It doesn’t affect me!
Much like the anti-porn crusaders, people opposed to media violence come in several flavors: You have your religious types who worry about corrupting secular influences and busybody liberals who think that kids are going to act out everything they see and that kids will see everything that’s out there. Of course, the former group cribs a lot from the latter group to reduce the impression that they are forcing their religion on everyone. There’s a tendency to jump on every new study that shows a result kind of like what they want to believe without a whole lot of appreciation for the complex nature of this field. Here’s a report on Alex Jones combining a few tropes to argue that video games are purposely designed to turn kids into assassins. This kind of argument has way more currency in these crowds than you might expect. If I could give one unified critique of all of them, it’s that they thing there’s something wrong with the kids these days and want a simple answer as to what.
Then, there are the people that oppose them. Some of them and reasoned and principled. They’ll make arguments about artistic merit, explain over-interpretations of data and point out that crime is lower than ever. If some someone says that violent media makes people more violent, the proper response is “More violent than what?” Unfortunately, there are also bunch of punk kids that don’t want their video games taken away and who will use any argument that supports this position. I remember a few people on the Parent’s Television Council forums who constantly made arguments along the lines of “It’s just entertainment. It doesn’t affect me.” Whenever a teenage criminal made the news, it was something along the lines of “Don’t blame video games. Blame bad parenting.” This was before the forums were closed down so they wouldn’t have to hear people who disagreed with them. I was someone who had spent years arguing about the artistic merits of doing things that were offensive or tasteless, so the first argument really got under my skin. If entertainment doesn’t affect us, then what’s the point? Is it just supposed to make us forget our inevitable death for a few hours? No thanks. Of course, parenting and video games are not the only source of children’s behavior. If you’ve ever dealt with kids, you’d know that making them turn out right is not some simple task and it’s possible to end up with a kid that does something bad without being a bad parent in any obvious way.
24 really encapsulated this for me. I heard great things about the show, so I picked up the first season on DVD shortly after release. My roommate and I ended up staying up half the night two nights in a row and watching the whole thing. It was the most gripping thrill ride I had ever seen. The second season was already underway then, but I picked it up when it hit DVD, and we did something similar. We watched season 3 as it aired. After a few seasons, it started to bother me. It became pretty clear that 24 was mainly interested in keeping audience asses on the edge of the couch. It had no larger point. Unfortunately, these things tend to assert themselves whether consciously put there or not. The show is extremely cynical as it needs to come up with new ways to surprise the audience and put Jack Bauer in ever-more-perilous situations. This means any character could turn on him at any time and there is no limit to the lengths he may have to go to protect his country. Cynicism and patriotism are a dangerous combination, as I found out when I kept hearing pundits mentions 24 in there explanations of why we have to torture people and how anyone could be a terrorist. To their credit, the producers apparently started taking this seriously after I quit watching and showed how torture generally only wastes time and dialed back the xenophobia, but it was an important primer in how these things can play out.
So what did I learn from all this? One is that it’s important to make sure that your arguments make sense and don’t lead to places you don’t want to go, not just that they support the position that’s important at the moment. Another is that the Parent’s Television Council is a bunch of disingenuous liars and that most shows they really hate are pretty good. For instance, they hated The Shield, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Arrested Development and Keen Eddie. If they were just advising parents about the content of shows, I’d be all for it,but they try to get anything they deem inappropriate for kids canceled. In the case of Keen Eddie, they badly misrepresented an episode about the mob stealing a champion race horse in order to impregnate their mare to make it sound like it was about bestiality, contacted a bunch of sponsors and knocked it off the air. Even if they are occasionally right, they are not my ally. The main thing I learned though is that just because something is defensible in the abstract doesn’t mean every example is actually a good idea. I oppose government censorship as the cure is worse than the disease, but there is a lot of socially irresponsible stuff out there to criticize. I will get into the difficulties of that tomorrow or soon after.
P. S. If you are unsure which variety of censor you are dealing with (they use a lot of the same arguments: just ask what they are worried media will do to our impressionable youngsters: Conservatives worry that homosexuality and premarital sex are glamorized and that parents and religion get mocked. Liberal worry that consumerism is glorified and sexual stereotypes get promoted. They are generally talking about the same media, too. For instance, if you have a traditional joke about a transwoman, where some horndog takes a woman home and finds out she has a penis, liberals gets upset that a vulnerable sexual minority is being used as a punchline. Conservatives get upset that a sexual minority’s existence is being acknowledge without clear condemnation. Basically, one group is upset that media does too much much to promote traditional values and the other gets upset they don’t do enough. Certain comedians like to act like it’s a big accomplishment to offend both sides of the aisle, but all you need to do is promote conservative values as they are rather than hwo conservatives like to think about them and be rude about it.