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.

The Short Straw

Let’s say we’re at war and young LeRoy is part of a small group of soldiers who have been told to attack and destroy a machine gun 100 yards to our left. The lieutenant cuts a number of pieces of straw into different lengths and we all agree that whoever draws the short straw will have to take the greatest risk and led the group toward the machine gun. If LeRoy draws the short straw he is committed to taking that risk. He cannot say afterwards, “I really didn’t want to play: I had my fingers crossed.”

On the other hand if Fred, a part of our group, is a 43 year old man with terminal cancer and he did not draw the short straw but he decides after the fact that he, rather than the young man who did draw the short straw, should be the one to take the risk. He cannot do this. The “deal” was that the one who draws the short straw will take the risk. Those who participated in the event agreed ahead of time and they are all bound in conscience to live by the results, whether they like it or not. Fred should have spoken up at the outset.

Its appears as though a rather large number of Donald Trump’s followers — some 30% by a number of estimates — have said up front that they will not abide by the decision of the vote in this election if it goes against their man. Now, they can say this if they do not plan to vote, but if they vote they are bound by the results of that vote regardless of whether or not their man wins. That’s just the way the game is played.

Take the case of Bernie Sanders of recent memory. Surely he wanted the Democratic nomination so much he could taste it. And he worked hard to get the nomination bringing thousands of enthusiastic, idealistic young people into the fold only to have it taken away from him — apparently with foul play involved. The party Democrats did NOT want this man to win the nomination. Moreover, the corporations did NOT want the man to win the nomination and, as we know, they have the final say in this game we call “politics.” But despite the foul play and despite Sander’s undeniable desire to be the next president of the United States, he decided to throw himself into Hillary Clinton’s battle with Donald Trump — unreservedly (and despite the bitter taste that must have remained in his mouth).

Sanders was not a staunch Democrat. He was an independent, an outsider. That was part of the problem. But the main difficulty he had in attempting to win the nomination was his knowledge that the contest today is not between Democrats and Republicans; it is between the corporations who make the political decisions and the people who ought to make the political decisions. He took on the corporations and he lost and in doing so he must have been tempted to withdraw, but he did not.

Sanders drew the short straw and despite the fact that the game was rigged, he stood by the results. Despite the fact that he seems to be the one doing it, Clinton’s opponent has already declared the contest “rigged.” None the less  he apparently plans to go through with the contest and even, I gather, to cast his vote. Those thousands who follow him  blindly will doubtless also vote. But, many say they will not abide by the results of the vote if their man doesn’t win. This is an outrage! It’s not simply a question of playing the game, because politics isn’t really a game at all. It’s a matter of honor, a word that is in disuse these days, but one that helps to set humans apart from the animals. Agreeing to “play the game” and then preceding to play it while all the time intending to disavow the results if your man doesn’t win is dishonorable, if not simply dishonest. There ought to be a harsher word, but once upon a time, and still in certain cultures, honor was a prime virtue and bringing dishonor upon oneself or one’s family was a serious offense and one that often resulted in the risking of or even the talking of one’s life.

I doubt that there will be much of that, but I fear that those who refuse to play the game are making up their own rules as they go along and are likely to do whatever it takes to disrupt the election and guarantee that the next president stands alone in her attempt to govern this country. This could very well sound the death-knell of our democratic system. We have already lived through eight years of stalemate; the system cannot abide another eight years, or even four. In order for it to work, those who play the game must abide by the rules — whether they like it or not.

Counting Medals

The original Olympic Games dated from the eighth century. Legend has it that the games were initiated by Hercules after completing his many feats of strength and courage to thank Zeus. They were held during a “Sacred Truce. . . and no war between the Greek city-states ever prevented them from being held.”* The games involved various athletic contests such as wrestling, boxing, running, horse racing and the immensely popular chariot races. While they were intensely competitive they were praised by Plato for the refreshment and “wholeness” they bestowed on every participant. All hostilities were halted during the games — which was no mean feat since the Greek city-states were a bellicose group. “If states [that were] engaged in hostilities failed to lay down their arms for the duration of the truce a heavy fine was inflicted, its size calculated according to the number of troops involved.”*  The point is that the Games were regarded from the beginning as a time of peace and fellow-feeling among a group of people who had trouble getting along most of the time.

Contrast that with the modern games which have now a Summer and a Winter phase and involve more sporting events than anyone can possibly remember and pit one nation against another to see which can accumulate the most medals (“We’ve got more than you do: nah, nah, nah, nah, nah” ). As mentioned, there was always an element of competition, but it used to be among athletes and not among nations — or even the city-states — though there was doubtless some pride involved when a local man did well.

This is not to say that in today’s Olympics friendships are not formed and dialogue opened among athletes from different countries — all to the good. In addition, the athletes themselves enjoy what has to be a most remarkable educational experience — win or lose. And the athleticism is truly extraordinary. But the modern version of the Olympic Games reveals sharp contrasts with the original version.

The Olympic Games never involved professional athletes who were paid to participate –at least not until very recent times. To make matters worse, today’s athletes are beholden to their sponsors. Recently the I.O.C. had to employ extreme measures (in the spirit of the Olympics, I would think) to forbid the athletes from using social media to promote the products their sponsors are selling.  But — led by the U.S. athletes — the Olympians are incensed, as a recent story attests:

LONDON – American athletes risked disqualification by leading a revolt against the International Olympic Committee on Monday and its draconian laws of forbidding competitors from using social media to promote their sponsors.

It just gets worse. Not only do nations vie with one another to pile up the largest treasure in medals of all colors but we now must also have mounted anti-terrorist weapons on tall buildings and increased security lest someone repeat the horrors of Munich 40 years ago. The air is tense, even electric. In a word, the games are no longer about a time of peace amid the chaos of everyday warfare, but an extension of that warfare onto the court and the field of play — which is no longer play at all, but a contest to see who can get the most gold. Symbolic? I suppose so. But also sad.

The athletes, for the most part, seem to have the idea. To a large extent they exhibit the true spirit of the Olympic Games as the Greeks envisioned them. But the things that separate the ancient Games from the modern ones are the crass commercialism of the latter and the exploitation of the athletes by their corporate sponsors, N.B.C. television, and the countries that send them for the purpose of boosting national pride. But most distressing is the fact that these countries refuse to lay down their arms — even for this brief period — putting me in mind of Handel’s Messiah which asks the probing question: why do the nations so furiously rage together? Why indeed.


*Michael Grant: The Rise of the Greeks (New York: Macmillan Co.).