“..a tool to master their rage.” What a bunch of crap! Have you seen the video game portraying a peaceful Vietnamese village with thatched roof huts and families cooking and working together? The goal is to blow this peaceful scene to bits with glamorized military paraphernalia operated by — who else?– the white guys! I saw a young Asian boy “playing” this game in San Francisco recently. I wanted to yank his hands away and tell him to go learn something about the culture he’s gleefully destroying on the screen. Mastering his rage? More like numbing out to the atrocity of murder and ethnic cleansing.
Rage is a healthy, natural emotion. Let’s teach our children to express their emotions in ways that don’t involve violence … please. Teach them to sing in an angry voice at the top of their lungs, let them stomp around or bang on drums! Children do not naturally gravitate towards violence for expression, they do it because it’s served to them on a media platter. Want to teach children how to master their rage? Flush your video games down the toilet and organize play groups that teach peaceful negotiations processes.
Gerard Jones responds:
Believe me, Kim, I sympathize: As a middle-aged liberal sending his son to a progressive school in San Francisco, I’m often appalled at the racist, militaristic, soullessly jingoistic messages implicit in so much pop culture. As a comic-book writer I built a reputation — sometimes to my financial detriment — for refusing to write that kind of knee-jerk right-wing tripe and insisting, instead, on using superheroes to convey stories of humanism and social justice.
It’s important to look at the ideological implications of our entertainment (which is what my book, “Honey I’m Home: Sitcoms Selling the American Dream,” is about), and it’s important to counter those implications by teaching them real social, political, human values. But what gets lost in the discussion when we look mainly at the implicit messages of entertainment is the emotional content of those narratives. The more I’ve investigated this subject, especially since I’ve begun working with psychologists, psychiatrists, and pediatricians, is that what kids connect most strongly with is the symbolic, vicarious, fantasy content of the narratives. And that that content dwarfs, even obliterates, the more literal messages.
When we impose our adult perspectives on children’s and adolescents’ fantasies we can stumble into a terrible arrogance — a sort of “adultocentrism.” That young Asian boy you saw playing the video game lacks our historical, global, political viewpoint; but he knows, intuitively, far more about being an American of Asian descent, and a young male in this incredibly challenging society, than we possibly can. Most simply, and most importantly, he knows what he wants. Obviously not everything that young people want is good for them, and we need to be alert to signs of obsessive or self-destructive behavior. But usually, whatever games or stories or fantasies make a child feel stronger, bigger, more competent, more vital, less afraid are good for him. And since hostile, intolerant beliefs or actions are usually fed by self-directed anger or bad feelings about oneself projected outward, enabling the child to feel stronger and less afraid — and enabling him to feel okay about his own fantasies of destruction — will also make him more likely to be open to adult lessons of compassion and justice.
Kids understand that these games are fantasy. They also understand political incorrectness, and they revel in stories that are appalling to earnest, well-meaning adults. Battling adult proprieties is often part of the aggressive fantasy: they’re not just blowing up a peaceful village, but blowing up what their parents and teachers tell them they “should” fantasize about. They can go through that combative process, be vicariously “evil” for a little while, and then come back to their real-world selves feeling a bit less oppressed by the expectations of always being “nice.” They don’t need to participate in a real war or even strike a real-world posture of militarism in order to feel a bit more powerful and independent.
There is absolutely no connection between engaging in militaristic games in youth and adopting a militaristic outlook in adulthood. Among my peers, the pacifists and progressives watched just as many episodes of “Combat” and fought just as many imaginary World War II battles (often, to our adult embarrassment, against “Japs”) as any other kids. It’s the same with younger generations, even though the number and intensity of combative stories and games has grown. I know of a nonprofit political consulting firm here in S.F. made up of young Asian-Americans who work tirelessly and nonviolently for the empowerment of the poor and nonwhite — and who recently bought a Sony PlayStation for the office, so that they can recharge between political battles by gunning down electronic foes, just as they all did when they were 12.
Children may not tend “naturally” toward violence, but they tend toward it often and happily, and have done so in every complex society in human history. Traditional children’s stories explode with violence, often with a cruelty and brutality that horrifies us now — look at the thoughtless slaughter and gleeful torture that run through the Grimms’ fairy tales — although the only “media” that served them up were village storytellers. You yourself talk about wanting to yank that boy’s hands away from the game he was playing. You wouldn’t do it, but it helps you articulate and integrate your rage to imagine doing it.
I agree emphatically that children should be taught to sing and stomp and bang on drums. I believe that we should help them with modulating their emotions and finding nonviolent solutions. I agree that there are great dangers in letting commercial culture, unquestioned and uncritized, supply all of our children’s aggressive fantasies — which is precisely what we do if we don’t allow for combative play and storytelling in parent- and teacher-approved contexts.
But people have always sought and loved these stories, and most people benefit from them. I’ve seen kids learn to express their anger in many parent-friendly ways and develop their conflict-resolution skills wonderfully — and most of them still want to watch PokŽmon and shoot imaginary guns. We need to engage in dialogues with young people about their anger and aggression, and about the real-world implications of some of their fantasies. But we also need to allow them their fantasies. It’s scary sometimes, and it often slams up against our sense of political and social correctness — but we need to let them play the games they want to play.
Maybe Jones is onto something.
A May study reported in the London Daily Telegraph indicated that re-introducing toy guns into British day-care centers after a recent ban period led to a “more relaxed environment” in which the “the level of aggression dropped.”
It just goes to show you that relying on your intuition to tell you what cause and effect relationships “obviously” exist can too often put you in the same class as the folks who “knew” that the earth was flat and the sun revolved around it. “Common sense” just isn’t scientific.
Gerard Jones responds:
Thanks, C.D., but I actually think I am dealing in common sense. Nearly all of us have enjoyed combative stories throughout our childhoods (and adulthoods). Nearly all of us who’ve had kids or worked with them see them enjoying and flourishing through play fighting and imaginary battles. Our literature, mythology, folk tales, and even religious texts are full of violent narratives. Nearly everything in our history, personal experience, and observations of the world around us supports the idea that aggressive fantasy is an essential and innate part of being human and the inspiration to some of our greatest achievements.
It’s only recent (murky and contradictory) research, coupled with a hysterical news industry and a political style that emphasizes fear, fueled by our (understandable but usually excessive) fear of real-life violence that has led so many of us to see violent stories and games as threats. I believe that common sense and intuition, if we really listen to them and try to cut through the buzz of scary messages in our heads, tell us that we dream of, what we pretend, what we love to watch and hear, is what we need.
And I’m pleased to see that more and more research, like that reported in the Telegraph, is bearing me out.
Read last week’s discussion on this topic.