Ready for the smack-down?
Theodore Sturgeon was one of Science Fiction's greatest writers. He once wrote a story that moved me deeply, because it touched upon one of societies' debates that are so fiercely debated, yet so often unnoticed. It was the proximate cause of this rant because of something that Loyal Reader (and HTML guru) Dave sent me in an e-mail, "Do you think that violence in the media and movies and video games and such, leads to our children being numb to commiting violent crimes?" (He sent more, but that's a subject of another rant, for another day.)
Theodore Sturgeon (or as his adoring fans humorously refer to him, "Teddy The Fish") wrote a story of a man who literally overdoses on the news, until it one day causes him to go "off the deep end". Just the overwhelming pain that is caused by the knowledge of all the suffering throughout the world just becomes too much. He cuts himself off from society entirely (and I mean ENTIRELY - no phone, no radio, no TV, no electricity, no books, traumatic amnesia, the whole works), and his family sends up a psychiatrist to "cure" him.
The psychiatrist gets him to speak about it, and brings him back to the point where our protagonist makes the realization first voiced by John Dunne in 1624, "Any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind." As he gets up to leave the Psychiatrist's office, his last spoken words (and the penultimate sentence) were, "So I'm going to diminish it right back." The story ends, "He got eight before they cut him down."
That was one man's reaction to the overstressing of the American psyche with nothing but bad news. Many people have commented on the lack of "good news" stories, but primarily because people love "dirty laundry" (in the words of Don Henley), there just isn't the overriding urge to see stories like, "Today in Los Angeles, tragedy fails to strike more than five million commuters as they manage to safely make it from home to work, and back again at the end of the day. A million students county-wide were not shot to death on campus by a crazed psycho killer, and several hundred Girl Scouts were similarly safe from sexual predators as they went door-to-door, selling cookies."
No one wants to hear these stories, they want to hear the worst of the worse, so that they can look around and say, "At least that's not me..." Our hearts go out to these people, and we labor hard to help them in any way we can, because no matter how much we want to see the road-side accident, no one wants to be left alone in these tragic times.
But this instant awareness of tragedies around the world, the ability to see the live aftermath of a Palestinean bus-bomb one second and the clashes between police and protestor in South America the next, brings with it its own coping mechanism. We start to look on everything as a giant special effect in our own private movie. The unreality of the images on the morning of September 11th, 2001, that overwhelming feeling of detachment, that this was just a movie based on a spectacularly bad idea from a Tom Clancy novel. We had to find ways to get through the day-to-day drudgery, despite the urge to give over to the horror we could see and the anguish we knew those people just had to be feeling, being forced to decide between burning to death or jumping onto the pavement over 1,000 feet below.
So we numb ourselves. We refuse to accept the reality unless it is absolutely shoved in our face. Psychiatrists refer to the "Seven Stages of Grief" (Shock, Denial, Bargaining, Fear, Anger, Despair, and Acceptance.). It is an inevitability. The human mind can only adapt to its surrounding because of its ability to shut out the pain and the horror of an incident until it is ready to accept it and move on. But it is an extension of that second step, Denial, that allows us to grow inured to the suffering. We find defensive measures that allow us to keep our sanity. Humor, curing the pain and suffering, catching (and punishing) those responsible for causing the pain and suffering, donating time and money to those (or others) who are suffering are all ways that people find to ease the pain they feel.
But what about those who grow so immune to the pain that they learn to ignore it. Could it be because of the constant exposure to violence we see in our movies? You know, the ones that star Jackie Chan, or Bruce Willis, or Ah-nuld, or Vin Diesel, or whomever. Movies with lots of high-speed chases and dramatic explosions, at least one guy who dies after having the hero (or a villain) do that "Hollywood neck twist", and lots of guns fired that only kill the bad guys, while spang
-ing bullets all around the "good guys" (who don't even get scratched).
Or video games with "realistic bone-breaking sounds!
" and "Dial-a-Gore settings", who use the really demonic bass voice to order you to "FINISH HIM!
" once you managed to floor your (virtual) opponent with a particularly effective controller combinations ("You move Up, Right, Right, Laft, A, X, Up, Up, Right, and his head will literally pop right off his shoulders! It's coooool
Reality, in other words.
Everyone knows that it is not real, but the images are getting more and more real every day. The effort to make it real has been in the open, and is perceived as not being much of a threat, because it has been associated with the more expressive of the video game genre
, so we may have missed the subversive effects on the psyche of our kids. When I was growing up, Pong was still kinda cool, and Pac-Man was the latest craze. It advanced rapidly, and video games started using the increased ability to program in different responses. More controllers (buttons and levers and eight-point joysticks) tested hand-eye coordination.
Now there are video games that can tell whether you're standing or kneeling, and adjust the viewpoint on the screen. There are games that can give you dance steps (the whole body kinesthetic version of "Simon") and display an on-screen avatar of your efforts in real time
. Games with helmet controllers that can track your "aimpoint" by which point on the screen you're looking at. Physiologists are attaching electrodes to the heads of
psych students and having them fly an imaginary plane down a canyon by just thinking
"Up", "Down", "Left", and "Right".
Hook all of these together, with high-powered computers, and you can train people to handle just about any situation. There is a shooting range not far from where I live that has the Simulation Trainer. It offers various situations that people might interact with during the day, and will judge how well you do by measuring how accurate your response was to the shifting scenario. (Will he pull a gun, or are those just his keys? Is he trying to assist that woman on the ground or is he the one who put her there and now wants to silence a new witness?) I did pretty well, but only because I've had some training.
There is a new movie out, called "The Recruit", and I saw a five second scene on the trailer where this new recruit does very well on (what appears to be) his first time shooting. He sees his instructor's surprised face, just shrugs, and says, "Video Games".
This is at the core of what I'm trying to say, and what David was asking me... Kids today, hearing all the bad news they hear, seeing the world around them and just accepting it as "the way things are". Add in the violence in our movies, our television shows, and the wildly popular rap music (which apparently revels in the idea of "poppin' caps" and "smackin' bitches"), and you have a glut of violence. Estimates vary wildly as to the number of violent crimes kids see in today's media, but they are usually measured in the tens of thousands. Or higher.
Each time, the entertainment industry is looking for ways to make it a little more
exciting than last time, a little more blood, a little more gore, a little rougher language and a little more skin. The pendulum has swung about as far as it can in this direction. The hedonism of our time, mixed with studies like this one
, and we can safely conclude that our society has a problem.
The solution is not going to be an easy one, because people are strange. Once they get a taste of something that they like, they discover that a "taste" is not enough the next time. (To use a personal example everyone can remember, once you get to kiss your boyfriend/girlfriend, you're not going to be satisfied by shifting back to just holding hands any more. I've heard it called the "Point of No Return".) When it's that little thrill of violating taboos, new taboos will have to be found, and new pariahs will have to be blamed for the world's troubles.
The ability to control others with threat of violence is one of the most heady of thrills, which is why there is such a strong taboo against the threat of violating. That is why so many people will band together to fight an aggressor, whenever possible. The urge to rise in defense of the defenseless, the underdog. "Thou Shalt Not Kill".
Unfortunately for my thesis, much evidence exists on the other side of the equation, too. I can use my own childhood when growing up as a counter-example. I owned a BB-gun while I was growing up. Had dirt clod fights with the neighborhood kids. Wrestled with the siblings. Watched professional wrestling on TV and in those West Texas arenas. Saw multiple versions of "Road Runner lures Wile E. Coyote off a cliff/into an oncoming truck/train/pile of explosives" Saw murders and rapes and vicious assaults in horror movies ranging back three decades.
But with all of the violence I have seen while growing up, I have zero wish to go pick a fight with the next door neighbor (even though he's a jerk who like loud motorcycles). I maintain a pretty firm grasp on reality, and I'm not a particularly violent person. On the other hand, I am no pacifist, either. I see the benefits of proper use of force, and understand how, like fire, force can be used impartially, and its end product is determined entirely - 100% - by the wielder.
So while I think that seeing the violence day after day can inure people to the horror of committing violence on others, it is the responsibility of all adults (and I'm not using that terms to mean "only those persons who have lived for at least two decades") to hold themselves responsible for their own actions.
Robert Heinlein wrote (in Starship Troopers
), "I told you that 'juvenile deliquent' is a contradiction in terms. 'Deliquent' means 'failing in duty'. But duty
is an adult
virtue - indeed a juvenile becomes an adult when, and only when, he acquires a knowledge of duty and embraces it as dearer than the self-love he was born with. There never was, there cannot be
, a 'juvenile deliquent'. But for every juvenile criminal there are always one or more adult deliquents - people of mature years who either do not know their duty, or who, knowing it, fail.... The junior hoodlums who roamed their streets were symptoms of a greater sickness; their citizens (all of them counted as such) glorified their mythology of 'rights' ... and lost track of their duties. No nation, so constituted, can endure."
Whatever the reason for our actions, it all boils down to choices we make, for which we are solely responsible. If you asked me whether the pervasiveness of violence numbs us to its effects, I would say 'Yeah, and so what?. It was a movie
, you twit!' Violence in our entertainment has been around for thousands of years.
However, if you asked whether choices made or experiences gained in the past should be used as an excuse for our current actions, then I would answer 'No'. Everyone makes choices. Those choices dictate our actions (or lack thereof). Just ask the Germans at Nuremberg
. "I was just following orders" was a defense used
. Guess what? It didn't work then
. It shouldn't work now.
We are now to the point of people getting away with murder because of gorging on snack foods
or other such craziness
. "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime." Just ask Robert Blake
In yet more words by Don Henley, "Get Over It".