Conservatives Against Moral Education
On the day of the recent mass shooting in Dayton Ohio, tired of beating my head against the wall of thinly-veiled bloodlust that protects contemporary man’s fascination with treating the ugliest local crimes as though they were major world news, I decided to address the matter somewhat antithetically, in verse.
One stanza of my little ode to mock compassion was a simple prediction, based on frequent precedent, regarding the political discourse sure to emanate from the scene of all such crimes:
“Guns are the villain,” shout those on the left,
“Don’t blame violent games!” scold the right —
The tribes swing their axes and beg for your cash,
obfuscating with all of their might.
And so, right on cue, both sides have taken their standard positions in the war of rhetoric over what is to be done. From the progressive left, the cries for what they euphemize as “gun control measures” are quite understandable, as the left’s goal is totalitarian dictatorship — yes it is, and there is nothing hyperbolic or “extreme” about stating what is merely self-evident — and everyone knows an armed population is the insuperable practical barrier to absolute despotism.
Far more disturbing, however, though equally predictable, is the knee jerk response of most on the so-called right toward any suggestion that violent computer games might have a role to play in conditioning these sorts of lone-wolf random attacks, in which the goal, just as in the case of the games, is to down as many anonymous humans as possible as efficiently as possible, without regard for any notion of “good guys and bad guys,” i.e., with no contextual consideration of the justice or purpose of the killing. For to deny any such link is not only hypocritical in the extreme, coming from those who are quick to accuse the mainstream media of inciting angry and intolerant behavior against “conservatives,” but far worse, their denial entails an outright rejection of the very concept of moral education, contradicting all their usual rhetoric about “the state of the culture.”
Strangely, this happens to be one of those rare instances in which Donald Trump’s impulsiveness serves him well. During his (unnecessary) national address in response to the mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso, after having shown his anti-republican colors by reasserting his approval of so-called “red flag” laws which would allow the government, working with social media companies, to identify and disarm citizens judged to have “dangerous” or “intolerant” attitudes, independent of their having committed any crimes — goodbye, political dissent — Trump then went on, against type, to say something almost reasonable, isolating violent computer games as a contributing factor in today’s increasingly casual view of killing.
Interestingly, many of his supporters instinctively leapt in with objections here, in spite of the fact that this was the only worthwhile thing Trump has ever said on the issue of mass shootings — which, I suppose, proves that even a true cult idol like Trump will meet his match if he makes the mistake of setting himself up in opposition to his worshippers’ most cherished and solipsistic pleasures. Therein lies the special danger for a leader whose following is based on appealing to the morally infantile: If you ever depart from the rhetoric of moral infantilism, you risk losing their allegiance. They crave their “Daddy,” but if you ever actually assert the moral rectitude of a true daddy, such as by questioning the moral influence of your children’s favorite toys, heaven help you. You will quickly learn that Hell hath no fury like a mob of thumb-sucking fake conservatives scorned.
Since the case in defense of violent computer games, even more than the older defense of violent movies, is inherently ridiculous, and tells us more about the emotional immaturity of the defenders than about the causes of random killing sprees, I will not waste your time or mine quoting from these emotional infants at length. Suffice it to say that they will produce studies and statistics to support their contention, which, stripped to its bare essentials, is this: How a young person occupies his mind has no effect whatsoever on the development of his moral character or inclinations. No one who would defend such a position deserves to be taken seriously in any discussion of the human soul, for no one who would defend such a position may even be said to believe in the human soul, let alone understand the first thing about it.
Let me begin, however, by dispensing with a couple of tropes on which these deniers of the human soul invariably rely as a pathetic mask for their childish special pleading, namely the “Children-have-always-played-shooting-games” argument and the “Inanimate-objects-don’t-commit-crimes” argument.
The first of these tropes, the analogy with cap guns and boyhood games of “Cowboys and Indians,” collapses with the merest glance at the facts.
To begin with, those earlier games, unlike today’s rapid-fire body-count video games, had built-in premises of right and wrong, good and evil, which is to say that the shooting was built on a simplistic but unmistakable structure of imaginary justice and heroism. Furthermore, and even more importantly, those shooting games were carried out on the fully conscious understanding that all the “victims” would immediately get up and play again; in other words, the playacting element from both imaginary shooter and imaginary victim was always explicit, because both sides of the imaginary battle were real live human beings who were actually friends.
You played Cowboys and Indians with children you knew and liked, meaning you didn’t really want to harm them. You played with children who had agreed to play along with you, meaning the shooting was enjoyed by mutual consent. And you played with children with whom you hoped to play many future games, meaning you had a vested emotional interest in your adversaries’ health and well-being, all playful hostilities aside.
In today’s “virtual reality” of online games and whatnot, your victims are meaningless, soulless human targets — anatomically lifelike but psychologically dead — which means you are free to view them, in all their virtual humanity, as human beings who are nevertheless completely devoid of personal value, and therefore unworthy of empathy. That is, unlike the old cap gun fights, in which the emotional boundary between the imaginary hostility and the real friendship was never forgotten — children who overstepped or neglected that boundary were considered sociopathic, and were shunned by other children — in today’s shooting games one’s victims are supposed to be perceived, without any mitigating reality, as at once both realistically human and morally insignificant. In other words, these games actively encourage and reward the sociopathic perspective on violence.
As for the second trope, the “Inanimate-objects-don’t-commit-crimes” argument, this is an obvious straw man argument. People use obvious straw man arguments when they feel desperate and devoid of anything substantial, or at least cleverly sophistical, to say in defense of a belief, typically because the belief they are defending is not an intellectual position at all, but merely an emotional predilection, most likely an immature one responding to a deeply entrenched habit. One example of this trope’s use will suffice.
Steven Crowder is one of those profiteering political entertainers who makes his fortune by pretending to be whatever the Republican Party establishment wants him to be, while couching his cynical instrumentality in the language of iconoclastic rebellion (see “conservative media”; see also “Trump”). On this issue, he is representative of the kind of desperate straw manning that moral infants fall back on when they know they have nothing to say in defense of their feelings beyond, “I want my pleasure!” Crowder has a new YouTube video, the title of which tells the whole story: “To the idiots who blame video games….”
Without worrying about the detailed content of his “argument” — why immerse oneself in the details of a toddler’s temper tantrum over his favorite blankie? — allow me to respond to Crowder, and the millions aligned with him on this matter, thus:
No one “blames” video games, or claims that games “cause” shootings. What we “idiots” are saying, Mr. Soother-Clinging Profiteer, is that video games of a certain nature promote exactly the kind of easy, addictive, amoral pleasure that can, if allowed to become habitual, condition the human soul to function in ways that are less human, less rational, less moral, than its proper, natural functioning.
If the concept of moral education is unfathomable or unacceptable to you, then say so. Identify yourself as what you are. Stop pretending to care about “the culture” when criticizing things that have no emotional appeal to you personally, and then turning around and obfuscating yourself to sleep at night over any hint of a challenge to the sanctity of your favorite chew toy.
Part of the reason the pleasure-seekers fall back on this kind of straw man argument — “Games don’t cause shootings, bad men do” — is that it reinforces a convenient false dichotomy which helps them evade the real issue here, namely the importance of moral development. For by portraying the critics of violent games as people who “blame” the games for real criminal violence, we imply that they are removing the blame from the criminal; in other words, the false dichotomy in operation here is, “Either games kill people, or criminals are responsible for their crimes.” But in fact, no one (progressives aside) ever said that games kill people, or denied that criminals bear personal responsibility for their actions. The games can be harmful, and the individuals so harmed nevertheless be responsible. There is no contradiction, and no dichotomy.
And here we come to the real crux of the issue. To claim that observing the morally harmful influence of games is somehow tantamount to denying individual responsibility is nothing less than to assert that there is no such thing as moral education.
Why do we care about what children do in their spare time? Why do we care what they learn in school? Why do we care about their early sexual experiences? Why do we care who their friends are? Why do we care whether they experiment with drugs? Why do we wonder what kind of movies they watch, what kind of music and lyrics they are hearing? Why do we care who is teaching them?
The answer, for anyone with an ounce of humanity left in his soul, is clear: We care about these things because all of them are capable of having a profound and lasting effect on a child’s moral character, along with the related matters of his mental functioning and his basic premises and the all-important content of his deeply-absorbed but unreflective formative beliefs.
And the case of pleasure is most concerning, since as mankind has understood throughout the millennia, there is no more powerful motivational tool for children. The early pleasures can be definitive of the soul, as they establish habits of feeling and response that, due to their association with positive sensations, will be almost impossible to shake in later years. This is why responsible parents try to inculcate a love of reading, or an appreciation for good music, or an enthusiasm for nature, in their young children. They are hoping to exploit and guide the pleasures into fruitful, developmentally sound paths, hoping that these early enticements will influence their child’s lifelong “second nature.”
Likewise, of course, such parents also try to dilute or diminish those pleasures which are likely to have the opposite, damaging effect on the development of a child’s character and thought processes.
Does this mean such parents are denying their child’s individual responsibility? No. It means they understand that humans do not make choices or respond to events in a vacuum. We respond to life’s trials and challenges as ourselves, which is to say from the position of our previously established moral premises and emotional inclinations.
To imagine that an adult’s behavior — including and especially his responses to difficulty, to rejection, to resistance, to disapproval, to failure, and to fear — are made without reference to any conditioned attitudes and predilections is not to preserve individual responsibility, but to deny human temporal continuity, learning, the laws of cause and effect, and the developmental properties of the human mind.
To defend amorally violent, and hence morally deadening, video games, against the judgment of sober adulthood, is itself indicative of a soul whose moral education is deeply deficient. Such defenders of the indefensible are not, whatever they claim, standing up for individual responsibility. They are standing up for their childish pleasures, for an industry that exploits childish moral weakness for easy profit, and most of all for the right to be irresponsible.