In the 1950s, a campaign was initiated to ‘clean up’ comic books. A coalition of worried government agencies, law enforcement officials and parents tried to initiate a censorship of obscene reading materials being sold to children in the guise of picture stories. These so-called ‘Horror Comics’ and ‘True Crime’ tales were often little more than brutal portrayals of sadomasochistic sexuality and other forms of explicit violence with just enough of a story to keep them from being outright pornography.
Today, we look back on what we would characterize as the naivete of these reformers, and bundle them in with McCarthy-Era ideologies of censorship and conformity. We stand appalled at the idea of censorship and argue that it is a virtue of this nation to allow open access of materials to all of our citizens. Finally, we applaud the lack of state intervention in what we consider to be a private prerogative of parents.
But if we stop waving the flag around for a moment, we might also notice that there’s a sad little truth lurking behind all the First Amendment brouhaha: we are, fundamentally, a society that simply accepts violence.
Just as debates surround the appropriateness of allowing children access to violent video games today, the 1950s saw a rise in debates over the type of graphic literature
children were reading. While some historians and cultural critics condemn the campaigns as little more than a form of oppressive censorship, they serve as a historical barometer for the optimism or pessimism pervading American society. This is because what ended the desire to limit children’s access to violent materials in the mid-twentieth-century was not a sudden awakening but a deadening: the pessimistic turn towards a belief that violence was inevitable, innate, and unstoppable.
The end of reforming comic books came at a time when Robert Ardrey was arguing that aggression was an innate factor in biology, and Konrad Lorenz contended that human violence was natural and therefore ineradicable. Their work, and the work of others like them, rose to popularity in the second half of the 1960s reflecting a public mood of disenchantment and fear. With an assassinated president, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the increasing turbulence of the Civil Rights Movement, it was easier to believe that nothing could be done to stop violence than continuing to believe in a societal progress marching steadily away from it.
Today, little has changed. Three years ago, the same movie theaters which ‘took a stance’ banning Zack and Miri Make a Porno sold out on showings of the ultra-violent Saw V. As discussed earlier in this blog the Supreme Court struck down California’s attempt to restrict the sale of violent video games to minors, claiming it to be a First Amendment prerogative. According to Justice Scalia, video games “in which the range of options available to a player includes killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being” were not considered obscene speech — unlike an image of a naked man or woman. This apparently included the game RapeLay, submitted into evidence, in which the entire game’s goal is to rape a mother and her two daughters, while the player chooses from a variety of sexual positions. Not surprisingly, this is the same court which voted 8 to 1 striking down a federal law making it illegal to sell videos featuring acts of animal cruelty.
Many who support children’s access to violent mass media materials (or to what they call ‘parental choice’ concerning violent mass media materials) argue that depicted violence does not turn kids violent - and this is probably true. A normal, well-adjusted child who sees a horror movie is likely not going to suddenly become a serial killer. The problem, however, is for the children who already have violent tendencies, troubled homes, or live, play or attend school in unsafe environments. The truth is that children’s imaginations are limited and, left without outside influence, their exertion of rebellious or violent behavior will typically go down a limited number of paths. What violent materials do, however, is expand the repertoire of children, giving them new and exciting ways to act out their frustrations. That we know this to be true is based on history. While juvenile delinquency has always been, and there have always been children acting in violent ways, the manner in which children are acting out violence has shifted over the last century.
Take, for example, the relatively new crime of mass school shootings. Certainly, teens in the last 150 years had access to firearms in their homes — in fact, gun ownership was more prevalent in the 19th century than it is even today. And teens throughout the twentieth century- since the inception of compulsory high school attendance in the 1930s – have been the victims of bullying and neglect. Yet historically, we have no records of teens going on violent rampages in their schools prior to the end of the 20th century. Certainly, bullied teens committed crimes – many knifed or shot the person bullying them, even – but it’s hardly surprising that the teens who committed the Columbine Massacre stole their ideas from violent films they had watched. While the mass media may not necessarily make children more violent, it certainly hones their ideas on how to commit acts of violence. (And for those kids for whom extrapolating from first-person shooters is not enough, they have actually created a ‘school shooter’ video game in which the player can reenact the tragedies at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Northern Illinois University. According to the developers, the game cheerily promises to be the “most realistic student slaughtering modification (game) ever made.”)
The problem is that we have been taught to simply accept that violence is everywhere, that it is pervasive, and that it is unstoppable. Violence served as the backbone of the American economy for the last half a century, with millions of Americans reliant on the defense industry or the prison-industrial complex for employment. The reality is that violence makes a lot of money and that we fundamentally live in a violence economy. Necessarily, the rejection of violence is considered by many to be inherently un-American and uncapitalistic. So it is that audience members cheer for how many people Rick Perry has executed, instead of understanding state executions as something which is both tragic and grave.
Ultimately, it is a question of optimism, of priorities. Can we choose to change, or must we simply accept that violence is inevitable, allowing our children to wash away in the sea of it? Do we have the right to expect our children to choose to not act violently when we have done everything to immerse them in what we pessimistically see as their birthright — an all-access pass to violence, protected by the First Amendment?