Almost immediately after the Newtown school shooting, before anyone had a chance to grieve the losses, the finger-pointing began. Finger-pointing is not simply one of America’s favorite pastimes, it’s also a prerequisite to our favorite team sport: politics. After all, you’re not going to paint your body in the team colors until there’s a game scheduled; and the game can’t go on without an arena, an opponent and a game plan. In this case, the arena was school violence, and the opponent was obviously going to be the Liberals (if you were a Conservatives fan) or the Conservatives (if you were a Liberals fan). The finger-pointing is necessary to define the game plan and put the ball into play.
A slew of options was entered into the play book: the teams would be able to comfortably dig their cleats into the ground over any given line of scrimmage. They could fight over gun control, mental health programs, or media violence, for instance. The fans, well-versed in their team’s best strategies, were already calling the plays—even before the start of the game—you could hear them in the stands:
“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people!”
“There’s no evidence that violent video games cause violence!”
“The Constitution protects my right to bear arms!”
“The Constitution protects the media’s right to free speech!”
“The shooter was mentally ill, he should have been put away!”
“I’d like to see them try to take away my guns!”
“I’d like to see them try to take away my video games!”
“I’d like to see them try to excuse him on the basis of mental illness!”
If you were an out-of-town visitor and didn’t happen to have a team to root for, you might find yourself in the position of being able to take a mental step back (a tactic that research has shown to be an effective tool for decision-making). You might marvel at the fierce team loyalty that kept one side of the stadium almost completely red and the other side blue. You might wonder where you should sit; and whether you might end up with beer down your back if you did.
Because you wouldn’t be busy shouting the team cheers, you might even have time to reflect that there was a little bit of truth, a little bit of misconception and even a little bit of paranoia in each of the calls being yelled from the stands. You might think to yourself that there’s a whole lot of room between reasonable regulation for guns and taking them all away. A whole lot of room between acknowledging that some video games go much too far, and advocating media censorship. You might even find room between advocating for mental health intervention and assuming that mentally ill means “excused” or conversely, that mentally ill means “violent.” Black-and-white is easy for the human brain; considering an array of factors together—not so easy. We want to be told there is one simple cause so we only need to consider one simple solution. We are so uncomfortable when things become complex!
It’s interesting that researchers actually know more about the roots of violence than you would suspect from watching media pundits arguing about it. Clearly, they don’t know everything. But they have learned that one of the most important influences on violence in a society is the extent to which people in that society view violence as normal, or acceptable. Children’s first clues to this are picked up at home, of course. They learn from the behavior of their parents and from the attitudes that come across in what parents say and how they say it. But even if parents do their best, children still pick up on the prevailing attitudes in their neighborhood, in their schools, and in the media.
Can a society’s tolerance of over-the-top violent video games demonstrate acceptance of violence? Can a society’s glorification of deadly weapons demonstrate acceptance of violence? Can a society’s “kill or be killed” attitude demonstrate acceptance of violence? Can a society’s choice of heroes demonstrate an acceptance of violence? What else can we think of that might give our children and teens the idea that violence really isn’t so bad: that in fact . . . it can be great fun and highly respectable?
Cindy Miller-Perrin, a family violence expert at Pepperdine University, once commented to me in an interview that if we want to solve that form of violence, an important thing needs to happen on the cultural level: “We need to work on being less accepting of the different forms of violence,” she emphasized, “even what we would call ‘normal’ violence within the media and within the family.”
Steven Pinker makes an interesting point that resonates with this idea. Although we often see upticks in violence statistics over the short term, Pinker argues that over the long haul we have actually succeeded in shedding some forms of violence. “What led people to stop sacrificing children, stabbing each other at the dinner table, or burning cats and disemboweling criminals as forms of popular entertainment?” he asks in his abstract for The Better Angels of Our Nature. He credits “the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism,” and why not? These are influences that have a powerful effect on what we view as culturally acceptable.
There are others, of course. And while Pinker may be right when he suggests violence has declined overall in recent centuries, few of us (if anyone) would say we’re completely satisfied with society’s progress. Unfortunately, it seems highly unlikely we will make any more unless we are willing to take that step back from the fray and become the out-of-towner in the stadium for a moment. Otherwise, there will be no conversations; only yelling and flag-waving, because in the stadium, no one has any intention of giving the other side an inch. It’s all just a take-sides game. And what that means is that even if your team wins tonight, they’ll end up playing the same game all over again next week, next month, next year.