Violence -One More Time

In a recent blog I leaped with both feet into a confusing and confused (heated?) discussion of the possible relationship between such video games as “Active Shooter” and violence in this country. As I say, the issue is complex because it involves establishing a causal relationship between two rather different entities — in this case violence in electronic games, television, and the movies and, on the other hand, the undeniable fact of excessive violence in this country. I suggested in a previous blog that there is a concurrence that comes very close to a causal relationship. But there are different points of view, several of which were expressed in comments on that post.

Being a daring sort of person, I want to visit the topic again with the help of John Stuart Mill who, in his  A System of Logic, sought to show how causal relationships can be established. He set forth five “canons,” the final one of which was what he called the “method of concomitant variations,” which is the surest way to determine whether we are dealing with a causal relationship. In his precise way he stated the principle as follows:

Whatever phenomenon varies in any manner whenever another phenomenon varies in some particular manner, is either a cause or an effect of that phenomenon, or is connected with it through some fact of causation.

— John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic, Vol. 1. 1843. p. 470.
In the case of violence, we might list the growing incidence of violence in this country in recent years, including such things as road rage, bullying, child abuse, domestic violence, rape, suicide, gun deaths, and, of course, mass killings by presumably deranged individuals which garner the major headlines and were the focus of much of the discussion in my recent post. Couple this with the rise in the sales and use of electronic toys and the staggering number of hours the young spend playing electronic games and watching television and we might indeed be able to show a concomitant variation between the increase in this society in the above instances of violence and the increasing number of people-hours spent watching violence on television and game-playing.
To make certain of the relationship, of course, we would have to reduce the instances of viewing violent programs and playing violent games to see if there is a drop in violence in our society. This would be nearly impossible to carry off, however, since there is no reason to believe that those who play the games and watch the violent movies and television programs want to cut back — though parents could intervene if they were motivated to do so. One might go so far as to say they should, in fact, be doing precisely that.
As I suggested to one of the commentators to my recent post, much depends on the degree of immersion of the young in those violent activities. If increased immersion in those violent activities does, in fact, correspond to increased instances of violence in its many forms, then we are warranted in concluding that there is a causal relationship between the two. My sense is that there is such a correspondence, or at the very least a “connection through some fact of causation.”
Please note that the argument does not focus on  violent games, such as “Active Shooter” which was the subject of the recent post on this topic. Nor do I insist that we look exclusively at mass shootings, since violence takes so many forms. I am asking that we consider the whole scope of violence in this country, coupled with our history of using violence to eradicate indigenous people and generally to solve our problems. “Make My Day!”  I ask also if there is a direct correlation between those incidences and the involvement of increasing numbers of people in the viewing of violent programs and  playing of violent games.
As I say, I suspect strongly that there is a concomitant variation between the two and tentatively conclude that there is a causal relationship. But I would add, as I did in my previous discussion of this topic, that the acquisition of a strong “reality principle,” to use Freud’s term, would lessen the correlation somewhat. A great many people play the games and watch violent programs and movies and are yet not prone to violent actions, because they realize that games are not reality. But I do contend that, in a more permissive society where electronic toys have become commonplace and the reality principle is weaker, the ability of many to distinguish carefully between the games they play and the real world is correspondingly weakened, thus increasing the likelihood of violence.

Active Shooter

My good friend Jill recently posted a comment about the release of a new video game called “Active Shooter” in which the player is armed and enters a school to see how many “cops and ‘civs'” he or she can shoot. The “civs” are civilians — presumably including children? I don’t know because I haven’t seen it. No do I want to. But her summary and description of the game caused me to burst forth with a comment in which I insisted that we must finally face the fact that violent games cause violence in children. Scottie, a fellow blogger, then politely took me to task on the grounds that he was (and is) a game-player and also in the armed forces later in his adult life and he has no desire whatever to enter a school and shoot children. Point taken. I would like to respond to his comment and expand on my argument in this post.

To begin with, let’s agree that a causal relationship is notoriously difficult to establish. Just ask the cigarette companies who denied for years what everyone now knows, to wit, that smoking causes lung diseases, including cancer. The problem is that in order to show that A causes B one must establish that B never occurs without A and that whenever we have A we have B. In the case of cigarette smoking, there are smokers who never get any lung diseases and there are those who never smoke who nevertheless do end up with terrible lung diseases, including cancer. So how can we say the one causes the other? In the end it is because there is a constant conjunction  or a high correlation of A and B, enough of a conjunction to conclude that there is a causal relationship between the two — not an inviolable relationship, admittedly, but a causal relationship none the less, in the sense that it is highly likely that A will be followed by B.

Now, we know a number of things about human beings. Freud has told us, to our chagrin, that we are all aggressive and inclined to violence in one way or another. As infants we are immersed in our own world where our demands are almost immediately met. As the months and years pass we gradually learn that there are things we cannot have and things we are not supposed to do. (Well, we should learn those things; we assume that parents and teachers are doing their jobs.) The result is what we call “civilization,” and it comes from the sublimation of violent, aggressive impulses into socially acceptable channels, such things as art, philosophy, and science. Or else we find socially acceptable channels to provide us with vicarious release of those impulses, such as humor and violent games like football and boxing.  Moreover, we also know about humans that we learn by imitation– like all animals. What we see we tend to imitate.

Thus, it would seem natural to conclude that constant playing at violent games would result in children growing into adults who seek to imitate those same actions in order to release aggressive impulses.  But what about those kids that play the games endlessly, not only in this country but all around the world? Violence is more prevalent in this country than in others where the games are still played. And as Scottie noted in his case, he played the games and later became a professional soldier and yet he has no desire whatever to shoot children. We seem to have come a cropper.

The answer, I think, lies in the Freudian notion of the “reality principle,” which Freud uses to explain how the infant we spoke about a moment ago gradually learns to adapt to a society that disallows the sudden release of violent impulses. With good parenting and good role models, the young children who play the games (in this case) learn to sublimate those violent impulses, as we all should. But in a permissive society where parents both work and kids are raised by the television (which is also filled with violent images) and day-care where they cannot possibly receive the love they crave, kids are more likely to have a weak reality principle and find it more difficult to separate the games they play from the real world around them where, if someone is shot, there is terrible pain and serious consequences for the shooter.

In a word, I think the case can be made that there is a conjunction between the repeated immersion in an imaginary world where violence is the norm and the trend toward greater violence in this society that is generally too busy to instill in the young what used to be called “good character” and which Freud called a sound reality principle — the ability to distinguish between games and reality. I think the conjunction is strong enough to call it a causal relationship. But just as there are smokers who do not get cancer of the lungs, there are game players, like Scottie, who have a stronger reality principle and who do not become violent adults entering the schools and shooting “civs.”

The way to test this theory would be to take the games away from the kids and see what results. But that will never happen. So the alternative is to have parents spend more time with their children, reducing their game-playing somewhat while at the same time explaining to them how things work in the real world. I suggest that if this does not happen we shall see more and more examples of violent behavior on the part of more and more people.