Issue #44, June 1999
To my critics, I say, get your head out of the sand.
— Charles Jeffress, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA
I worked in a video store while I attended junior college several years ago. One slow Sunday afternoon an attractive woman in her middle thirties entered the shop and came up to me at the counter. "Can you recommend a film?" she asked. I was always getting asked to recommend films, usually by twittery old grandmothers whose taste I could not begin to fathom nor cater to.
"Well, what kind of films do you like?" I asked.
"I like violent films."
That was the first time I'd heard that. "Cool," I said, "me, too."
After searching through the store, rushing from one recommendation to another, I ended up renting her Reservoir Dogs and Killing Zoe. Both films are about robberies that go horribly wrong.
A week later, an armored car was robbed downtown. One of the car's guards was shot and one of the robbers was also shot, both died. A second robber, an attractive woman in her thirties, was captured after changing into clothes that had been stashed in a dumpster several blocks from the scene of the crime. Only when I saw the woman's face in the paper did I remember renting her the videos.
Naturally, I have told this story many times. It's one of my favorite tales, the most striking from that time in my life. Whenever I tell it, it generates some discussion of "the influence of the media." And there can be no doubt that, in making my movie recommendations, I was contributing to a bank robber's research. Nor is my story an isolated incident.
On Thursday, August 11, 1998, a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle read: "All-Female Bank Heist — Just Like Movie." Five woman, including two juveniles, were arrested for robbing a bank. "Authorities said the July 31 robbery at the Anchor Savings Bank apparently was inspired by the movie Set it Off, about a gang of female bank robbers," the article reported. Police recovered a copy of the film from the gang's house.
Examples like these raise some serious questions about media. Just exactly how dangerous is it, say, to run a program on prime time TV that teaches people how to rob banks or make bombs? And since the writer(s) is perhaps the most responsible, as the creator of the narrative, the stories raise questions about the authorial role. Can an author be blamed and for what? Authorship, even writing, exists in every medium. You need writers for TV, for radio, for the Internet. Somewhere before the shit hits the screen, or the speakers, chances are that it got written down. Since I am a writer, I always feel particularly inclined to argue that it's not the writer's fault. But in some cases it is. I certainly wasn't disappointed when the pro-life authors of the abortionist address list were declared terrorists.
Whether it's E.C. horror comic books, called the "root of all evil" in the 50s, or a book like Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, which got the literary world into such a snuss that the inital publisher dropped the book and, when it was picked up again, a sizeable group of agents agreed to a little industry-internal censorship, many conflicts of truly crucial importance are traceable to some stupid action that in turn could be traced to some piece of writing. Arguments about the effect of writing go as far back as most early religions and right now a lawsuit is underway to hold Oliver Stone liable for a young couple's murder spree through Louisiana and Mississippi because their actions may have been inspired by his 1994 film Natural Born Killers. If they get him, then I suppose they'll go after Quentin Tarrintino next, since he wrote the story on which the movie was based. You see, if the plaintiffs can prove that the film was intended to incite violence, then it would not be protected under the First Amendment (like that list of abortionists).
Everything ever committed to paper does not necessarily deserve to be published, that's just unconscious knowledge. The question is who or what is the arbitrator that will decide what will or won't make it into print (or film/TV/radio/website) and, perhaps more importantly, for what reason. It would be great to think that importance or intelligence or even talent were key factors, but sadly, in most cases, the single determining factor is going to be money. Money makes the decision as to what gets in the media and how loud it is, but after that it is a question of harm — who's harmed and how much they squawk about it?
But there is a completely other side to the question of harm, one that it largely ignored by the public in their feuds over who got harmed and how much it cost. We wonder at the effect writing has on the reader or watching on the viewer or, I suppose, creation on the audience, but we seem to forget the effect of creation on the creator. Writing has an effect on the writer, as well as the reader.
In my capacity as a writer of a newsletter, I'm being treated for a repetitive stress injury. It seems that I've damaged my median nerve. My entire arm hurts and has hurt for almost a year. At first the pain went from my shoulder to my pinky, with the pinky being numb. At that time I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, but in reality I was merely suffering from a "pre-carpal tunnel condition." After four months I gave up the pain killers to seek out acupuncture and gradually, and with plenty of physical therapy, I've moved the pain into my shoulder. I'm still in a great deal of pain, but it's decreasing. (Yes, writing this hurts.) The acupuncture combined with the preventive strategies I learned in my physical therapy class have helped me deal with the pain. Nevertheless, it is a daily burden that has had a huge impact on my writing.
In fact, the best advice of the various medical professionals I've visited is to give up writing, at least for awhile. But writing is my livelihood. Instead, I do all sorts of ridiculous exercises at work every hour or two and rub 'Traumed cream' all over my shoulder and take flax seed oil, which if you've never had it, tastes like something squeezed from a dead fish. I used to lift weights, now I go home at night and roll around on a giant Styrofoam log that massages my back. Then I listen to these perfectly nauseating biofeedback tapes to relax and release the blood flow blockages. Even if I gave up writing, I don't know what kind of job I could get that doesn't involve computers, which inevitably involve typing. Typing is the same thing as writing so far as my shoulder is concerned. Writing is just repetitive stress.
In a way, isn't all labor based on repetitive stress? Even if you like your job, basically you get into the same stress over and over again. The website of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) reports that nearly 650,000 workers every year suffer serious injuries and illnesses caused by overexertion, repetition or other physical stress, specifically lifting/lowering, pushing/pulling, or carrying involving considerable force either all at once or over a duration. OSHA is currently working hard to define regulations for ergonomics, which is the science of repetitive stress. The regulations are not meant to include typing, but could be stretched to do so by an imaginative lawyer.
Naturally, these injuries and illnesses are accounted for in monetary terms, e.g. repetitive-motion injuries cause more than one-third of all lost workday injuries and illnesses in the country. What's more, they cost U.S. businesses from $15 to $20 billion each year in workers' compensation costs alone. Repetitive-motion disorders account for 34 percent of injuries and illnesses that cause employees to miss work — some 647,000 lost work days in 1996 alone were attributed to the disorders, OSHA officials say. But despite the fact that ergonomics might actually reduce the monetary burden on the U.S. businesses' mass pocketbook, these same businesses are fighting against the regulations. Perhaps they would rather get rid of workers' benefits altogether. A coalition of more than 250 organizations worldwide, including trade associations and corporations, calling itself the National Coalition on Ergonomics, has banded together to block this modest attempt to protect workers from the terrible pain and trauma they suffer repeatedly.
My own mother was twisted for life by a mere eight years as a shipping and receiving clerk. After lifting one heavy box too many, she slipped a disc in her back, which pinched a nerve and put her in bed with the most painful spasms you can imagine for over a year. Even now, most of ten years later, she still suffers from the ergonomic delinquency of her company. And the National Coalition on Ergonomics have the gall to oppose the current proposal because in their own words: "As an alliance of associations and businesses representing large and small employers across the United States, we have a lot at stake when you consider the push for regulating a medical dilemma that might lack a medical solution." I've been there, my mother has been there, there is no solution other than a medical solution.
During a physical therapy group lesson, I received my education in the fundamental shit that workers have to go through. A woman in the class was complaining to the instructor, "You taught me these techniques to lower the pain in my back, but they won't give me time to practice them. I mean, I've got to hide in the bathroom stall to do the exercises. And then they write me up for taking too many bathroom breaks." This was a physical therapy class provided by Kaiser, and the Kaiser employed physical therapist was horrified — "You mean they won't even let you do it at your desk?" she asked.
"No," said the woman. "They say I disturb the other workers."
"My god, who are your employers?"
The same people who supply the ergonomic information to the workers won't even let them apply what they've learned. If there was ever something in need of a regulation this is it, but the National Coalition on Ergonomics and the money they represent could quite conceivably squash this effort to set standards. These standards would only apply to workers who lift or move heavy equipment. If they fail, what chance will writers have to protect themseves from the inevitable pre-carpal tunnel condition or, god forbid, carpal tunnel itself?
Sure we ought to pay attention to what writers are producing. That's got to be looked into. But let's also make sure that the writers are being looked after. They're a lot more likely to produce good, relevant art if they're healthy, happy and if their world isn't an ergonomic nightmare.
Jeremy Russell is a freelance writer, editor and webmaster in the San Francisco Bay Area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.