An Open Letter to Norris, Seagal, and Van Damme
Aiki News #97 (Fall/Winter 1993)
A little boy made me write this letter. A little boy whose name is John. He’s my son. I’ve watched him grow for the last two years and eight months, and each day he has gained more knowledge, strength and dexterity. I have noted that he acquires most of his skills through observation, imitation, and repetition. Therefore, as a parent I feel a great responsibility for creating a positive, supportive environment in order to enhance his ability to learn.
The other night I settled down with my family for a relaxed evening watching an “action-comedy” movie, but it still contained the typical repertoire of killings, explosives, car chases, and the like. At a certain point in the film, little John instinctively recoiled from the television set in reaction to a violent scene and I found myself reaching over, also instinctively, to cover his eyes with my hands.
This set me to thinking. Here we have the marvelous media of film, television, and video with their enormous potential to entertain and educate. Yet with the type of programming offered, we are obliged to pay careful attention in order to protect our children from being exposed to a steady stream of violence, vulgarity, and pornography. I don’t think it takes a Ph.D. to understand that children, and adults too for that matter, are strongly influenced by what they see on movie and TV screens. The nonchalant attitude of the entertainment industry concerning this situation reminds me very much of the stance of the tobacco companies who still cling to the claim that there is no conclusive scientific proof linking cigarette smoking to numerous diseases.
Mr. Norris, Mr. Seagal, and Mr. Van Damme, I wouldn’t even bother to address these comments to you gentlemen were it not for the fact that you are “martial artists,” or to put it a bit more poetically, “seeker on the martial path.” I would therefore suspect, given your lethal skills, that you have heightened understanding and appreciation for the consequences of your actions. All three of you have attained outstanding abilities in the martial arts through years of effort, sweat, and pain. You have subsequently made use of these talents to captivate screen audiences the world over and have touched hundreds of millions of youngsters who comprise the majority of your fans. The influence you wield is mind-boggling and carries with it a remarkable potential for inspiring and shaping young minds.
Although there is much to admire in the heroes you portray on the bigger-than-life movie screen — courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, technical expertise, physical conditioning and development — I believe that the message you are conveying through your film roles is profoundly negative and destructive.
Given the genre of films in which you appear no one expects you to turn in Academy Award-winning performances or portray complex characters who undergo subtle psychological transformations. However, even though your screen alter-egos are usually heroes, they are heroes whose notions of right and wrong are frequently blurred and who resort to violence at the drop of a hat. Your fictional counterparts are like trigger-happy gunfighters who would rather fight than flee even though their actions lead to injuries or death. Your decision in the face of fictional danger and violence provide a menu of choices for many impressionable youngsters who will imitate you in an an attempt to solve their own real-life problems. Doesn’t this scare the hell out of you and fill you with a deep humbleness for the importance of your roles as character models?
Surely the mark of a master of martial arts lies not in reflexively resorting to a physical solution for disputes, but rather in displaying an expanded awareness and determination not to exercise force except in the most extreme circumstances. Your screen characters are often arrogant show-offs who flaunt a false sense of righteousness and are in great part responsible for the low image of martial arts in many quarters.
You might claim in “self-defense” that there is really nothing you can do about the quality or content of the movies in which you are contractually bound to appear and that it is the industry moguls who call all the shots. This would be somewhat convincing if you were just breaking into films. However, you have long since achieved your fame, fortunes, and the power that accompanies them, and are certainly able to influence the story-lines and final content of your film vehicles. You are mega-stars and with this comes mega-responsibility!