in the attitudes of these teenagers toward Americans as private citizens and their attitudes toward the United States as an official entity. Did they see the United States in negative terms, but its ordinary people in a more positive way?

They found the results shocking. There was a distinct departure from the usual dual pattern in that, for the most part, the teenagers studied have quite negative views of both the U.S. government and of ordinary Americans. The question arose as to why. From what sources did these young people acquire pejorative beliefs and attitudes concerning people who live in the United States? An attempt was made to determine whether or not such negative views had been derived from their exposure to American popular culture -- their only evident source of continuous information about Americans.

The DeFleurs then addressed the question of access. Do these teens get media-delivered content that portrays Americans negatively? The conclusion was that, except for those living in abject poverty in truly remote areas, these teens do indeed have widespread access due to the explosion of satellite networks.

Also addressed was the world-wide production and distribution of media content that depicts Americans negatively. This included examination of the entrepreneurial system that designs, develops, and distributes various forms of popular culture for young people on a global basis. The DeFleurs tracked the stages resulting in what they term "seriously flawed" social constructions of reality concerning Americans.

It appears that teens around the world believe Americans are extremely violent, criminally inclined, and that American women are sexually immoral. The researchers concluded that most blame for such negative attitudes, now aggressively marketed worldwide, must be placed on Hollywood. They concluded that the large, profit driven, multinational corporations that produce and distribute most of the world's media content do so with little regard for the consequences. This, of course, is hardly a new observation. The conventional belief in America is that the responsibility for consequences, such as the harmful effects of alcohol, tobacco, and gun ownership, rests with the user.

For the DeFleurs, the main problem is that of foreign youth who, lacking sufficient "awareness," acquire negative attitudes toward Americans by indulging in popular culture. That this popular culture is also aggressively marketed to American youth and may not be a good thing for them, either, is alluded to only vaguely.

The authors also consider the impact of news. The same effects occur here too. News gives a picture of crime, corruption, sex, and violence far beyond what may normally be experienced by ordinary Americans on a daily basis. American media scholar George Gerbner, coined the phrase, "mean world syndrome" to describe the impact of this kind of news dissemination on audiences anywhere in the world. Significantly, the researchers point out that in America itself, where there is much debate about the growing consolidation of ownership, the emphasis has been more on the consequences of diminishing diversity than on the consequences of negative images.

The DeFleurs' key focus on entertainment is how it defines people who live in various parts of the world. Satellite receiving dishes are now on the rooftops of millions of Iranian homes, for example, where families gather around their Sony TV sets and view Oprah, American's Funniest Videos, movies such as Dances with Wolves, Silence of the Lambs, and American pop singers such as Michael Jackson and Madonna.

The authors warn that unless something is done to correct the problem, future generations of foreign teenagers will grow up "learning to hate Americans." However, beyond a call for more research on the effects of popular culture, they suggest little in the way of policy. Remarkably, they ignore the enormous body of literature that has accumulated on the subject and draw only on early pioneers such as Wilbur Schramm and Albert Bandura.

Their own emphasis on "incidental learning," as an outgrowth of television programming, films, video and computer games, is somewhat overstated. Given the wealth of research findings on the subject, it would be more appropriate to factor in the "willful blindness" of scholars inclined to avoid media content effects. The ethical implications of professionally exploitive practices that prey on the developmental vulnerabilities of children have only recently been addressed by the American Psychological Association who, earlier this year, called for restrictions on child-oriented advertising.

Many argue that, to be silent in the face of the blatant commercial exploitation of children, American or foreign, discrimination against women, and evidence of violence perpetrated onto them under the guise that it is "just entertainment," is to condone it. In that case, the foreign teenagers who participated in the DeFleur study were not altogether wrong in their impressions of American society.

The DeFleurs do, however, question the conventional wisdom that unbridled capitalism in the cultural industries also means freedom of expression for everyone else as well. They remind us that the First Amendment, originally designed to protect political speech, has now, more than two centuries later, been extended to protect pornography, foul-mouthed thugs and excesses such as gratuitous violence. They consider an ethical appeal to the industry to "clean up its act" as a waste of time and correctly refer to the problem of negative attitudes toward Americans as a growing public health problem. We are warned that future cohorts of teenagers in many countries may be exposed to even more negative depictions of Americans. The result will be no end of hostilities by those who have learned from entertainment media to despise the United States.

The key contribution in this book is to prove how influential America's largest global export has become. Popular culture, like aerospace technology, is now fueling the gargantuan American economy, sharpening divisions between the haves and have-nots worldwide. It is also polarizing attitudes in ever more threatening ways. The powerful influence of both military and communications technology cannot be overestimated. It has outstripped our ability to manage it effectively and is a growing threat to our survival as a species. This book urges media scholars to rise to the challenge.

Reviewed by Rose Anne Dyson, Ed.D. Her book Media Violence in an Information Age is published by Black Rose.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2005

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2005, page 28. Some rights reserved.

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