Saturday, May 10, 2008

Career Day Violence

At Career Day at my son's middle school, I conducted role-plays with the students to illustrate the mechanics and magic of mediation.

We'd establish a simple hypothetical problem, with multiple perspectives and interests, and give everyone a chance at suggesting possible resolutions -- sky's the limit, no constraints. The idea was to "wring dry the towel" of ideas -- "Good! What else?" -- and illustrate the multiplicity of potentially satisfying outcomes that diverge from the traditional zero-sum, win-lose scenario of courtrooms and battlefields.

I obviously had been fantasizing a beautiful lesson in negotiation and compromise and active listening and "underlying interests vs. intractible positions." Expanding the pie vs. dividing the pie. Collaborative peacemaking.

What was horrifying was the natural inclination of these students to adopt a "punishing" stance -- and instinctively offer a "lose-lose" verdict. Could this have been passed down from their parents? It certainly sounded that way: "You both have to give the [contested object] to me, and I'll keep it [or discard it], and you're both grounded for fighting."

Worse was the proclivity toward blatant violence: "He should smash him over the head with a rock and just take [the object of dispute] and run away." Or (from a girl): "Just kick him in the nuts and grab it from him, and tell him you'll kill him if he tells anybody." Again, these were pre-teens.

What's to blame? Parents? TV? Movies? Rap music? Violent videogames?

I ponder the ancient Myth of Redemptive Violence, as articulated by Walter Wink.

Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts.

He uses "Popeye" as an example:

In a typical segment, Bluto abducts a screaming and kicking Olive Oyl, Popeye’s girlfriend. When Popeye attempts to rescue her, the massive Bluto beats his diminutive opponent to a pulp, while Olive Oyl helplessly wrings her hands. At the last moment, as our hero oozes to the floor, and Bluto is trying, in effect, to rape Olive Oyl, a can of spinach pops from Popeye’s pocket and spills into his mouth.

Transformed by this gracious infusion of power, he easily demolishes the villain and rescues his beloved. The format never varies. Neither party ever gains any insight or learns from these encounters. They never sit down and discuss their differences. Repeated defeats do not teach Bluto to honour Olive Oyl’s humanity, and repeated pummellings do not teach Popeye to swallow his spinach before the fight.

But he draws parallels to all popular culture, and of course real life:

We have already seen how the myth of redemptive violence is played out in the structure of children’s cartoon shows (and is found as well in comics, video and computer games, and movies). But we also encounter it in the media, in sports, in nationalism, in militarism, in foreign policy, in televangelism, in the religious right, and in self-styled militia groups. What appears so innocuous in cartoons is, in fact, the mythic underpinnings of our violent society.

The psychodynamics of the TV cartoon or comic book are marvelously simple: children identify with the good guy so that they can think of themselves as good. This enables them to project out onto the bad guy their own repressed anger, violence, rebelliousness, or lust, and then vicariously to enjoy their own evil by watching the bad guy initially prevail. This segment of the show – where the hero suffers – actually consumes all but the closing minutes, allowing ample time for indulging the violent side of the self.

When the good guy finally wins, viewers are then able to reassert control over their own inner tendencies, repress them, and re-establish a sense of goodness without coming to any insight about their own inner evil. The villain’s punishment provides catharsis; one forswears the villain’s ways and heaps condemnation on him in a guilt-free orgy of aggression. Salvation is found through identification with the hero.

The Myth of Redemptive Violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational, and primitive depiction of evil the world has even known. Furthermore, its orientation toward evil is one into which virtually all modern children (boys especially) are socialised in the process of maturation.

So what can we do -- as parents, educators, mediators -- to offset this horrifying trend? Wink offers some solid ideas. What are yours?

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