POW! to hate speech and violence | #mediadev - media development insights and analysis | DW | 18.12.2017
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POW! to hate speech and violence

Hollywood actress Chase Masterson uses the power of superheroes to work with children on trauma and resilience. It’s a novel approach that could even be adapted to international development.

Superman and bullying – not everyone sees a direct link between the two. But to former Star Trek actress Chase Masterson, the connection is more than obvious.

"Superman is not a hero because he has powers," she says. "He’s a hero because he stands up for people who have none. We want to teach children to be superheroes, how to come up against their most threatening enemies, whether these are internal enemies of anger, depression or trauma or external enemies like the kid across the room who can’t stop picking on you."

ThePop Culture Hero Coalition, which Masterson co-founded in 2013, uses storytelling for its work, conveying the journey of a hero who goes on an adventure, makes a critical decision at a time of crisis and then comes home a changed and better person.  The coalition’s work mainly concentrates on anti-bullying programs in schools, and it’s succeeding in getting access to youngsters where many others have failed.

"Superheroes are a very viable opening when we speak to kids of all ages as they can immediately relate to them," Masterson says. "But the meat of our work is to deal with trauma and to strengthen the resilience of these kids."

The coalition consists of clinical psychologists, education experts, and curriculum creators. Recently, it has been cooperating with Yale University to develop a standardized school curriculum, which will be piloted in early 2018.

But its work doesn’t stop there. From the beginning, the coalition has used pop culture events to start conversations with children and young people – both with those who have been bullied and the bullies themselves. The obvious choice was Comic-Con International in San Diego, the world’s biggest gathering for comics and popular culture, which attracts about 130,000 people every year. In 2013, they organized the convention’s first-ever panel on bullying and brought Hollywood actors and superhero creators on board to support their anti-bullying campaign.

At the same time, they took advantage of the popularity of Comic-Con to get influential players involved, such as the UN, the Anti-Defamation League, and Amnesty International, which allowed them to take their approach into the political and development sectors.

Through her research, Masterson has found that many forms of bullying share a common characteristic. "Bullying takes place in schools, in relationships, between governments, in terrorism and in war – it’s all based on the same dynamics," Masterson says. Aggression happens when people don’t see each others as humans anymore and when there are no positive role models.

Such was the experience of Suleiman Bakhit from Jordan, who created comic books based on Middle Eastern mythology after realizing there weren’t any positive superheroes for children in the region. Instead, they often looked up to people like Osama bin Laden. In his books, Bakhit depicts heroes who use their superpowers to defend the weak for the benefit of the whole of society. This very much resonates with young people in the region – he has sold over 1.2 million copies. In aTED talk, Bakhit sums up his experience: “If you don’t believe in heroes, you won’t find them. Not even in yourself.” Comics featuring positive heroes, he says, are one of the most effective ways to fight violent extremism, the most dangerous threat in the Middle East today.

Of course, there are still many challenges, one of the biggest being striking a balance between freedom of expression and hate speech. "We don’t want to silence people but we want to show them a way to express themselves without hatred," Masterson says. "It’s a huge cultural shift but if we start with young people. I believe we can do it."

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