Governor Schwarzenegger, Leave Those Kids Alone
November 19, 2010 3 Comments
Some years ago, I had a conversation with my teenage son Daniel about the latest Grand Theft Auto release. So, you understand that this stuff is disgusting, right? Yes, Dad. You’re not impressed in any respect with what these cartoon people do, right? No, Dad. Okay.
So we played it together. He was much better at it of course, primarily because I was taking inordinate pleasure in mimicking robotic Russian characters saying spectacularly stupid things and bizarrely running away from their girlfriends. Well, also because he’s just better at computer games, courtesy in part of a childhood steeped in computer games. I was pleased at his proficiency.
I grew bored with the game within an hour. In due course, though measured in weeks or months, so did he, as eventually happens to all players of all computer games (except for me and Sid Meyer’s Alpha Centauri). I was struck by his clinical focus on how to play the game well, and his corresponding disinterest in the distasteful parts of the game. I’d say his brain and his soul both did well.
Daniel can watch movies like Saw and its horrific progeny. These images don’t affect him because what they depict is not real. Young people are like that, which is why they can watch Wile E. Coyote plunge to the canyon floor without flinching. (Or whomever’s doing the violent plunging these days.)
What did affect Daniel, what forced him to process the images with much greater discomfort, was reality. Certain grisly images from the news, certain frightening themes and depictions from reality television, had a much more pronounced impact on him than any game or movie he ever consumed.
Indeed, I believe the catharsis of entertainment violence and badness helped my son deal constructively with the disturbing realities that pounded him daily from universally accessible sources — which might be why schools routinely make young people read Nobel Prize winner William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, featuring violence and torture by young people.
Violence and torture in a book, okay. Violence in a video game, oh my.
Violent action-hero Arnold Schwarzenegger should lose his namesake lawsuit, Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association, which got a hearing in the United States Supreme Court on election day.
At issue: a California law, signed by Governor Schwarzenegger, that bans the sale or rental of vaguely-defined “violent” video games to minors.
Like so much of the nanny-state protectionism that federal, state, and local governments foist upon citizens with ever greater frequency, certain of bettering their charges, the California law seeks an abstractly laudable result — in this case, less child violence. Create a heavy-handed legal and costly web around the sale and rental of “violent” video games, and, the theory goes, fewer young people will get them, and then fewer young people will be mindlessly induced to mindless imitative violence.
As theories go, this one resonates much like the insistence that polar bears are plopping over dead in alarming numbers because of global warming. Who can fail to be moved by Al Gore’s image of a polar bear on a wee disintegrating piece of ice? Who can failed to be moved by the image of “actively hitting schoolgirls over the head with a shovel so they’ll beg for mercy,” in Chief Justice Roberts’ oral argument scolding of the industry?
Not to put too fine a point on powerful metaphors — I think well of polar bears and schoolgirls — but it turns out neither metaphor yields its intended horror. Both polar bears and schoolgirls are increasing in number. And if the latter are getting bonked on the head — and there’s no evidence they actually are — it has nothing to do with video games and everything to do with parents who fail to sufficiently impress upon their scoundrel children the profound wrongness of bonking schoolgirls on the head.
Oh how we wish to believe that videogame violence produces real violence, because, well, we’re conditioned to think of ourselves — or those other people — as that ridiculously impressionable. But it turns out we’re not. To be sure, literature, music, paintings, movies and video games inspire good and bad things. Or more precisely, an individual’s particular interpretation of these art forms inspires good and bad things. Much like God, no stranger to violence, inspires good and bad things — or more precisely, an individual’s particular interpretation of God and holy scripture inspires good and bad things.
Do we say that God caused the violence He inspired? No, we denounce the nut case for delusion and distortion. Governor Schwarzenegger and the California legislature would analogously accuse God of causing all the violence in His name, and seek to protect children from God.
As the Respondent’s Supreme Court brief ably addresses (pp. 37-43), the social science on video game violence and actual violence overwhelmingly refutes any alleged correlation. The several federal courts that have examined the proffered social science on video game violence have all found the alleged correlation defective. And more and more studies finding no correlation continue to pile up. We’re impressionable, but not ridiculously impressionable.
The lovemaking between nanny-state liberals and social conservatives on this issue is fascinating. Both ignore the historic failure of their tryst. Our popular culture is a sieve. To pretend that young people will not have access to violent video games because we make a law saying they can’t, is to participate in the very costly social mistake that occasioned two dramatic amendments to the United States Constitution — one doing, and the other undoing, Prohibition. In both instances, the strangely puritanical streak is similar. We must suppress alcohol and violent video games because they make people do bad things. We must protect people from themselves.
The Supreme Court spoke the guiding words of American liberty in a case twice the age of the oldest living minor. Expression “cannot be suppressed solely to protect the young from ideas or images that a legislative body thinks unsuitable for them.” Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville (1975). Parents have a job. The government is not our parent. The odds are decent that the Supreme Court will affirm the Ninth Circuit in Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association, giving the Ninth Circuit a much-needed boost in its Supreme Court record, and our First Amendment liberty the dignity it warrants.
[Also published at The Daily Caller.]