Selective Freedom

One of the most popular slogans in education today is critical thinking. But in some places, critical thinking is not welcome. When a professor at the University of Massachusetts tried to teach his students to think critically about rock videos shown on MTV, MTV struck back.

 

Rock videos have a powerful effect on young people. They combine the two media with the greatest influence upon youth: music and television. Anything so powerful should be scrutinized carefully by anyone who cares about the direction of our culture.

 

Professor Sut Jhally, a native of India, decided to do just that. He wanted to teach his students to be more aware of the effects images can have on people. He decided to use images from rock videos shown on MTV.

 

MTV caters to a largely male audience between the ages of 15 and 30. What it offers is, in Professor Jhally’s words, a “male adolescent dream world”–a world in which women are one-dimensional sex objects, with no desire except to please men. Many videos suggest sexual violence by the use of whips, chains, cages.

 

Professor Jhally is concerned about the effect these rock videos have on the minds of the young. By putting suggestive images in people’s minds, MTV affects attitudes toward sexuality and marriage. It can even desensitize people to the brutal horror of sexual violence.

 

What makes the story of Professor Jhally so interesting is that he didn’t just say these things about MTV–he did something about it. In order to train his students to be more discerning, Jhally made a video of his own. He spliced together a collage of images from MTV videos. And he added a sound track offering critical commentary on the videos.

 

You can’t just tell people about the images, Jhally says. You have to show them. He calls his video, appropriately enough, “Dreamworlds,” and he offers it to other teachers who want to teach their students critical thinking.

 

But if you would like to see this video, you’d better hurry. Because MTV is threatening Professor Jhally. MTV charges that he is using the video clips without permission and violating federal copyright law. The network demands that all copies of “Dreamworlds” be destroyed.

 

But copyright law includes a so-called “fair use” provision, which allows passages to be excerpted for educational or critical purposes. “Dreamworlds” falls within that category. If MTV feels Professor Jhally went beyond the fair use of the video clips, all it has to do is give him rights to the clips by charging him a licensing fee. But MTV refuses to do that.

 

It seems obvious that what MTV really wants to do is silence criticism of its product.

 

The irony in all this is that MTV steadfastly presents itself as a champion of free speech. MTV officials recently mounted a much-publicized campaign against censorship. They insist that their own portrayals of sex and violence be protected as part of their artistic freedom.

 

Yet they deny freedom of expression to someone who criticizes their program.

 

What MTV is saying in effect is, We must have total freedom to do whatever we want–even when it degrades women and promotes deviant sexual practices. You, on the other hand, are not allowed to criticize us. Freedom of expression is for us; it is not for you.

 

What utter hypocrisy.


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