In the latter half of grade school I was required, each year, to do a months long project called an Independent Study. The topic was of my own choosing and I was to present my work at the end of the year to a small group of students. In grade four, I chose the Circus. Grade 5 it was Dogs (an innocent ploy to bring my dog to school = success). By the sixth grade, in full pubescent swing, it was “Rock Music and the Censorship of”. It was 1985 and rock n’ roll was under attack. I spent months reading about rock music censorship and picking apart the arguments of The Parents Music Resource Group, or PMRG, formed by Tipper Gore. From the Senate hearings, the PMRG asserted:
“Much has changed since Elvis’ seemingly innocent times. Subtleties, suggestions, and innuendo have given way to overt expressions and descriptions of often violent sexual acts, drug taking, and flirtations with the occult. The record album covers to me are self-explanatory.”
Susan Baker testified that “There certainly are many causes for these ills in our society, but it is our contention that the pervasive messages aimed at children which promote and glorify suicide, rape, sadomasochism, and so on, have to be numbered among the contributing factors.”
I was only 12, but I knew something was amiss. Back then, it was simple – someone was trying to take away the music I loved, and although I didn’t get the greater context at the time, it freaked me out. I loved my music, that didn’t mean I was actually smokin’ in the boys room, or barking at the moon. I knew enough to be insulted that someone would think I would. I devoured the senate transcripts, words by defendants Frank Zappa, Dee Snider (thanks for the signed 8×10 glossy, Dee) and John Denver. From the senate transcripts:
“The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretation and enforcement problems inherent in the proposal’s design.” – Frank Zappa
”The full responsibility for defending my children falls on the shoulders of my wife and I, because there is no one else capable of making these judgments for us.” – Dee Snider
“That which is denied becomes that which is most desired, and that which is hidden becomes that which is most interesting. Consequently, a great deal of time and energy is spent trying to get at what is being kept from you.”- John Denver
This was the first experience I had with censorship – what I could not understand as a child was this. Violence, as old as the hills, permeates every society, in every age. Violence induces fear. When we are afraid of something, we want to stop it, to snuff it out at all costs. We find the cause, and we stop it. It’s the age-old theory behind censorship of any kind, earlier personified in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In the mid 1980′s, it looked something like this:
Get rid of rock music, rid the world of violence.
If only it were that simple.
Now I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are many theories about the 80′s push to censor rock music, Tipper Gore trying to raise the profile of her husband, new taxes linked to labeling records, etc, etc. Either way, the Explicit Content Parental Advisory became a badge of honor, we all continued to listen to whatever music we wanted to, and guess what? The world continued to be violent.
Cut to 25 years later and here we’re on to the next target. Video Games. Now I’m no longer 12 and I have kids of my own. I admittedly know nothing about video games, but I do know that when I see a billboard or a commercial for them, they pretty much disgust me. My former students, who were middle school aged, played insanely violent video games all the time. Do I want my kids to play these games? Hell no. Do I think they will cause my children to become aggressively violent. Absolutely not.
About ten years ago I spent the summer visiting with friends in San Francisco where I one day wandered over to the Presidio and the Historical Torture Museum. You enter a cavernous room, and with red velvet carpeting underfoot and the sound of gothic music reverberating in your ears, you are presented one after another with instruments of torture and capital punishment from the middle ages through present day. Crazy tools of mutilation and death – a visual representation of the exhibit’s overall message – Human Rights violations and violence are not new.
This is an issue that comes up all the time. In the wake of a wave of shootings and senseless violence in our country over the past decade or so, images of overseas violence, genocide and revolution come at us constantly. I understand the need for a scapegoat, the need to blame someone, something for it – So you can try to stop it. The desire to be pro-active and stamp out evil and violence at all costs. But can we ever really? And what are those costs?
Yesterday I watched a TED Talk by Steven Pinker called The Surprising Decline in Violence.
From TED: Steven Pinker charts the decline of violence from Biblical times to the present, and argues that, though it may seem illogical and even obscene, given Iraq and Darfur, we are living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.
See Pinker defend his position below.
This is not a rogue opinion. This is a view shared by many historians and philosophers who claim that the 21st Century will be the most peaceful time in the history of man. Think about it. I conjure up images in my mind (many from movies and television, but rooted in well-known historical fact) of Athens & Sparta, Ancient Rome, of the warlord Genghis Kahn, the Spanish Inquisition, of Queen “Bloody” Mary I, of the Holocaust. The list is endless. Is it possible? It goes against everything we see and hear in the media. How can I watch soldiers come home from endless wars and believe this is nirvana?
One of Pinker’s explanations resonated with me, which is based on moral philosopher Peter Singer’s book The Expanding Circle. The Expanding Circle argues that evolution has allowed for humans to increase their amount of empathy, and that over time that circle of empathy has expanded from the village, to the clan, to the tribe, to the nation, to other races, to both sexes, etc. Yes of course this is true. So what now…
Is this peace?
*This essay was set to publish this morning, August 24th, at 8am Pacific Standard Time. I woke up to the news of another shooting – this time in my hometown of NYC. I decided to go ahead and publish, my thoughts and energy are with NYC today.