Violent Reactions

Senator Joseph Lieberman, who has reportedly developed carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of constantly wagging his finger, is disappointed with the entertainment industry. Again. This time he’s demanding "a genuine response to the growing chorus of concerns" about "its part in the toxic mix that is turning too many of our kids into killers."

The Connecticut Democrat stakes out this bold position in a New York Times op-ed piece co-authored by Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who has turned his attention from underage smoking to underage video-game playing and movie watching. The collaboration demonstrates that Democrats and Republicans are united in their commitment to simple-minded demagoguery.

Since last month’s massacre in Littleton, members of both parties have found an easy scapegoat in popular culture. Who, after all, is going to defend violent entertainment?

Allow me. As everyone knows by now, the Littleton murderers were big fans of Doom, a computer game in which you use an assortment of weapons to kill a variety of monsters.

Reporters and commentators were quick to assume that the teenagers’ journeys through the passageways of Doom somehow primed them for their rampage through the halls of Columbine High School. They emphasized that Doom is violent, gory, and fast-paced. They claimed it resembles simulations used in military training.

But they left out the characteristic that is most salient for people who actually play the game: Doom is fun. It’s challenging, cathartic, and absorbing, the sort of experience that can keep you up until the wee hours of the morning.

Sourpusses like Lieberman and McCain seem to be horrified by the idea that people could enjoy a game that involves blowing away imaginary zombies, imps, and demons with pretend shotguns, rocket launchers, and plasma rifles. They say they want to make sure that "the likes of Doom don’t fall into the wrong hands," as if it were a nuclear weapon or a batch of anthrax.

Yet simulated combat has always been part of children’s play, and violence is an integral aspect of many venerable genres, including not only horror and war stories but the western, the spy thriller, and the murder mystery. Doom is one of the most popular computer games ever, played by millions of teenagers and adults across the country. They are not, for the most part, homicidal maniacs.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with blaming violence in popular culture for violence in real life. Everyone is exposed to the influences decried by Lieberman et al., yet virtually no one commits mass murder. Is it possible that, generally speaking, our moral values do not come from video games and action movies?

Well, of course, say the critics. Nevertheless, all that fake violence may lead certain "vulnerable" individuals to act on their anti-social impulses. That is why the entertainment moguls need to clean up their act.

It’s not exactly clear how they’re supposed to do that, however. In the second paragraph of their op-ed piece, Lieberman and McCain complain about "the entertainment media’s romanticized and sanitized vision of violence." So the problem is that popular culture does not portray violence realistically.

Four paragraphs later, Lieberman and McCain condemn "graphic violence" in movies and "gore-filled games." So the problem is that popular culture portrays violence too realistically.

In truth, the "media effects" research on which most critics of violent entertainment rely tends to treat all depictions alike, regardless of realism or moral context. But suppose we could identify the particular kinds of violent material that are most likely to push the Eric Harrises and Dylan Klebolds of the world over the edge. Do producers of books, movies, TV shows, and video games have a responsibility to avoid anything that might set off the most unbalanced and alienated members of society?

"We’re not going to change the culture for these deviant kids," psychologist Robert Butterworth recently told The New York Times, "but we have to be careful that we don’t make it too easy for them to be ignited." He was criticizing "assassination" games in which high school and college students stalk each other with foam darts and water pistols.

That might seem like harmless fun to some, but "Dr. Butterworth said such games could help desensitize students to violence." He was "astonished to hear of the practice." Let’s just hope no one tells him about Cowboys and Indians.

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