Monday, April 27, 2020

Killing Monsters

Out of the blue, someone from a Community College who I have never met wrote to me and asked me to elaborate on my ideas from my book Killing Monsters. Here's the weird thing: I didn't write that book. But I actually reviewed it for some publication whose name I can't remember—17 years ago! And equally weird—I found a version of it on my computer. And the third strange thing—I liked what I said. it holds up. So I might as well share it here:

                                                            ©2003 Doug Goodkin

Jones, Gerard. Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence.(New York: Basic Books, 2002). ISBN 0465036953; 272p.; $25.00.

We all love to blame. When things are going wrong—as they inevitably always are—we find some strange comfort in blame. Everyone has a favorite target—Republicans, immigrants, corporations, rap music, the economy—take your pick. The one thing we can be certain of is that the reason for the current state of affairs is invariably complex. The moment we assign it to a single cause, we cut off the possibility of meaningful conversation, and more importantly, meaningful change. 

As a teacher of some thirty years, my own favorite whipping boy has been the media, particularly a predatory entertainment industry that is eroding childhood and unraveling each night the careful work we teachers do each day. When a colleague handed me Gerard Jones’ book Killing Monsters: Why Children NEED Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence, she told me—"This is a book I think you'll hate." Skimming through it, I was prepared to agree. As someone who has spoken out passionately against excessive television viewing and video game playing for children, a book that reassures parents that Mortal Kombat is not only harmless, but actually beneficial for children, did not seem promising.

I reluctantly dove in and was pleasantly surprised to discover that I agreed with much of what Mr. Jones has to say:  Kids need to feel empowered through fantasy play, they need to work out aggressions within the safe containers of games; repression is not an effective strategy in changing behavior; television does not cause violence in human beings (witness the history of the world before T.V.). Adults should not project their fears onto children but instead listen to the child's experience. So far, so good. But the more I read, the more I felt vital questions were lightly passed over, strange contradictions left hanging, and distorted facts presented as credible support.

The basic thesis, repeated in every chapter in the book, is sound. Violence and aggression are hard-wired into our system and cannot be sidestepped by mere forbidding and repressing. Playing with these impulses through fantasy and mock aggression, children (and adults) express these impulses in healthy and non-harmful ways. From this premise, Jones goes on to say that the entire industry of violent entertainment—TV, movies, pop music, and video games—is but a modern reincarnation of ancient stories and practices. We adults can relax—the children are doing just fine, growing up into empathetic, caring human beings who are "changing the world just the way we want them to." (1)I wish I could relax as Jones suggests, but in my own experience as a teacher, in my talks with other teachers, and in my readings of the newspaper, I see plenty to be concerned about— or at least informed about.

For starters, if a generation of children is brought up in an electronic environment that permeates their lives more thoroughly than any previous generation of children, it would seem at the very least useful to consider its impact. From Parzival to Pokemon, from Mozart to Eminem, is not a mere switch of mediums. By now we should understand that "the medium is the message" and that different things happen in the human brain and heart when presented through live storytelling, print or electronic media. The amplified power, easy access and intimate connection with advertising and consumerism of today's media is reason enough to attempt to distinguish between a nighttime story told or read by parents and MTV. Jones touches on, but fails to go deeper into questions worth asking. What is the difference between a child's private nightmare and watching Friday the 13th? What is the difference between listening to a fairy tale and playing Grand Theft Auto? What is the difference between the monster the child imagines reading Beauty and the Beastand the one pre-made by Disney? What is the difference between turning a carrot into a play gun and ripping out a spine in a video game? Between fantasizing about killing monsters and watching robbers scalp a man in Nurse Betty?  Between reading a myth in which good violently subdues evil and playing the video game in which you get points by clubbing innocent bystanders at a mall with a baseball bat? Between mediums of storytelling designed to enhance adult guidance and those designed to shut it out? 

If children need to work out fears and aggressions through fantasy and fantasy play, are not dreams, nursery rhymes, fairy tales, playing with action figures and dolls, and play with peers, sufficient? (In one of the more outrageous claims in the book, Jones quotes a psychiatrist who says, "The most aggressive kid in our neighborhood is the one who doesn't get to watch TV at all, because he has no outlet."(2) )  Do video games and TV work exactly the same way as dreams, fairy tales and fantasy play? If so, why pay so much money for them? Do they do the job better? If so, are there other possible consequences and side effects worth examining? These are the kinds of questions the book either ignores or skips lightly over.

Throughout the book, Jones seems more critical of parents wary of the arsenal of mediated violence sold to children than the corporate mercenaries who peddle such violence for profit. He states that "entertainment violence has become far more intense and explicitly gory over the past forty years because the reality with which we confront young people has become so much more intensely and explicitly violent."(3) Here he conveniently ignores what the toy companies know. The human nervous system loves novelty, surprise and sensation, but quickly adapts to the level offered. If your intention is to capture people by shock rather than subtlety, nuance and character development (and in these days of channel surfing, that has become a survival strategy of networks), then everything must be louder, faster and gorier in order to attract attention. As any veteran teacher and learning specialist will tell you, the cost of a constant diet of hyper-sensation is high—on one end, an epidemic of kids diagnosed as ADD and on the other, kids bored with reading, piano practice or watching spiders weave a web. Jones fails to distinguish between a pleasurable pastime and a habit, between a discipline and an addiction. Video games and kid's TV, like sugar, fast food and buying things (with which they are inextricably linked through advertising), are designed to be addictive and the younger the child starts, the better—for the industry, not the child. 

It is well documented that children's vocabulary has declined significantly, that both the ability and desire to read have declined, that the ability to distinguish shades of color has declined. Whether or not endless hours in front of TV and video screens is directly responsible for this deterioration is a matter for a more extended debate—suffice it to say that they do not stimulate the language centers in the brain, and, language is an essential tool for non-violent conflict resolution. Jones makes a good case in suggesting that some mock aggressive play is healthy, but does children, parents and teachers a disservice when he fails to recognize how many more strategies and practices for dealing with aggression, i.e., use of language, artistic expression, conflict resolution techniques etc.  He neither seems sufficiently alarmed about the loss of nuance and subtlety nor sufficiently clear about how acting out aggressive impulses leads to greater compassion, understanding and character. He writes: 

Longer-lived shooter games succeed on their complexity and suspense, but for many of them, overstated gore is now part of the package. What was once offensive becomes accepted. The cost of that is a coarsening of popular culture. Entertainment becomes less deft, less graceful, less subtle. Those of us who prefer more polite and suggestive aesthetics find less to like and more to steel ourselves against.
        The gain, however, is that we are reminded what really matters. Our world isn't kept out of barbarism by concealing ugly realities or suppressing shocking images. The bonds that hold us together are empathy, acceptance, and a mutual desire to make the real world better, not a fragile web of constraints and controls."(4)

Did I miss something here? As entertainment becomes more barbarous, we are called back to the task of empathy and a desire to make the world better? Just precisely how does that work? I will walk as far with Jones as to acknowledge children's ability to make certain fantasies—from Superman to Pokemon to Buffy the Vampire Slayer—serve their needs at the moment and then move on. However, releasing tension through mock-aggressive play and imagining you are powerful through fantasy play is a long, long way from attaining lasting inner power, developing solid values and forging a character with integrity. When I see children in a video arcade, I do not leave feeling assured that they are Gandhis-in-training.

As a teacher, I know that real power comes from struggle, not instant gratification. It comes from mastery of something that gives back more than a pre-packaged game—say, language or music or sculpture or sport. I also know that empathy and acceptance comes from constant interaction with other complex human beings and from models, real and imaginary, that inspire. Many of the children Jones interviews tell of how certain pop icons seem to understand their sense of alienation, abuse and pain. Yet it is the very nature of many of these games to feed that alienation, angst and malaise. Violence cannot be squashed down through repression, but neither can it be dealt with effectively through constant expression, imaginary or real. For real change to take place, there must be a transformation and that requires guidance, discipline and a certain amount of restraint. That is the job for the adults in the society to teach—most importantly, parents, but also teachers and yes, even video game makers. And, as Gerard Jones repeatedly states, part of that teaching may be in offering some fantasies without morals attached. But part of it also may be to recognize the dangers of fully releasing fantasies from a moral container.

Pop culture is an indisputable fact and force in children's lives. There are ample cases where a pop icon, whether Mighty Mouse or the Iron Butterfly (my own childhood and teenage heroes), seizes the imagination of a young person and helps him or her move through an important phase of life. Jones is most eloquent when he speaks for the children's needs to have these kinds of experiences. But I believe he doesn't serve children well when he ignores developmental levels (Emily working out her female issues by obsessing on Brittney Spears—in second grade!),when he downplays the need for rigorous parental guidance and gives parents easy validation for letting their kids alone with their machines in the other room ("Young people love new media and they love media that bring entertainment to them easily and without adult screening. Making such media their own, separating it from our control, is part of how they plunge into the future and master it."  (5) and when he excuses the industry's increasing excesses and shameless preying on children's love of sensation. 

I began by suggesting that the switch to electronic media is not a mere change of venue, but a profound change in the way our brains and hearts are shaped. Yet there is another change that calls for awareness and that is the increased presence of popular culture in children's lives. As I confessed in my article “TV—Then and Now” (6), my generation growing up in the 50's and 60's was the first to ingest so much television. As I read Jones' book, I chuckled remembering how my mother forbad comic books convinced that I wouldn't want to read real books. I bought them anyway, hid them in the basement and also read real books voraciously—and still do. The Beatles appeared just when I needed them at age 12, but that didn't stop me from playing Bach on the organ and listening to Beethoven. I had a brief period of existential teenage angst when I retreated to my room and became addicted to reruns of McHales Navyand Gilligan's Island. I also memorized all the words to Bob Dylan's “Desolation Row.” Yet at the same time I watched the Professor and Mary Ann of Gilligan’s Island, I also read Walden and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Pop culture is healthy in small doses, but a disaster when it becomes virtually all children know. The proliferation of available medias, their heightened power and marketability, and their increased presence in children's lives at younger and younger ages is something new under the sun. Pre-pubescent children at rock concerts, two year olds playing video games and a constant diet of instant entertainment are taking their toll. It's as if dessert has become the main course of the culture. When a ten year old asked Wynton Marsalis what he felt about rap, Marsalis replied:

The fact that somebody ten years old listens to Ja Rule, Jay Z and all that—that's one of the greatest aberrations in the history of humanity. …The fact that an adult would let that be something that kids listen to is a testament to how far our civilization has fallen.  And it's a blot on us, the older people, not on y'all. Whatever we give y'all, you take. The fact that we give that to kids exposes us as one of the stupidest most backward civilizations ever. Never have so many people been given so much and given their children so little. (7)

Here Marsalis is neither speaking for Puritan repression nor unbridled indulgent expression. He speaks from an illustrious tradition of transformation, of facing our darkest and most brutal experiences and lifting them up into something beautiful. Eminem had an abusive childhood and we are asked to understand him and celebrate him for saying who he is. He grew up in darkness and is expressing that darkness. Beethoven, Dickens, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday also had brutal childhoods, but learned how to transform their darkness into a light that shines on in their art. I would feel more at ease with children enjoying Buffy the Vampire Slayer if they also knew who Mother Jones, Martha Graham, Eleanor Roosevelt and Billie Holiday were. If young people feel like they need to see "any chick in cool clothes who kicks ass!" (8), I believe they also need to see what Mother Teresa and Melba Beals and Helen Caldicott have done. If Jones' concern is the health of children and their development into caring adults, I believe it would have been worthwhile to emphasize the need to keep pop culture and its values from overwhelming the minds and hearts of our children. 

Finally, Jones begins the book critiquing the simplistic notion that mediated violence causes violent behavior and then virtually swings over to the equally simplistic notion that mediated violence alleviates violent behavior. However, it is in the internal conversation between permission and restraint, fantasy escape and disciplined work, personal dreams and community responsibility, that the real work lies. Jones' voice is certainly worth a hearing, but alone his views fail to give parents and children the tools they need to conduct that conversation. He says, "Mostly I just acknowledge what they're saying. It's like clutching your chest and falling down when you're shot, or just looking at a child and smiling." (9)  That's fine as far as it goes. But how far does it go? I suggest children need something more from adults— and they need something more from themselves. Let's get to work.

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