Finger Points to Permissive Parents

Posted: Apr 25, 2001 12:00 AM
Here we go again. The families of several Columbine victims are suing some 25 entertainment companies for marketing violent video games, Web sites etc. They're seeking punitive damages in the amount of $5 billion. "Absent the combination of extremely violent video games and these boys' incredibly deep involvement, use of and addiction to these games and the boys' basic personalities, these murders and this massacre would not have occurred," their lawsuit alleges. It is difficult to figure out what the worst part of this whole thing is. Is it the remorse industry's insatiable desire to make money off of tragedy? The media's bottomless capacity to wallow in the suffering of others? The parents' understandable but misplaced willingness to turn a personal catastrophe into a national cause with a fat paycheck attached? Or the ever-increasing tendency of Americans to search for easy blame for a complex issue? Americans are deeply conflicted about the concept of blame. We don't want to blame the parents of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold for their murder spree because, in part, if their parents were to blame, then parents everywhere are culpable for what their kids do, too. For parents of teens who do embarrassing things like pierce their faces with enough junk to set off an airport metal detector or listen to incomprehensibly offensive music, the idea that acorns fall anywhere near the tree is unacceptable. This is the natural consequence of a culture so deeply invested in the glories of personal liberation. In the wake of the 1960s, we've become enamored with the baby boomer idea that children are on a path of "self-discovery" and that it is cruel for parents to block that path. The sad irony is that these lawsuits have it exactly backward. Violence in the popular culture is nothing new. Despite what some wishful thinkers might say, violence has been an enduring staple of art and culture since the first caveman drew a bison catching a spear. From Greek tragedies to Grimm's fairy tales to Japanese kabuki theater to Chinese poems and Indian oral histories, blood and gore have been the paint on the canvas of the human imagination. Talking about a sudden rise in violence is like saying there's a disturbing increase of people interested in tasty food. Some say what's new is how graphic it is. While it's true violence is more realistic, why would realism, with all of its screaming, gore and horror, be more likely to encourage violence than to deter it? Indeed the fantasy violence of the 1940s to 1960s would seem more likely to encourage violence. For example, John Wayne was the most popular movie star in history. His movies, though, often involved him slugging, shooting or smashing a chair over someone. And the consequences seemed much less disturbing. The Duke would effortlessly shoot a guy and go on about his day, confident he did the right thing. Wouldn't that send a more persuasive copy-cat message? The significant difference between the violence of yesteryear and the violence of today is the moral context into which it is delivered. Today, self-expression is the highest value. Whereas, when John Wayne would shoot the bad guy, one thing was clear: There was an actual bad guy. Today, the popular culture regularly champions villains (the Sopranos, are one good example) and often makes fun of the idea that there any good guys at all. "Janie, today I quit my job. And then I told my boss to go (expletive) himself, and then I blackmailed him for almost $60 thousand. Pass the asparagus," declares Kevin Spacey, playing the classic self-liberated baby boomer, in the Oscar-winning film "American Beauty." Spacey realizes he's wasted his life on bourgeois considerations like career and family and declares that he won't be telling his daughter what to do anymore. The other parent with a large role in the film was a cruel ex-Marine who didn't understand that children cannot be ordered around. The message was typical: Parents who live and let live are great. Consider that children, specifically boys, have a natural tendency to act out in mock or real violence. In almost any culture in the world, if you give a young boy a Barbie doll, he is more likely to pretend it's a knife or a gun than to play with its hair. The trick now, as ever, has been to channel that natural rambunctiousness into positive directions, not to say, "Go with your feelings." That usually means blocking children's path to "self-discovery." This is what the writer Hanna Arendt was getting at when she observed that every generation of Western Civilization is invaded by barbarians, we just call them "children."