As every parent knows, children hit. And push. And kick. And bite.
"No hitting!" you say in a stern voice. Your child looks at you impassively... and then clobbers you again, knocking your glasses clear off your face.
"NO!" you say, and put him or her down.
At which point, the floor presents itself to your child's fists. And it takes a beating which, much to your surprise (didn't everybody always tell you that parenting would be full of surprises?), makes you feel sorry for the floor.
Where does this violence come from? You haven't ever hit your child. As far as you know, he or she has never even seen anyone hit anyone else.
But it seems to come naturally.
And when it comes it does so with an army of other aggressive behaviors. In our house they range from shouting the single word "Mine!" in a short, clipped manner (regardless of whether the information conveyed remains relevant) to getting into viscious, winner-take-all tug-of-war matches over permanant marker pens. Certain among us (who will go unnamed) have even been known to throw driveway gravel directly at the faces of our younger brother... just to see what would result.
The list goes on. This army of violent and aggressive behaviors within each of us is, apparently, a standing army. We seem to establish it, by some trick of neurological development, sometime in our first year, and we then proceed to fund it throughout our lives. (Apparently the brain is not so different from the majority Democratic Congress when it comes to authorizing spending on the army!)
So what is the best way to channel this potential for violence in our children? How do we deal with it as parents? Do we try to suppress it? Ignore it? How do we want our kids to feel about violence? How do we feel about it?
I have realized that this whole debate boils down to a single question:
Is violence ever funny?
I raise this issue because, like many parents, ever since my first-born arrived I have been desperately trying shield him, and then my other two children, from exposure to violence. Which... I find hard to do.
Recently I searched for "Popeye the Sailor Man" on YouTube with my boys, and I quickly became uneasy when I saw the casually sadistic way that he does damage to Brutus. So much for my happy memories of Popeye and his spinich.
Even Tintin finds himself obligated to draw a gun on occasion.
And let's not even talk about the acrobatic thrashing that Batman and Robin give to Catwoman's henchmen "the Kittens" (shield your kid's eyes, and let's watch it instead):
Of course it is so much worse than these examples suggest. Some critics of popular culture trace the trend back to Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, just as the Vietnam War began to infect the national psyche. Many people noticed a new style of giddy, extreme violence with the arrival of Quentin Tarantino's Resevoir Dogs in 1992. ("Cinema as fast-food," quipped Anthony Lane.) Now there seems to be a new genre of violence launched every spring in the film festivals, with the most recent going by the name "torture porn."
Controversies have erupted in the news media too, as regards the use of photographs of dead people, or images containing or encouraging violent acts (most recently in the case of NBC's decision to air the videotaped messages of the Virginia Tech student who killed 32 people).
On the one side, we all acknowledge that popular culture in this country is rife with violence. On the other side, it is our intention as parents to limit our children's exposure to it.
Something's got to give.
Again, I ask: Is violence ever funny?
In trying to work out where I stand on this urgent question in terms of my children, I believe that I have to start with my own relationship to violence. I simply have to get clear myself.
Okay. Here goes... See if you can relate.
I certainly value experiences -- and works of entertainment or art -- which avoid violence more than I do those which include it. When I see a film such as The Wind Will Carry Us by Abbas Kiarostami, set in a small village in Iran, dealing with issues of small human foibles and confusion, I feel more enriched, and yes, happier, than when I see a film such as -- to name an action film at random -- The Bourne Supremacy. Likewise, when I get back from a walk with my children, and we spent an hour watching leaves race down the rainwater along the sides of streets, I feel qualitatively better than when I have, for example, just poured vinegar on a trail of ants in the kitchen.
But then, do I want to banish all representations of violence from my life? That seems absurd. We obviously learn from watching violence, and sometimes it seems fun to watch. After all, I do watch movies like those in the Bourne series. And I do sometimes thrill, if not at the violence itself, then at the craft with which it is presented (the color, the movement, the alternations of suspense and relief).
So my own relationship with violence seems frought with ambivalance. I don't like it so much. But I choose to watch it sometimes. It is part of my life, and I keep it that way intentionally.
Okay, now let's turn to the question at hand.
Is it funny? More broadly, does it entertain?
My answer, which surprises me by its directness, is no.
If I really think about it, the only reason why I watch acts of violence in films or other media is because of a sense that I may be learning from them. I get no pleasure from the violence itself. I would happily watch movies and read books where, as in Greek tragedy, the violence occurs ob-scene, that is, off-stage.
Even when my beloved Chaplin is hit by a frying pan, although I enjoy the odd, twitchy dance that it provokes, I think I would enjoy it more if it were provoked by some other occurance (chasing a butterfly or something?).
I know I'm in a minority in American culture here. I'm out on a limb. But that's my true preference if I'm really honest about it. Call me squeamish.
So if I dig down a bit further here, then I have to conclude that I don't get any entertainment value out of watching violence -- only educational value. It is never funny. The circumstances around it may be, but not the act itself.
And this gives me a starting-point for dealing with the omnipresence of violence in our culture when it comes to my kids.
I am not going to get fanatical about blocking all images of violence from them. That would: a) be impossible; b) cause them to conclude that Dad was hiding something, which must be interesting, and c) deprive them of important facts about the world.
But I am going to resist the pressure in our society to (pretend to?) enjoy violence. I will, without being too worried about overprotectiveness, express my opinion that this image or that TV show or that book is depressing, and sometimes even insist that we do something else. I will stand my ground on things like shoot-em-up video games -- sorry, not allowed in our home. And I will never laugh at a violent act, no matter what the studio audience and supplemental laugh track does.
Question: Is Violence Ever Funny?