"Very Yellow, Very Violent"
This now a famous quote recently raised a furor among internet citizens in China. It is a phrase uttered by a thirteen year old girl in a television interview, in which she referred to the alleged pervasive violence and sexuality of the internet.
I don’t know about you, but in fact I have to look pretty hard to find pornography or violence on the internet. It NEVER pops up when I do a search for something like, say, "pediatric rash measles fifth rocky" or "juergen habermas" or whatever else is striking my fancy at the moment.
But the alleged prevalence of violence, sexuality, and misinformation on the internet is the rationale which the government uses to advocate for censorship of the net. That’s why it’s a hot topic. That’s why I cannot access Wikipedia or any blog created on blogspot from where I live. The information is supposedly deemed too dangerous for my sensitive psyche. Information in all kinds of categories is, likewise, deemed too sensitive for my eyes and ears. For instance, the map of the world in my children’s world history book, published in another country, was ripped out of the book before it was allowed to be imported for use in their school (on account of a geographic region being printed in the wrong color). Likewise, Lonely Planet China is an officially banned book, on account of some outrageous things it has to say. See http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/filtering/china/
In fact, this government has the most sophisticated and pervasive censoring system in the world, with (I’ve read) 100,000 people just devoted to censoring internet sites. This "protection" of the public is the reason that I have a friend who teaches in a Chinese university who has Ph.D. students who are unable to access basic research materials essential to their field of expertise. It also may be the reason that grown men and women in this society so, in fact, seem to take everything they are fed by the state mechanism at face value. The machine turns on itself: reliant as it is on spreading a certain version of the "truth," it does in fact create citizens who are unable to discern truth from fiction when they read "news" materials. Students here are not taught how to be critical readers and critical thinkers, how to evaluate the credibility of information. Rather, they are expected to take whatever they are told as "truth" and swallow it whole.
The purpose of this post is to think for a moment about how such censorship might affect society as a whole, in a way which I never considered before. I know it affects the ability of a populace to think for itself. To analyze information. To be aware of the world around it. To think about how to . . . well, let’s not go there.
But I never until today thought about how censorship might be inextricably linked to creating a whole culture where lying is viewed as acceptable.
We notice over and over here, as a cultural difference, how people seem to be so readily "fast and loose" with what is the truth. I’ve posited it as a cultural difference, a difference in values. But could that be the result of something other than teaching consciously rooted in morality and, rather, rooted in something else that is of more recent origin?
My thoughts linking decline of morality with lack of free speech began when I read a discussion about the recent television interview which gave rise to the quote above. In late December, a thirteen year old female student was interviewed by Chinese television and quoted in support of censorship of the internet. According to Zhejiang Online News, the interview was broadcast on December 27, 2007, by Beijing CCTV. The young student said [in translation]:
"The last time that I got on the Internet to search for information, a web page popped up suddenly. It was very yellow [i.e. erotic], very violent. I hastily closed the page."
Zhejiang Online News further reported about the widespread ridicule and spoofing that proliferated after the interview was aired. It appears that, fundamentally, no one believed the girl’s statement. People who saw the interview thought that her statement was coached and manufactured by the State media. The news report continues:
"On account of the phrase "very yellow, very violent," videos, photographs, spoof cartoons and comments flooded the Internet overnight. . . .
"The first one to comment was "mopper" (i.e. a member of the MOP forum) Gegege. At 7:40pm that evening, she wrote a post titled ‘Tonight’s Joint News Broadcast was awesome’: ‘Did you see that? The news item about deleterious videocasts on the Internet. A cute elementary Beijing school girl was interviewed and she said, ‘The last time that I got on the Internet to search for information, a web page popped up suddenly. It was very yellow, very violent. I hastily closed the page.’ At that time, I was having dining and I could not help but laugh. Very yellow, very violent. That is like the MOP slogan of Very Good, Very Powerful. . . . ‘
"As soon as that post appeared, other netizens were drawn to the case. [Another] . . . commented: "I saw that too. I was laughing. Where does one find a very yellow, very violent web page?" . . . Netizen "irrissun" commented: "I heard that too. I nearly threw up! How does a little girl know when something is very yellow, very violent? Weird."
". . . By early morning of January 5, there were almost 1,200 comments running to 12 pages. . . . ."
But, most telling for me, is this comment which comes next in the article:
". . . Since [the girl] is an excellent student, some netizen thought: "She faced the CCTV reporter and lied to a national audience without blinking. Isn’t she accountable for what she said? If she is lying when she is so young, how far will she go when she grows old? For children, academic grades are important. But if her thinking and morals are rotten, then academic grades are useless no matter how good they are." [emphasis added]
This last comment led me to wonder: What sets up a culture of lying, and why do people view this child’s apparent parroting of a state sponsored media position concerning censorship of the internet as being inextricably linked with an educational culture of lying?
Here are one fellow blogger’s thoughts about it. (I note unfortunately that between the time I first cut and pasted this copy and the time I publish this, the post seems to have disappeared; so I am unable to give a link to the primary source or give proper credit to the author):
"In the media reports, I [the Chinese author of a different blog post] have seen this defense of the young girl — she is only thirteen years old, her values and judgment are yet unformed and she is therefore not responsible; even if she lied, she cannot be held responsible for she is only a victim of the system of the parents, the school, the teachers, the media and the reporters.
"This type of defense is logical, but I want to consider this matter further. Among the doubters, some believe that "Very yellow, very violent" sounded too much like adult talk. Thus, she was guilty of lying or colluding with the reporter. I happen not to think so because I think that she was only using her standard narrative. The interesting thing is why did she spontaneously say something to the camera that she did not really mean?
"For the longest time, our school system has encouraged people to lie. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, it was common to include clichés such as "The situation has never been better in China …" in the opening sentence of any essay composition. Although these types of phrases have disappeared, the habit of the big lie has not been eradicated. Instead, they continue to show up in different forms. The students know that they don’t mean to say something, but they are still being forced to do so. One time, my son showed me a model essay and said angrily that this was a piece of junk. When I suggested that he did not have to use it, he said that the teacher has already threatened him with poor mid-term grades if he refused to write in that manner.
"This example shows that our students are still unable to speak what they think. They can say whatever they want in private. But when in comes to writing essay compositions, they have to trot out all the ostentatious clichés and myths. After toiling under this type of educational system for so long, they now have this natural habit. When they are asked to speak in public, those words come out spontaneously without thinking. When that little girl in Beijing faced the camera, she spoke fluently. Such is the result of the "state ideological apparatus." ‘According to Althusser, the "state ideological apparatus" includes the schools as well as the media such as television. Therefore, we cannot underestimate the impact of television.
"When I watch CCTV’s <Joint News Broadcast>, I find an interesting phenomenon. Whenever something big happens, the reporters conduct street interviews and the interviewees play along perfectly by spouting phrases that are distinctly CCTV-like. So I realized that the official version has travelled a strange journey. When the propaganda machine gets started, the official version is implanted deeply into the subconsciousness of the people and their own thinking system is shoved aside. Over the long term, the official version within the people’s minds is perfected even as their own system becomes increasingly barren and impoverished. By that time, when a microphone is shoved in front of them, they will spontaneously and fluently speak the official version. It goes without say that the propaganda machine will trumpet that this is the will of the people who support a certain policy. I think that this is the true secret in the interaction between the propaganda machine and the people.
"Therefore, if we accept that the Beijing girl used some very CCTV-like phrases, then we must also admit that this type of talk has a broad foundation among the masses. While the girl deserves our sympathy for her experience, what she said deserves our reflection."
Reflection, indeed. It is a strange catch-22 when a population is so indoctrinated into listening and believing the official word that they are unable to tell truth from fiction. Such a population is dangerous because it is easily incited by any incindiary influence, the flames easily fanned by any wind of inflammatory untruth. But more important, to me, is the idea of state-sanctioned lying. Everyone knows that the official line is not always the truth. But when truth is disregarded from the top down, what does that say to the ordinary person about the value of truth? No wonder, then, that truth is seen as something easily bent and twisted. Perhaps the road to lies is, in fact, a slippery slope begotten by state sponsorship of doublespeak?
There’s a joke circulating that you know you’ve been here too long when you think a certain state-sponsored daily newspaper represents the epitomy of investigative journalism. But when an entire population is not only manipulated but coached in the value of lying, it highlights all the more the deleterious effect that lack of free speech can have on a society. I hope that we who have it will value it and work hard to protect it. If this is a case study in how media affects morality, then it demonstrates that we who can think critically must work to ensure that the ability to think critically is passed along to our young people. All the more reason that we who have an education must strive to ensure that free and good quality education remains available to all. All the more reason for people who have freedom to protect the tools that enable it.
If you’re not already certain that free speech (and hence freedom of thought and of conscience and intellect) isn’t endangered in the USA, then take a second look not only at the political stage, but also at who controls the media and at the quality of education. Last time I crossed through the immigration counter at Detroit International airport, why did the Homeland Security guy feel so free to grill me about what countries I had been to and why. I mean, what if I had told him an answer that he didn’t want like to hear? Think about it. The balancing of interests between freedom and state needs is always delicate. We must be careful to avoid the slippery slope.
"’Tis education forms the common mind; just as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined."
Yep, it’s George Washington who said that. He thought that free and universal public education was essential to democracy.