Why parents (and everyone else) should be glad SCOTUS ruled in favor of violent video games

Castlevania isn't one of the most violent video games, but it among the most likely to send you into a murderous rage.

On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States of America issued its ruling in the case of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (08-1448), deciding in a vote of 7-2 that the state of California was out of line in passing legislation that would penalize merchants for selling violent games to minors.  This is a case I’ve been following for about a year.  A while back, I wrote an article for Playtime that ruminated on the implications of this law, but the first draft was a mess, and I never gathered up the gumption to go back and revise it, so it was never published.  Happily, the majority opinion went the right way, and mostly for all the right reasons.  Even more happily, Justice Antonin Scalia and the concurring justices marshaled way more facts and citations than I did.  The main point that I had wanted to make was that a lot of people from across the ideological spectrum like to legislate morality in ways that run counter to the principles of liberty that Americans, in theory, hold dear.  And they like to justify these intrusions by that most manipulative of plaintive wails: “THINK OF THE CHILDREN!”

In sum, the California legislature, under the aegis of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, decided that kids needed to be protected from video games that might cause them to grow up into vicious, post-apocalyptic psychopaths.  The language used in the bill was absurdly vague, and it unfairly singled out video games (and video game retailers) for punishment.  The thing that most irritated me — besides the obvious shredding of First Amendment rights — was the way the law so casually placed the responsibility of moral guidance in the hands of the state and businesses.  Not that the government and private businesses should be exempt from a certain degree of moral responsibility to society, but there was one particular strata of societal fabric that was completely cut out of the process.  Any guesses as to whom that might be?

Yep: the parents.

Most of the news articles I’ve seen on this ruling have focused on the First Amendment issues — the rights of minors to consume offensive materials, the rights of the merchants to sell those materials to anyone with cash enough to pay for them, etc. — and all of them have touched on the larger, cultural implications.  Everyone is always concerned about the potential negative impact of pop culture upon the young, and legislation is always being written somewhere in an effort to protect the children from it… usually by curtailing someone else’s freedom of expression.  The larger issue that nobody seems to want to touch is the fact that laws like this, in which politicians and crusaders make it Society’s responsibility to raise our children, chisel away at the backbone of society by eroding the prerogatives that should belong to parents.

I can’t blame the journalists or commentariat for shying away from the importance of the issue of parental involvement.  If anyone so much as breathes a syllable relating to how parents should or should not address an issue, you’ll have a flood of irate parents banging down your virtual door, shouting, “How dare you tell me how to raise my kids!”  A little more than a week ago, I happened across an article written for Pajamas Media, in which conservative David Solway bemoaned the infantilization of our culture.  Many of his comments were rooted in the disintegration of our youths’ ability to write and speak effectively.  While he touched on the responsibility of parents, his most vociferous attacks were reserved for the liberal establishment that, in his view, waters down educational standards in order to spare kids’ self-esteem and indulge juvenile lassitude as if it’s some sort of entitlement.  He fails to note that conservatives have done their fair share in retarding literacy in this country.  Liberals weren’t the ones who were trying to yank Harry Potter — the one series in the last decade and a half that children were flocking to read en masse — off library shelves.  Liberals aren’t the ones who don’t think your children can handle Heather Has Two Mommies. Liberals are also not the ones who deem books with adult themes, adult content, or complex themes (and correspondingly complex literary modes) to be “inappropriate” for children and teenagers.  I don’t disagree with Solway that the way the left has turned permissiveness into a virtue has taken a toll.  On the other hand, right-wingers are the ones who spend a lot of time carping about how postmodernism has ruined traditional storytelling, even though some of the most advanced texts of the 20th and 21st centuries — such as, for instance, Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow — depend upon modernist or postmodern approaches.  In this way, both the right and left in the U.S. have worked to infantilize our children.  But beyond his cherry-picking of examples, he also chooses to elide the importance of parents permitting children to speak incorrectly at the dinner table, or the fact that parents are the ones who, in theory, control access to the Internet or coerce their children into completing homework at home.  Even recent documentaries on the dismal failures of the public school system, such as Waiting for Superman or The Cartel, have focused almost exclusively on the ways that the system has sabotaged our children’s education.  What they fail to mention are the ways in which American parents have dismally failed their kids.

It’s clear that anything connected with kids and their upbringing in society raises red flags and heated rhetoric.  But refusing to drag parents into any political debate involving children is precisely the wrong approach.  Just because parents don’t like to feel that they’re under fire doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be right there in the trenches.  As it happens, though, public debate seems to go out of its way to put parents in the rear guard, as far from the front lines as possible.

There are several reasons that this is such a hot-button angle, but I’ll restrict myself to a few.  First is the pernicious assumption on the part of utopians and authoritarians that the (Nanny) State is the best-equipped entity to deal with the complicated problems involved in child-rearing.  This is an assumption shared by conservatives and liberals alike, though often for sharply divergent reasons.  Indeed, you can see the contrast in the dissenting opinions of Justice Clarence Thomas (who leans right) and Justice Stephen Breyer (who leans left).  It is also an assumption shared by most Americans, but the ramifications of it are so far-reaching that developing a consistent cultural perspective on it would mean a radical restructuring of some of our most-cherished institutions and beliefs.  (For instance, public education as a whole would probably cease to exist as we know it.)  Challenging this assumption would mean a radical shift in the amount of responsibility that would revert back to the shoulders of American parents, and the kind of homogenous control that the power brokers currently wield would evaporate.  In other words, there are a lot of people who have a vested interest in retaining the position of moral gatekeepers.  Stripping them of that role might not be quite so tumultuous as to be truly revolutionary, but it would certainly upset the plans of the Religious Right and the Big Government Left to create a more perfect union that just so happens to conform to their respective value systems.

There’s a flipside to this, of course.  And that’s the fact that a lot of people aren’t comfortable with accepting that level of personal accountability.  Think of the tragic school shootings that happen every so often.  The first set of people blamed is school administration officials.  The second set of people?  Parents.  Family.  In both cases, the question is the same: How could you not see this coming?  Which, in practice, is simply an insidious, coded version of the real question: What did you do wrong, that they turned out like this?  Obviously, most families don’t have to deal with such a stark example of Bad Seed behavior.  But parents are customarily blamed for the failings of their offspring.  If not in the way they’ve been raised, then the genes they’ve inherited.  If not genes or behavior, then environment.  Even if you chalk up a kid’s behavior to growing up in a bad neighborhood, there’s an implication that the parents should have, somehow, found a way to insulate their children from it, or move out of it.

The most terrifying thing is that a lot of parents would prefer to abjure this responsibility.

Yes, even more terrifying than running out of rockets just before encountering one of these S.O.B.s.

The reality is that parents do have a tremendous impact upon the attitudes and behavior of children.  Not to the extent that most parents wish they did, but also not to the extent that their neighbors will blame them for if something goes horribly wrong.  Some parents do what they can to distance themselves from parental responsibility.  These are the adults who will park their kid in front of a PG-rated movie, simply because PG is supposed to be acceptable, but won’t take the time to watch it with their child or discuss the issues the film raises.  These are the parents that listen to gangsta rap as background music because they “like the beat,” and are shocked when their kids start using vulgar language or develop deeply misogynist attitudes.  Parents depend heavily upon shortcuts that are provided by society.  Perhaps it’s no worse for an adolescent to develop a wider vocabulary and appreciation for clever wordplay by listening to a rap album sporting a parental advisory label than it is to listen to an innocuous but thoroughly insipid pop album that recycles the same loops and unimaginative lyrics.  Different parents may have different perspectives on what’s appropriate for each child and what is not — but the important thing is that the parent be informed, thoughtful, and involved.

Keeping this in mind, let’s return to Brown v. EMA.  Under the California law, a merchant could have been severely fined for selling a M-rated game to a minor, but if a parent or guardian purchased the game on the minor’s behalf, or if the parent somehow gave permission for the sale to take place, it was legal.  This is beyond stupid.  What child is going to have $60 to spend on a video game unless that money was given to them by an adult?  And where is the child going to play that game, if not at home, on a video game console that was, in all likelihood, purchased by a parent?  By the time a kid is old enough to earn his own income, he’s old enough to play Duke Nukem Forever (which does sound truly horrendous) or whatever other piece of crap game is currently popular.  And if the parent is apathetic about what his kid plays, that’s the kind of responsibility that the parent should bear — not the video game merchant.  And if the parent is involved, and makes an informed decision that his child is mature enough to handle playing a violent game, it is not the responsibility of the State to imply that the parent is wrong… which is precisely what the law does.

Justice Scalia, writing for the majority opinion, perfectly encapsulated the dangers of that arrogance:

While some of the legislation’s effect may indeed be in support of what some parents of the restricted children actually want, its entire effect is only in support of what the State thinks parents ought to want.

Pages 15-18 deal most explicitly with the problem the legislation posed to parental prerogatives (and I highly recommend that you take the time to read the entire decision).  Another way to put it is that this law was asserting that the State has the right to enforce the moral education of children at the expense of the parents, while simultaneously letting parents off the hook for doing the same.  Instead, whatever responsibility is left over from the State’s power grab is spread amongst the business interests in the video game industry and its vendors.  Talk about infantilization.

The implications, of course, reach farther than parent-child relationships.  If the State can direct moral education in relation to one form of children’s entertainment (video games), why not movies, books, and music?  Why not then extend this kind of moral reckoning into the sphere of adult entertainment and behavior?  Justice Scalia correctly identifies the hypocrisy and slippery slope of allowing this law to stand, as it specifically targets one medium while ignoring others, and since the principles at stake are so poorly defined that it could open the door to further incursions.  But he also has to do an impossibly complicated dance around previous precedents in which censorship and First Amendment rights were curtailed, and the fact that he’s forced to excuse previous rulings against free speech while explaining their relevance (or irrelevance) to the current case makes his ruling challenging to read as well as frustrating.  It is a very clear example of how inconsistency and authoritarian crusades have met with success to the detriment of the principle that the Brown v. EMA ruling upholds.  When I said earlier that if Americans stopped and thought about the implications of how personal liberties and responsibility have been eroded over time, entire institutions would crumble, I wasn’t joking.  It’s not just parents and children. It’s all of us.  This case provides a small window into the wide network of practical and/or regrettable compromises that have been made in the last few centuries of law in the U.S.  Solway was right, indirectly: this case is a textbook study in infantilization, but not for the reasons he might think.

The Bible itself features a range of perspectives on the parent-child dynamic and the different levels of responsibility respectively shared by children, parents, and society.  My overall impression, though, is that it is parents that are primarily accountable for the spiritual welfare of the children.  Think of Eli and his wicked sons, or the numerous Proverbs regarding parental involvement; consider that believers are represented as children of God, in relation to him as Father.  By the same token, children are ultimately responsible for their own decisions as they grow into adults.  Ezekiel 18: 20 — “The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.”  Even if a parent does right by his child, if the child grows into a disappointing adult, there is only so much responsibility the parent can realistically accept.  Altogether, the mosaic of admonitions and illustrations provided in the Scriptures indicate that, while individuals are ultimately accountable for their own choices, parents are still responsible for rearing children.  A fairly conventional approach, if I may say so.  And it’s a time-honored approach that laws abridging free speech — by siphoning away parental authority — seek to undermine.

The triumph of this SCOTUS ruling is therefore threefold.  First, control freaks who would use the apparatus of government to legislate morality are given a well-earned chin tap.  Second, video games are granted the same level of prominence as literature, film, and music, as the majority opinion draws heavily upon comparisons to these more established forms of art and entertainment in order to contextualize the implications of the California law and this ruling.  Third (and most importantly), the court recognizes that it is parents who are charged with the responsibility of raising children — not the State, and certainly not the business interests for whom children are target consumers.  What censorship and advocates of restricting free speech don’t get is that a ruling like this proves that the Supreme Court — and all the Americans who agree with it — are thinking of the children.  They’re thinking of a world in which the love and guidance of a family is tertiary to the upbringing of a child, and they’re rejecting it.  They’re thinking of a world where whoever happens to be in political power has the might to enforce their own peculiar brand of morality, and they’re rejecting it.  In the text of the ruling, it is abundantly clear that Scalia and the concurring justices are indeed thinking of the children, because they’re considering the ripple effect that a law like this could have upon future generations.  With each new precedent, the path that our culture takes is more firmly defined, and it’s refreshing to see that the legal system is working the way it’s supposed to once in a while.

That’s not the only lesson we should draw from this, though.  We should perceive it as a starting point; an inspiration for continued perseverance.  What we need to learn is that a law like this should never even have to be heard by the Supreme Court of the U.S.A.  It should never be drafted by legislators in the first place.  There should be no advocates for a law like this, and this idea — that free expression should be curtailed because parents can’t be trusted to look out for their kids, or that growing children shouldn’t be allowed to make their own decisions if allowed to do so by their guardians — this idea should not even have a voice.  Quite obviously, I’m not arguing that these people should be silenced by force of arms or legal interference.  I’m arguing that this idea should be extinguished by the force of reason; I’m arguing that, as Christians, the conviction and values granted to believers by faith should inspire us not to eliminate avenues of dialogue, but to glory in the fact that we can shape culture positively.  We can raise our children as we see fit; we can bear witness by example and testimony.  If we are to live in a society governed by secular law, we should respect the spirit in which that law was founded.  It is what ensures our right to practice the faiths that we choose (or no particular faith at all); it is what ensures our right to pass our values and beliefs on to the next generation.  If we have no faith that our values and beliefs can be passed down without first silencing dissent or without the force of law, then our faith is pretty hollow.  I say that both as an American, a child of secular representative democracy, as well as a Christian, a child of God.

There are things that should be prohibited, if they pose a material danger to the lives and health of citizens.  Then there are things that should be discussed and debated — heatedly, if necessary — but left up to the individual to permit or in which to partake.  Arts and entertainment, for all their power, cannot harm our children if we as parents or family empower them to approach things like movies and video games intelligently and with a firm spiritual grounding.  Until we live in a culture that recognizes that, I will relish days like yesterday, when the spirit of freedom and the spiritual responsibilities of parents and children are both rightfully upheld. ☕

This is what video game violence used to look like.

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About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

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