I find myself simultaneously speechless and overflowing with so much to say. I just had to write. Something. I wrote this post almost as an exercise in capturing my stream of consciousness. Today when I led a writer’s workshop for Bird’s second grade class, a student asked me a most poignant question. She asked me how I felt when I write. I told her writing was cathartic for me, and that it made me feel calm and fulfilled. And so now, after a dry spell, I needed to write to feel some catharsis around the sad, so very sad events of last weekend. I ushered in 2011 with my writing mojo left somewhere in 2010. It took tragedy to bring it back.
While many people are waxing about the politics of the shooting in Arizona, I see a larger issue at play here. There is no Right, no Left; there is only Wrong. We have become inured to the vernacular of violence that permeates our society. From video games to movies to scenes on the nightly news, we see so much violence around us that it starts to become white noise. The vernacular of violence permeates even the most innocent, and surprising, facets of our lives.
The topic of attire is innocuous and safe enough, right? But take for example, the wife beater. We call a man’s sleeveless white T-shirt a WIFE BEATER in casual conversation without thinking for a moment the weight of the silence of the abused. There’s apparently even a market to warp innocent babies into thinking this is acceptable.We have become so desensitized to the very fact that there are hordes of women battling domestic abuse. We do this without batting an eye, while victims are left battered.
Gone is the Looney Tunes violence of Road Runners and anvils. Children today see more violent imagery in the toy aisle. I’m not claiming there was no violence when I was a kid in the 70s but I am stating that the degree and realism of that violence is heightened today. No longer is it imaginary play with kids pointing stick guns in the back yard. G.I. Joe wields weapons and bombs and bears monikers like Sargeant Slaughter. Now, I don’t even know if Joe is a good guy or a bad or some combo of both. And I suspect kids don’t care. In fact, Hasbro, the maker of G.I. Joe, states that the toys are not appropriate for children under three years of age. The age demarcation has nothing to do with the context of the toy, rather with the choking hazard. Those soldier action figures glorify guns without giving children a safe understanding of the roles guns play. Small children are unable to grasp complex topics that tiptoe through shades of gray.
Bird and Deal have Nerf dart guns. The models they have don’t actually look like real weapons, and we have extraordinarily strict rules about how they play with those toys. We monitor them and don’t let them run amok shooting and yelling hostile epithets. They prefer to draw a target on the patio door with window crayons and aim for points or try to make a smiley face pattern out of darts. Mac Daddy and I would certainly not buy a toy gun, foam dart loaded or otherwise, that looks like a machine gun, complete with magazine. Nerf makes such a gun, for ages 8 and up. Guess who makes Nerf…Hasbro. We take fast food companies to task for serving our weekly dose of sodium in a single breakfast sandwich but hold toy manufacturers to lower standards, expecting them to assume no responsibility to society for their actions. Even toys, like T-shirts, lend to the violent vernacular we so readily accept.
I believe you are mistaken if you think playing with such toys is innocent and a simple rite of passage for boys. The paradigm of play has changed. I have seen young boys of grade school age romping on the playground pretending to “shoot Chinese Commies” with their dart guns. Imagine my shock when I heard this rhetoric from the mouth of a boy who couldn’t even tie his own shoes. And yes, I said rhetoric. Apparently we’re not getting imaginary bad guys anymore; we are taking aim at an entire nation of people. A nation that a child, incidentally, doesn’t know squat about. Take another occasion when a child was playing suicide bomber with my sons. Suicide bomber! Bird and Deal were 5 and 3 respectively at the time. Does this sound like child’s play to you?! The other adults in the yard where they were playing didn’t stop their conversation to intervene. No one’s shackles were up but mine.
We have become a nation that is detached from violence, perhaps even in denial about how it’s woven into the fabric of our communications. We have glorified violence – to women especially. We have made violence sexy, an erotic turn on to some. Shame on you, Dolce & Gabbana and Duncan Quinn. And this, this is the answer to educate people about domestic violence? F*@#ed up.
And I haven’t even touched on video games. Despite the Snookis and Housewives who pepper newsstands, sometimes the media forgets that we are still a country at war. Video games that focus on killing Arabs and destroying their cities is not okay, people. To say it’s in bad taste would be a gross understatement. And this is a game rated T for teen. There is power in imagery. The studies linking violent acts to consumption of violent imagery is yet inconclusive, and I’m not suggesting the deranged Jared Loughner who shot Gabrielle Gifford and killed and injured several others was a gamer or ever dinked around with a Nerf gun. What I’m saying is that we as a society have become so inured to representations of violence, in written, oral, and visual forms, that we continue to accept it in all its forms.
I’m not even talking about Sarah Palin’s cross hairs or her diatribes inciting violence during the 2008 election. “Reload” and other language that incites gun violence is not an acceptable metaphor. We have ignored the ramifications of her incendiary word choices for a long time, and I’m afraid the Giffords’ shooting is further entrenching our nation’s heels into its respective ground, refusing to budge into the land of talking sense. We can do better than that. On all sides.
Now before I wrap up, let me just touch on how the sports culture supports my argument that the vernacular of violence permeates life as we know it. Here are some quotes professional athletes have blurted, with no consequence other than a presumable grunt and fist pump or high five:
“This is it,” he responded. “It’s for all the marbles. I’m sitting in the house loading up the pump, I’m loading up the Uzis, I’ve got a couple of M-16s, couple of nines, couple of joints with some silencers on them, couple of grenades, got a missile launcher. I’m ready for war.” – Kevin Garnett
If somebody hits you with an object you should beat the hell out of them. – Charles Barkley
“Don’t be surprised if I behave like a savage. I am a savage.” – Mike Tyson
And how about this doozy that pops up in conversation? “Beat them like a red-headed step-child.”
Our language contains allusions to aggression, hostility, hate. Words are weapons too. Wielding a weapon is no sign of machismo, whether vitriol spewed or violence unleashed. Using your words to solve conflict, like we all teach our children to do, is infinitely more powerful. Let’s use our voices, not violence.