The “graphic” difference between video game violence and the grimm brothers fairy tales.
In this essay, I will discuss a recent supreme court decision which overturned a ban on violent video games in California. For the background information, here is a section of NPR’s report last Friday:
“In 2005, California enacted a law that imposed a $1,000 fine on retailers anytime they sold a violent video game to a minor. The state cited social science studies that it said showed kids who played these games for many hours are desensitized to violence and become more aggressive in their behavior. But the U.S. Supreme Court rejected those arguments today and struck down the law. Technically, the court was split seven to two, but the various concurring and dissenting opinions more closely resembled a five to four split.
Writing for the five-member court majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said video games are like books, plays and movies, expression protected by the First Amendment and the government has no free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed. Since the founding of the Republic, he said, the court has permitted restrictions on speech only in a few very narrowly defined areas – obscenity, incitement and fighting words.
Violence cannot be shoehorned into any of those categories, he said, even when the violent expression is consumed by children. With great gusto, Scalia noted that there is no shortage of gore in the books parents routinely read to children. Grimm’s fairy tales are grim indeed, he observed. Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves, and Hansel and Gretel kill their captor by baking her in the oven.
In truth, said Scalia, California’s ban on violent video games is just the latest in a long series of failed attempts to censor violent entertainment for minors, be it dime store novels, movies or even Superman comics, which in their time were portrayed as leading to juvenile delinquency. The justifications offered in this case against violent video games, he said, are no better than those offered in the past against other forms of violent entertainment.”
I consider this ample evidence that Justice Scalia needs to go. Everyone’s been talking about Clarence Thomas’ misdeeds (failure to recuse himself from cases where he and his wife are directly related to to one side or the other, an abysmally conservative record, probable sexual abuse of Anita Hill, etc.), but this time I find Scalia more appalling. Hearing a fairy tale read aloud by your parents does not constitute the same level of graphic violence as playing a bloodbath video game where heads are blown off and body parts litter the foreground. (And yes, I have played a few of these games; “No More Heroes” comes to mind as a particularly ugly, sadomasochistic example).
A passive audial experience is entirely different than an audial and visual participatory one, and, furthermore, one creepy scene in Hansel & Gretel (a five page fairy tale) is far less lasting in effect than six straight hours of simulated blood letting. In video games, kids are the ones doing the killing and maiming; in a story, whether a thousand year old fairy tale or a “dime store novel,” the violence is perpetrated by someone else. Reading about an act of violence (or, even farther removed from the act, hearing it read by someone you trust, like a parent) gives time for examination, and remorse, and, furthermore, it just doesn’t engrave itself on the brain like performing, really experiencing, a gruesome act of violence does. Shouldn’t a supreme court justice realize this?
Later on in Nina Totenberg’s report, we learn that Scalia went off on his own ‘logic’, not really seconded by anyone in the court:
“The dissenting and concurring opinions, however, took up a grand total of 56 pages, more than three times the space as the majority opinion. Two justices, Samuel Alito and Chief Justice Roberts, concurred in the judgment, but on much narrower grounds. They would’ve invalidated the law because the definition of violent videos was unconstitutionally vague.
But writing for the two, Alito said we should not jump to the conclusion that new technology is fundamentally the same as some older thing with which we are familiar. Describing with horror some of the violent games he’d found in his research, Alito said the court majority was acting prematurely in dismissing the possibility that these games could prove injurious to young people.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer each dissented. Thomas said the framers of the Constitution did not envision any freedom of speech at all for minors, that indeed the founders believed that parents had absolute authority over their children. Justice Breyer said the California law was no more than a modest restriction on expression. He said that the legislature is best equipped to evaluate psychological studies on the impact of violent video games.”
Ever the reliable conservative, Clarence Thomas dissented on the issue of parental authority, and Alito and Breyer realized that the full extent of video game violence on minors is not yet known. 56 pages of dissent to try to counter Scalia’s “Grimm’s fairy tales are grim indeed” (what glee he must have felt to make such a clever pun); if this doesn’t indicate an intellectual break, a continental divide, in our nation’s highest court, I don’t know what does. It’s disheartening that we’re stuck with such a motley crew forever, and especially these two dead weights, Scalia and Thomas. After Bush, John Roberts, and crew, took down Sandra Day O’Connor, I was devastated; by now I’ve lost all faith in the justice system, from the top down.
Oh, and lest anyone accuse me of being pro-censorship, here’s a brief list of where extreme violence is allowed for minors’ daily consumption: most all movies, television and internet media, whether for “news” or “entertainment” purposes; magazines, comics, newspapers, etc; and probably other media I can’t think of offhand. I’m completely committed to free speech (I have a blog, for Crissake), but I think we have a responsibility towards the development of young minds; we created this technology—the simulation of repeated, continued acts of horrible violence—unleashing it on a whole generation of youth without restraint, without knowing the consequence (on their minds and their bodies; obesity is also a problem among children) is irresponsible and unethical. And we just don’t know what kind of baby-killing rapist murderers we’re creating in our own xbox image…