Friday, June 23, 2006

"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a hoot."

I recieved a telephone call today from a representative of the "Dove Foundation." Thats a group dedicated to improving the moral quality of what appears in movies and on television. They're also the people who are (rightfully) under fire for producing and distributing "edited" versions of Hollywood movies that meet their moral criteria.
Not surpringly, the telephone survey was completely corrupt. I was told that the survey would take "about 10 minutes." After only the third question, however, the voice told me "your responses indicate that you are not a part of our target demographic. Thank you for your time. Good bye."

The questions that I did get to answer were a long the lines of "are you fed up with Hollywood's blatant anti-family bias?" It was my "no" response to that question, I suppose, that indicated that I was not a member of a useful demographic.

After I was abruptly disconnected, I called them back (to their genuine credit, they are one of the few such groups that does not block caller ID). When I pointed out their methodological flaws, I was told that the person I spoke to was not conducting the survey according to proper procedure and that mine was a very unusual complaint, and finally that the Dove Foundation was "very concerned with the accuracy and integrity of their polling." Nice try, but the survey I took was administered by a machine.

So I went to their website where I found, among other things, an FAQ that described exactly the situation that I encountered and provided an answer that was almost exactly like the one I recieved when I called them back. So much for a very unusual complaint, eh?

But what I did not find was much more significant (though far from surprising!). This is an organization dedicated to lobbying Hollywood to produce more "family-friendly" films and television shows, and fewer "anti-family" ones. But nowhere on their website ( are either of those two terms defined! Nowhere do they describe what is "family friendly" or what counts as "anti-family."

I was annoyed on a number of levels. First and most obviously is the political level. I don't doubt that "family-friendly" is a just a polite way to say "not-gay" without all that messy explicit hatred. Ordinarily, I don't think that I would feel compelled to react to this kind of crap, but I was finally moved to comment by the second level on which I was offended: a level that might be called the discursive or the methodological. I can just barely ignore stupid political ideologies when necessary, but when those stupid ideologies are combined with really bad argumentative skills (as they usually are) and I tend to speak up.

That said, below is the letter that I posted on the comment section of the Dove Foundation's website. I doubt that I'll hear a response, but if I do, I'll be sure to post it here.

Here's my letter:

Dear Dove Foundation,

I have a couple of comments that I would like to see addressed.

First, I was called by a person named "Cammy." Evidently, she was not satisfied with my responses to her survey questions and decided that since I did not seem to agree with Dove's general mission, I was "not a part of the target demographic." What this means (as I am sure you are aware) is that the results of your "survey" will be meaningless: by screening out all responses that do not agree with your political agenda, your results will appear overwhelmingly favorable yet completely inaccurate. I know you are smart people who understand this, so I can only assume you are intentionally skewing the results of your survey out of sheer political bias. I have no doubt that the results you report will include language like "an overwhelming majority of respondents indicated that something needs to be done..." But your survey methodology is profoundly suspect. Please respect your respondents (and your issue!) more than you have shown thus far.

The second point I want to see addressed is this: nowhere on your website (nor in the "pre-recorded responses" on the telephone) is there any indication of how you define your basic terms and criteria. Specifically, I want to know what you mean by "family-friendly" and (more importantly) "anti-family." Too often right-wing extremists use these terms very narrowly--most obviously excluding "non-traditional" families like those that include homosexual relationships or single-parents. You need to recognize that families come in many varieties - and that representations of families that do not fit a narrow criteria are not "anti-family." I am especially concerned with your lack of description on this point. It could very well be that a telephone respondent who is dissatisfied with, say, violence on television could be inadvertently endorsing a very narrow conception of "family' because you may or may not be lumping non-traditional families in with other potentially objectionable criteria. Now, please don't misunderstand me. If you're intention is to endorse what I would consider a very narrow conception of "family" (i.e. one that is based on a right-wing agenda), you have every right to do so. But you need to be clear and open by providing a definition of what you mean by "family."

As to the question of what is "anti-family," my guess is that you probably include in that category a lot of things that you simply do not like. My guess is that you are using the prefix "anti" improperly or for rhetorical appeal. A film that does not address the issues you want to see addressed is not necessarily against those issues. If I see a film that does not feature, say, airplanes, am I to understand the film to be "anti-airplanes"? No, of course not and I doubt that you would suggest as much. But that is the basic case that your making here. If a film isn't "about" families in your conception, you describe it as "anti-family." Is it not possible to produce a film about single persons? Or about a group of characters that are not necessarily related by families ties? Consider a recent film that I doubt you would find very objectionable: The Endurance is a documentary about Sir Ernest Shacketon's failed voyage to the South Pole. No one presented in the film is related to one another--it is not concerned the idea of the "family." Is this film "anti-family"? I suspect you would agree that it is not. So why do you hold other types of movies (R-rated romantic comedies, action movies, historical epics, literary productions, etc. that make no claim to moral edification) to a different standard?

Again, if I might offer a guess, I would hazard to say that you may be edging closer and closer to an understanding of entertainment that holds that anything that is not expressly "for children" is "anti-family." Your telephone caller suggested that you were "not endorsing censorship," but what would you call a mission that seeks cultural change based on these narrow criteria and definitions??

Listen, literature (and I use the term here to include popular cultural products like television and movies) is not (always) supposed to edify moral values. You aren't supposed to agree with what you see all the time. We watch stories to learn about each other, and sometimes what we learn is not pleasant or comfortable. No one (I hope) reads or watches Hamlet to reinforce some conception of justice or ethics or (worse) family-values. But Hamlet is still worth paying attention to!

Do I think that action movies have as much to teach us as Shakespeare? Of course not. But we've got to get out of the mindset that insists that what we expose ourselves and our children to must always be a positive message. Sometime you can learn a lot by watching someone misbehave. Sometimes you can be legitimately (and “safely”!) entertained by watching someone who misbehaves.

Maybe you disagree and that's fine. But you must in good conscience start representing your group fairly and openly. Start by defining what exactly it is that you are for or against. "Family," is a politically and rhetorically charged term that evokes a lot of emotion, but it does not mean the same thing to all people (or to all of your respondents)! Define your terms by explaining what you mean by "family-friendly" and "anti-family." Second, you must accept the fact that not every one is going to agree with you and that, if you expect to have any credibility, you must conduct your polls fairly and accurately. Screening out undesirable responses proves absolutely nothing. I can just as easily give you a survey that "proves" that 100% of the public hates ice cream, if I only include those responses that support that position.

No matter what your political objectives are, you ought to be doing everything you can to protect your credibility! Or is winning by hook or by crook a family-value??

I would appreciate a legitimate reply to this message. If all you can do is provide a pre-written stock answer instead of a thoughtful reply written by a real-live person who actually read what I've written, please don't bother. A generic stock response would only confirm my assumptions about your organization.

Thank you.