When upper middle-class white pundits demonize modern music and video games as the cause of “youth violence,” I find it sad and ironic. Individuals like the boys who massacred students at Columbine and other US schools are a product of our violent, vengeful society, which blames “violent” media for inciting these actions. In essence, the pundits seem to be drawing blame away from our own sick Western society in the same way that they have blamed drugs, relaxed sexual behavior, and even political radicalism for similar societal problems. Are military prep schools, high school football teams, and political parties that encourage hazing, sexism, and racism less violent than disaffected teens who listen to Snoop Doggy Dog or Pantera instead of going out and beating the crap out of someone? Kids who do violent acts are merely aping or reacting to the behavior of their parents and, to some extent, irresponsible and ignorant adults in positions of power (the Republican Party?).
Technologically enabled isolation combined with America’s draconian puritanism has surely repressed these violent teens to the point where they could find no other “permissible” outlet. I found my own experience with punk, metal, rap, and other “violent” media as a teen in the ’80s mostly positive and very liberating; I relate very well to Jones’ Incredible Hulk story. In fact, I found these outlets to be much more beneficial than the scant opportunities for mental health maintenance that were available in those dark Reagan-Bush years.
I am now a homeowner, have a good partner in my life, and a good paying job. I consider myself very fortunate. If I had not had these “violent” outlets in my life back then, I shudder to think what my life would be like now.
Humans are inherently violent and aggressive creatures, and these qualities have played an important role in human evolution. To think that we can undo millions of years of brain evolution in a few decades is sheer folly. The message is, “Know yourself,” not “Encourage denial.”
Gerard Jones responds:
The most consistent thread in the stories of young people who erupt into solitary or vengeful violence is that they don’t feel seen. They don’t feel that anyone notices them or wants to hear their stories or has any interest in what’s going on inside them. The Columbine shooters tried for years to get their rage noticed — through web sites, videos, writings, wardrobe — but were always met with indifference or dismissal. The shooting itself came down to a horrific, suicidal “LOOK AT ME!”
In my book I keep stressing that we need to not only let kids have their stories and let them watch and tell whatever fantasies feel compelling to them, but we also need to hear those stories, too. We need to help them integrate the fantasies into a sense of self by accepting those fantasies, that symbolic violence, as a real and loveable part of themselves.
Let me quote from a chapter in progress:
The current generation of teenagers and young adults supports a violent entertainment industry bigger and more forceful than any ever imagined before, and its appetite for violence only increases. This generation shows a greater dissociation from political action and civic unity, and a greater fascination with self-mutilation, self-ostracization, and forbidden subcultures than any in recent history. Even if it’s not the most violent, it does seem to be the generation most prone to sudden outbursts of dramatic, pointless, fantasy-dripping violence. And it is the first generation to be raised under the common wisdom that violent fantasies are bad.
When violent storytelling isn’t allowed to serve its function, or is connected in children’s minds with transgression and self-destruction, it can begin to churn obsessively inside without catharsis or resolution. When children feel unsafe sharing their fantasies with us, or feel that the most powerful parts of themselves are not seen or acknowledged, then the hidden realm of violent stories can begin to feel like a reality in itself — a reality standing in irreconcilable opposition to the world of adults.
Like the child of fundamentalists who labels himself “bad” when he cannot repress his desire for sex and alcohol and other tools of Satan, the child of the most well-intentioned, violence-fearing parents may feel ashamed and afraid of the visceral kick he gets from a Beast Wars battle or the gunshots in a Wu-Tang song. Like the “fallen” fundamentalist, he may be unable to visualize any personal scripts other than dissociation from a powerful component of his own psyche — or overidentification with it.
When Kip Kinkel in Oregon murdered his parents and schoolmates, the news industry reported on his parents’ battle to keep him away from violent movies as if his parents had acted correctly but were simply not powerful enough in the face of a destructive mass culture. Yet, what if the problem was not the failure of their battle but the battle itself? If his appetite for imaginary violence had not been so demonized, would he have felt so compelled to legitimize it with actual violence? If anyone had listened to his rage without being so desperate to make it go away, might he have been able to weave it into a new life narrative of personal power? Kinkel, and the boys in Littleton and Paducah, weren’t “taught violence” by movies and games. They were taught powerlessness in real life, taught the hopelessness of expressing their rage in any approved or effective way. If we don’t allow our children to give their own stories any narrative cohesion in real life, we leave them to act out unrealities.
Our biggest problem with violence is our problem with violence.
I think the imagery of cartoon media violence desensitizes youth to the realities of physical pain and violence, promoting the idea that death is merely an entertainment. There are far more “dangerously negative” messages in media violence than “intuitive” positive messages.
Gerard Jones responds:
After researchers consistently failed to demonstrate that violent entertainment causes violent behavior, some psychologists put forth the “desensitization” idea. It supported the preconceptions of people who wanted to believe that violent entertainment was harmful, and it had the advantage of being harder to disprove than the old causal hypothesis. But with time, the clinical and statistical information shows that the concept of desensitization doesn’t hold up well, either.
Children know real pain and real loss when they see them. Young people who’ve grown up witnessing thousands of acts of imaginary violence show no impairment to their emotional or cognitive reactions when real violence enters their lives. Studies that have endeavored to back up the desensitization idea show only that exposure to filmed violence can desensitize children to more filmed violence. Watching an actor apparently get shot provokes a strong reaction the first time, but not the tenth time. That’s why Hollywood keeps making explosions bigger and fight scenes longer. But none of those studies show any correspondence between desensitization to mediated violence and desensitization to personal reality.
What makes people insensitive to real-life violence is an inability or unwillingness to empathize with other people’s experience. That has nothing to do with the number of images of unreal or abstractly distant people we see killed on TV or in video games. It has to do with the way our parents bond with us and the way we’re socialized in real life in our early years.
One thing that gets lost in all these discussions is the longer historical view. Read anything about childhood at the turn of the century. Young people engaged in fights, destruction, and even killing with far higher frequency than they do now — and they were far more often motivated by the desire for amusement. But mass entertainment was restricted to the printed page, and it wasn’t particularly more violent than what we have today. The culture of the time simply didn’t teach most people to feel, or care about, the pain of others to the extent that ours does. From parenting styles to the policies of government, people were taught what we would now consider terrible insensitivity.
Children today are socialized to be far more acutely aware of their capacity to inflict pain, and the wrongness of doing so, than earlier generations. I believe, in fact, that they’ve been made too aware, that they’ve been saddled with an anxiety about hurting others that hampers their ability to act healthily in their own behalf. That oversensitization is another source of the anger that so many kids have trouble expressing. And it’s another reason that make-believe violence as “amusement” is an important developmental tool.
This essentially sounds like Freud’s theory of catharsis, which states that aggressive people can vicariously release their aggressive tendencies through viewing violence. His theory has never been proven to be accurate; however, studies have shown that there are a certain number of people whose tendency towards aggression has actually increased because of viewing aggressive media.
Gerard Jones responds:
Some kids have more trouble integrating conflictive stories than others. Most of them end up handling themselves just fine, although sometimes it takes a little extra work from parents or peers or society at large. A few of them, especially if they don’t get any help with the process, do end up acting out in ways that are bad for themselves or others.
But there’s nothing in the world that doesn’t spark a bad reaction in someone. Far more people have been inspired to violent crime by the Bible and the Constitution than by movies or video games. We don’t blame the Bible or Constitution for those crimes — we look instead at the person who reacted so badly to them, because we understand the good those documents do. What’s been lacking until now is a discussion of the benefit that aggressive fantasies bring to the vast majority of kids.
The milk analogy doesn’t quite work with psychological nuances, but almost: Most children benefit a great deal from drinking milk, but a few are badly allergic to it. We don’t label milk as “bad” because of those few kids’ reactions; we don’t try to keep milk away from all kids, or severely limit their intake. We try to figure out which kids are allergic to milk and find either ways to help to help their bodies process it or nutritional alternatives. I’d like to see us work harder at finding the kids who need help with violent fantasies and helping them, while not dismissing the importance of the emotional calcium and protein those fantasies give to other kids.