Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Danger: Peaceniks at play . . .

There are seemingly inconsequential moments in life that one carries around because they are, in retrospect, highly informative. Here's such a moment from my own life:
It's back in the early 80's. I'm riding (not illegally at the time) in the bed of a pick-up with a friend's two boys, ages six and eight. We are crawling along in traffic in downtown Charlottesville.

The two boys have brand new toy laser guns, of which I, in my peacenik heart, do not approve at all. They are taking aim at people as we ride along, pretending to shoot them, having a high old time. Shades of me, decades ago, the pow-pow-pow-you're-dead kid, shooting the neighborhood gang with sticks. A part of me I've long considered obliterated by years of peace and love.

"Hey Martha!" the eight-year-old says, offering me his brand new toy gun, "You do it!"

The offer is generous as the gun is new. My moralistic mind is caught between wanting to reward generosity and wanting to preach against guns. Any guns. Even toy guns.
Generosity wins. I take the gun and hold it gingerly, pointing down.

"Shoot something!" shout the boys. "It's no fun if you don't shoot something!"

Ah, the slippery slope of toys. I raise the laser gun and point at a passing fire hydrant, pull the trigger, and politely say "kapow."

"Yeah!" the boys bellow. "Shoot something else!".

At that moment we're passing a little old lady who's creeping along the sidewalk. She's the age and shape of all the little old ladies who have held me up in grocery stores by stopping their carts in the middle of the aisle while they read endless labels. I feel a flickering hunger for revenge in my well-disciplined, peaceful heart. The pow-pow kid is still right there inside me. Starved for action. Ready to rumble. I raise the laser, I take aim, I shoot. "Kapow!" I sing out.

To my shame, I realize I am having fun.
What I took with me from this incident is a personal belief that, no matter how strong your convictions, your religion, your practice, violence remains a part of the human make-up. We are what we are, no matter how hard we try to be what we're not. And that we ought to be careful which parts of our make-up we nourish in the name of having fun.

Our culture's romance with astonishingly violent video games has long made me nervous. So it was with  interest that I read a small article in yesterday's Washington Post that cites a study done at Iowa State University, firmly linking violent video games to violent thought and action.
In its review of data, the new research found that exposure to violent video games was associated with aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition and aggressive "affect." It desensitizes users and is associated with lack of empathy and a lack of "prosocial" behavior.
I couldn't reach the actual study. It's published in Psychological Bulletin, which requires a subscription to view. But just reading the Post's summation was enough to take me back to that pick-up truck, that laser gun, and that fantasy.


1 comment:

  1. This story brings to mind a moment from my distant past when I did something which has every since caused me wincing shame. 11 years old, with my best friend, sitting in the back of a smoke-filled Greyhound bus traveling from Toronto to St. Catharines. We were bored and punchy and started to pretend that we were going to pick one of the wiry white hairs out of the head of an old man sitting in the row of seats in front of us. We worked ourselves into such a frenzy of excitement at the prospect that I actually did it. I seem to recall the man chastizing us very gently, giving us the unmistakable sense that we were NOT funny -- we were mean, and we'd crossed a barrier that decent people should never cross.

    That experience makes me think of the mob mentality -- how people can become something they really are not. Because I knew then that it was not ME to do this sort of thing, and yet there I was doing it, swept up in a heady, unstoppable energy -- as if nothing and no one else mattered except my own gratification.

    Have you ever had those dreams where you think it's safe to go to the toilet, and you spend seemingly forever trying to convince yourself that you're not actually in bed, sleeping, but that you really are awake and in the bathroom, and it's okay to let go? That's kind of like my relationship to violence and nastiness -- it's one thing to see it on a screen and read it in print, but could I ever cross the line and actually be that violent person? I hope not!