Q: I am the mother of a 5 year old, an 8 year old and a 12 year old. I am numb with grief, fear, and rage… yes, rage. Rage at myself and at my society, more than anything else. I am numb, but not immobile. Last night I went through all of our DVDs and video games and threw all the violent ones into the supermarket dumpster (so neither my husband nor I would be tempted to fish them out). It feels like 9/11 all over again. Our world has changed—forever. Now what do I do?
-Now what? in Washington, DC
A: Dear Now,
Stunned, disoriented, discouraged, and grieving, yesterday our job was to listen to our children, assure them that they are loved and safe, and try to reconnect with what’s good in the world, that it’s a place where people care about and for each other, a place where they can explore, and learn, and laugh. In the immediacy of the moment, we adults struggle to gain control over the chaos, to find a reason, seek something, out there somewhere, to blame for the insanity. Each time this happens, we call for gun control and limits on violent video games, movies, and other media. And each time an opposing cry arises in defense of our 2nd Amendment right to bear arms and our 1st amendment right to freedom of expression. The political debate heats up and when the dust settles, nothing has changed.
In part, this is because we are debating this as a difference of “values” and “beliefs,” which we can rarely, if ever, change in others—and because, in our culture, winning (or even losing without giving an inch) is more desirable than coming to a solution. As incomprehensible as the insanity of Newtown is, perhaps the greater insanity is that, despite our anguish and our calls to make a change, the tragedies keep happening—in health clubs, places of worship, movie theaters, elementary schools. Newtown is not the first but the 16th mass shooting this year in the United States of America. Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If we as a society are not happy with the results we are living, we must examine who we are, how we behave, and what we must change in order to get different results. We must shift from asking, “How has our world changed?” to “How can we change our world?”
If we are to change our world, we have to stop looking for an “other” to blame. As Walt Kelly’s wise cartoon philosopher Pogo said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” If we only look for others to blame, we discount our own responsibilities–we might acknowledge that violence in media makes violence seem normal to kids, yet we still say “My kids are too smart to be affected.” We get distracted by academic arguments about whether research methods are adequate to prove that video games cause violent behavior. When we examine the more than 50 years of research from around the world, though, we see consistent relationships between exposure to media violence and increases in fear and anxiety, in desensitization to the suffering of others, and, among some young people, in aggressive thoughts and behaviors. We can argue indefinitely about minutia of research, but the bottom line is that, in our culture, we celebrate violence as a means of resolving conflict, we award fame for notoriety rather than achievement, and, even in the face of innocents slaughtered, we do not think about human suffering very much or for very long.
Regardless of whether media violence contributes to or is reflective of our violent culture, we must change our culture if we are to change the outcomes. We must meet the enemy that is us. In order to create a better world for our children, we need to make some difficult decisions to voluntarily give up some of that to which we think we are entitled. If it puts children’s lives at risk, we cannot cling to an extreme interpretation of a constitutional right devised to prevent Britain from recolonizing us over two centuries ago. And we cannot use freedom of expression as cover for entertaining our children with virtual experiences that serve as behavioral scripts for what happened inside Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Freedom of expression should not be restricted–creative expression is how we make meaning out of the world and how we come to grips with even the most horrific of life’s experiences. In grappling with the immediacy of Newtown, I sought out the wisdom in some of that expression. I turned to Ernest Hemingway, who suggested the simple creation in our own lives of “a clean, well-lighted place”, and to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, who sang “Teach your children well, their father’s hell did slowly go by.” Media are our shared cultural experience and we never want to lose our poets, troubadours, storytellers and image-makers who help us find meaning together.
For better or for worse, our children, and all of us, learn and are changed by what we read, hear, see, and play. None of us are too smart or too sophisticated to avoid being affected. In his paintings “Four Essential Human Freedoms”, Norman Rockwell celebrated “Freedom of Speech”. In order to achieve another critical freedom in that series–“Freedom from Fear”–we need to exercise our rights to consume only that which changes us, our children, and our society in ways that are healthy, safe, and reflective of what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Now what? Now we can try to make Newtown the starting point for our new world.
Peace, health, and freedom from fear to you and your loved ones,