It happened last October, but the fallout has continued into the new year, and my friend, a mental health professional, is appalled. As we visited and drank tea, she elaborated.
On October 16, the ABC network broadcast a show from its Jimmy Kimmel Live series in which the comedian asked a “panel” of young children how America should repay the $1.3 trillion debt it owed to China.
Piped up a rambunctious six-year-old named Braxton, very pleased with himself: “Kill everyone in China!” To which a slightly bemused Kimmel responded, “OK, that’s a very interesting idea....
“Should we allow the Chinese to live?” he then asked the children. Some shouted yes; Braxton, sticking to his guns, yelled “No!” THIS EXCHANGE understandably elicited a furious reaction from Chinese Americans, the Chinese Foreign Ministry and others, leading to a rally in November outside the ABC studios in California owned by Walt Disney Co., where protestors demanded an apology from the network and called for Jimmy Kimmel’s show to be taken off the air.
Kimmel appeared at the rally in person and apologized to the protestors and to the whole Chinese community, saying he had not intended to offend, but “thought everyone would take it as a joke.” He assured them that the segment would not be rebroadcast (it can still be viewed on YouTube) and that “it won’t happen again.”
The network also apologized.
Elsewhere, Kimmel had explained that he “didn’t think it was funny,” but asked, “What was I supposed to do?” What, indeed? He might perhaps have told the children that advocating genocide is a no-no.
THE WHITE House responded this month to a petition signed by more than 105,000 people calling for the government to crack down on Kimmel’s show. While “welcoming the continuing peaceful rise of China” the administration noted, as reported by Reuters on January 10, that the US Constitution protects free speech and the federal government could not therefore force ABC to cut the show, as the petition requested.
“It may be upsetting when people say things we might personally disagree with,” the White House went on, “but the principle of protected free speech is an important part of who we are as a nation.”
IT WAS this application of protected free speech to the case in question, what it signified, and what was omitted in the White House’s response that put my friend’s blood on the boil, and kept it there. It illustrated, she said, what is happening in American – and Western – society: a process of adult desensitization, which then passes to the children by a sort of osmosis. A society can be judged by its children, she observed.
Free speech, she emphasized, carries with it responsibility – for example, you may not shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater because it could lead to people getting hurt.
Children have not yet acquired a sense of responsibility, and allowing their naive, thoughtless and impulsive utterances to be protected under the legislative rubric of free speech confers upon children the responsibility of adults while they lack the corresponding necessary maturity. That is exploitation, which equals manipulation.
One banner at the rally read: “Don’t manipulate children.”
Of course young children can and will say anything and everything – it’s what children do, and they cannot be censured for it. But they do not yet have the tools to understand the consequences of what they say. They take their cue from the adults around them.
That’s why it is vital for adults to show children where the limits lie – vital, quite simply, to teach them the difference between right and wrong as soon as they transgress those limits.
The Jimmy Kimmel Live show, in letting a call to genocide pass as “an interesting idea,” or amusing joke, missed a golden opportunity to do so.
A CHINESE-American man posted this comment following the Kimmel apology video clip on YouTube: “Jimmy Kimmel, an adult who knows what he is doing... laughs when Braxton says to kill the Chinese, and then says that it is an interesting idea.
“People should teach their children to love, not to murder because it is more convenient that way. The problem lies not with the children, but with the adults who don’t correct the children.”
Chunyan Li, a professor of accounting at Pace University, was a vocal participant at the November rally, where she challenged Kimmel: “I think you should also apologize to other parents for teaching kids, or allowing them, to kill.”
Interviewed afterwards by a Chinese TV station, she added, “As an educator, I am more concerned than offended... especially after [Kimmel’s asking the children] ‘Should we allow the Chinese to live?’ “As a mother and a teacher, [my] anger is not toward the six-yearold...
It’s not just the Chinese, it’s that message to other children...
when you cannot solve a problem, you kill someone.”
IT IS quite clear that the issue goes way beyond Jimmy Kimmel’s TV show, deep into every home where children enjoy access to all kinds of electronic media, to unlimited TV entertainment, and to an array of sophisticated computer games whose lauded aim is the “killing” of figures that appear all too lifelike.
From happily eliminating those virtual people, it isn’t a very far reach for a child to blithely advocate killing real people, or a whole race of them.
Who is to set them right, if not we adults? Children, my friend said, are not as childish or innocent as they once were. “Because they live in an atmosphere that fosters violence, they think and act like violent adults – it’s a norm, a given. They’ve been deprived of their childhood and see no harm in it.”
This cult of violence is robbing them of their healthy education, she continued, recalling that in the same week as the White House issued its response to the Kimmel petition, a 12-year-old schoolboy in New Mexico drew a gun and shot and wounded two classmates, one critically.
Today, more than ever in the post-religious Western world, adults – parents and teachers – cannot leave children to fashion their own morality out of what they’re picking up on TV, the Internet or computer games. Adults need to be ever-present in their children’s lives as solid guides to human worthiness and proper behavior. Anything else too easily leads to the existential horror depicted in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
I ASKED my friend what the episode left her with, and her response was: “Alarm. Alarm about adult insensitivity, up to the highest level in the land,” and what this insensitivity portends.
The White House spokespeople, she said, showed no interest in what six-year-old Braxton actually said on Jimmy Kimmel Live. They were “blind and deaf” to the fact that he had advocated genocide and yet was not immediately corrected, told that this was not an OK thing to do.
“That kind of correction can no longer be done on the basis of religion,” she observed, “it has to be done on the basis of ethics.”
And it seems that ethics – in this instance, at least – were absent.
ISRAEL, IT’S often said, is not far behind the US when it comes to trends and fashions. Surrounded by our unique and often violent reality, and with our popular culture in many ways like the one across the Atlantic, we would be wise to pause and heed the unintended lesson of the Jimmy Kimmel show.
To bring the matter a little closer to home, suppose that American six-year-old had suggested killing “all the Jews,” or “every Arab”? Would that have passed as “an interesting idea,” allowed under the principle of protected free speech?