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August 7, 2012




by Myriam Miedzian


The fact that James E. Holmes identified himself as "The Joker"—the psychopathic killer in the Batman series—then killed 12 people and injured 59 who were watching "The Dark Knight Rises," the most recent violent Batman film, has not been lost to the media, or to commentators. But their major focus has been on gun control, with most liberals, correctly as I see it, pointing to the need for more gun control—Holmes's weaponry included an assault rifle—and most conservatives supporting the right to bear arms as defined by the NRA.


Unfortunately, conservatives and liberals agree on one issue: opposition to any government regulations—of the kind that exist in many European countries—to protect minors from violent entertainment. This agreement was reflected in last year's Supreme Court vote on a California regulation banning the sale of extremely violent video games to minors. Seven out of nine judges voted against it.


Does this quasi-unanimity indicate that the law would have been such a flagrant violation of our first amendment rights, that even justices who disagree on just about everything agreed here? No.


When I interviewed four distinguished First Amendment law professors and asked them if regulations protecting children from violent entertainment would have a chance of passing Supreme Court muster, they all agreed that they would since there were precedents for laws protecting children only. There was considerable room for disagreement in this decision


The vote reflects the right's opposition to governmental regulation of any industry, and to what it perceives as interference with the rights of parents. The left views such regulations, even when they apply only to minors, as a threat to first amendment rights.


Regarding violent entertainment, the political left and right converge in ignoring the hundreds of studies—longitudinal studies, surveys, laboratory experiments—carried out by respected academics that indicate that viewing violence on the screen and playing violent video games can lead to desensitization to violence and a decrease in empathy for victims, and puts boys at higher risk of violent behavior. Instead they point to the research of a few mavericks who disagree.


This is radically different from their disagreement on global warming. Here the left points to the fact that a vast majority of researchers have found evidence supporting global warming, while conservatives point to the research of the few mavericks who disagree.


The out of hand rejection of violence research is facilitated by setting up a straw man—the claim that the sole cause of violent behavior is violent entertainment. This enables them to then correctly reject it.


But no researcher has ever made such a claim. In their 2007 book, "Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents," which provides an overview of research on the topic, Iowa State psychology professor Craig A. Anderson and co-authors, explain that "the probabilistic nature of modern science is largely due to the fact that multiple causal factors are involved in most medical, psychological, and behavioral phenomena." Violent video games represent one variable that interacts with socioeconomic-cultural conditions and other variables such as learning disability, mild mental disability, emotional disturbance, psychopathic personality to raise the probability of violent behavior.


The intensity of the commitment to clinging to an absurd straw man and rejecting the role of violent entertainment was brought home to me personally some years ago when I gave a lecture on our "Culture of Violence." In the questions and answers part of the lecture, a woman angrily asked, "how can you claim that violent entertainment is the cause of violent behavior, what about abusive parents, poverty, guns ...?" I responded : " I believe I repeated two or three times that I was only stating that violent entertainment can interact with other factors that put boys at high risk, not that it alone leads to such behavior." After the Q&A, a man came up to me and said. "Sorry, you did not repeat that three times; you repeated it nine times. By the third time I wondered why does the speaker keep repeating this and started counting as you continued to do so. Now I get!"


Whether it's violent entertainment or gun control, financial and political factors play a role in positions taken. The entertainment industry and the NRA support a hands-off policy in each of their domains. So an iron curtain has been erected. It protects violent entertainment instead of protecting children, and protects owners of assault weapons instead of potential victims.


The Whitehouse flag is at half- mast; the president is meeting with the families of victims; the grievance counselors have been called in. Unless our leaders get serious and do something about entertainment and guns, we can expect to see that flag at half-mast again and again.


Myriam Miedzian, Ph.D., is author of " Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence."

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