Training Violent Behaviors: Media and the Message of Desensitization

I had the opportunity to read a fascinating and very thought provoking book this past week called, “Transforming the Powers: Peace, Justice and the Domination System.” The basic idea of the book is taken from Walter Wink’s idea of the “powers and principalities” which consist of the “spiritual dynamics at work in the institutions and social systems that shape our lives.”  Wink’s well known line goes, “The Powers are good; the Powers are fallen the Powers must be redeemed.”

The book, a compilation of various Anabaptist scholars, seeks to tease out wink’s main ideas and delve into many areas of society and practice and challenges how we can think and engage the powers of our society in the manner of Jesus.  There are a number of standout essays done by authors such as Nancey Murphy, Ray Gingerich, Glen Stassen and Daniel Liechty.

Daniel Liechty’s article titled, “Principalities and Powers: A Social-Scientific Perspective,” grabbed my attention because of its short discussion on violence in the media; something that reminded me of my earlier post about the Left-Behind video game I reported on – Left Behind Eternal Forces – Violence for Christians.

In the article I commented that,

Other than having the characters in the game say things like “Praise the Lord??? after killing people, and referring to the UN as a tool of Satan, the game battles against the “Antichrist’s Global Community Peacemakers,??? a very interesting title to unpack. The army of Christ is violently plotting to kill the “peacemakers??? of the Antichrist, hmmm….I wonder what these guys think of the Christian Peace traditions…?

Although I haven’t heard just yet what the makers of the game think of people who oppose violence, I did discover something equally puzzling.

Liechty writes, in Transforming the Powers, that the media is not a neutral force,

“The media more than anything else determines and transmits our cultural images of good and evil.  In the grips of the profit-making system (itself an obvious fetish), the media, hiding behind  a chimera of objectivity, spew into our environment a constant and daily does of glamorized violence and killing, aimed not at adults, but rather, what is surely criminal, at our children and teenagers (p. 48).”

His point above seems almost so obvious that I need not quote him at length, but then again his comment reminds me of Jaques Ellul’s constant criticisms of Technology and the propaganda of the media and Ellul’s earlier criticisms seem to have fallen by the wayside.  The point I wanted to make concerns that last line where media focuses on “our children and teenagers.” This brings us back to the violence we often find in video games today, and worse yet in “Christian (I am using this term so very loosely)” video games such as Left Behind: Eternal Forces.

Liechty explains that violence is being taught to our children in ways similar to those employed in military development.  He refers to the book, “On Killing” by Lt. Col. David Grossman.   In his book Grossman, a military psychologist for many years, writes about his job to “increase fire ratio” among the soldiers he worked with, and explains that it was the job of the psychologist to “break down the natural inhibitions humans have in regard to killing other humans.”

They in turn established methods of accomplishing these tasks such as, “methods of classical conditioning, operant conditioning, desensitization, and role modeling (p.49).”  What shook Grossman, and grabbed my attention, was his realization these methods are used in American media, “violence entertainment,” as he calls it.  Grossman then argues that through media, but especially video games,

“The culture is exposing and subjecting its children, from early age upward, to essentially the same kinds of conditioning techniques being used in the military to break down new recruits’ inhibitions to point a gun at another human being and pull the trigger. Combine that fact with the availability of weapons, and we have a clear recipe for disaster among our teens and young people today (49).”

Ultimately, we must be aware that every aspect of media is propaganda of one sort or another.  It appeals to our our fears, or desires, things we want and things we know we need and gives us evaluative tools in overcoming those needs and fears. It direct us toward its own message, or product, and in doing it points us away from the Gospel.  It is in this instance, when media turns us toward itself as the answer – when it becomes our ideology – that we need to engage in redeeming the practices of that “power-structure.”   And if Grossman is right, not only do the Peace Churches have something to think about, but so do others who support military activity but aren’t ready for their adolescents to be trained in such a way.

A couple other reviews on “Transforming the Powers.”

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