When ‘violent disagreement’ isn’t just a figure of speech

A few days ago, journalist Zoey Tur, formerly Bob Tur, briefly made headlines after a televised roundtable discussion of transsexuality during which he grabbed another participant by the back of the neck, leaned in, and growled, “You cut that out now, or you’ll go home in an ambulance.” The other panelist’s offense? Arguing that Tur’s male genome meant he was in fact… male. When he was asked later why threats of violence against transsexuals are wrong but threats of violence against those who disagree with transsexuality are acceptable, Tur tweeted, “being called Sir and mentally ill is violence” (emphasis mine).

I bring up the incident because it illustrates a new and increasingly widespread perspective which has the potential to radically change the social and legal framework of conversation and disagreement in America. This is the idea that being confronted with “bad” ideas, and especially being challenged on issues which one considers important, is tantamount to violence.

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Good and bad from the same clay

Simeon and Levi are brothers;
Their swords are implements of violence.
Let my soul not enter into their council;
Let not my glory be united with their assembly;
Because in their anger they slew men,
And in their self-will they lamed oxen.
Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce;
And their wrath, for it is cruel.
I will disperse them in Jacob,
And scatter them in Israel. (Genesis 49:5-7)

With these words, Jacob cursed his sons for their treacherous assault on the Canaanite city of Shechem in revenge for the rape of their sister Dinah. When the rapist, Shechem, prince of the city, requested her hand in marriage, Levi and Simeon insisted that all inhabitants of Shechem must first be circumcised. Convinced, the citizens of Shechem submitted to the procedure and then, “on the third day, when they were in pain… two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, each took his sword and came upon the city unawares, and killed every male” (Genesis 34).

And Jacob cursed Simeon and Levi for their wrath, for it was cruel.

It came about, as soon as Moses came near the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing; and Moses’ anger burned, and he threw the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf which they had made and burned it with fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it over the surface of the water and made the sons of Israel drink it. […]

Now when Moses saw that the people were out of control—for Aaron had let them get out of control to be a derision among their enemies—then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered together to him. He said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Every man of you put his sword upon his thigh, and go back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and kill every man his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his neighbor.'” So the sons of Levi did as Moses instructed, and about three thousand men of the people fell that day. Then Moses said, “Dedicate yourselves today to the Lord—for every man has been against his son and against his brother—in order that He may bestow a blessing upon you today.” (Exodus 32:19-20, 25-29)

And God blessed Levi for their wrath, for it was righteous.

It appears the Levites were a people prone to wrath. The two major scenes in which Levi (as a man and then as a tribe) plays a starring role both feature massacres in response to evil. In both situations, Levi takes the initiative, stepping forward from the crowd–from among his brothers to avenge their sister, from among the other tribes to avenge their God–to deal violence as punishment for heinous wrongdoing. Not everyone has the courage, the strength, and the fierceness for such a role. In fact, most don’t. Levi did.

In Genesis, Levi earns a curse by responding to evil with an unjust and cruel violence, a violence few others would have dared. In Exodus, Levi’s curse is transformed to blessing by responding to evil with a righteous, obedient violence, a violence few others would have dared. Both the sin and the resulting curse, and the virtue and the resulting blessing, were the fruit of a unique personality trait: a willingness, even an inclination, to respond to evil with violence–a trait which was in itself neither virtuous nor vicious. When driven by sinful human motivations, it turned to sin. When submitted to divine authority, it turned to righteousness.

The story of Levi reminded me of Dr. Wendy Mogel’s observation in The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,

I begin by telling these audiences, “Think of your child’s worst trait. The little habit or attitude that really gets on your nerves. Or bring the medium-sized habit that your child’s teacher keeps bringing up at parent conferences. Or the really big one that wakes you up at three in the morning with frightening visions of your little guy all grown up and living alone in an apartment in West Hollywood, plotting a shooting spree at the post office…

Good. Now you’re one step of ahead of where you were a moment ago, because now you know your child’s greatest strength. It’s hidden in his worst quality, just waiting to be let out.”

Dr. Mogel’s point is that a child’s strongest traits provide the raw material for his or her greatest virtues–if properly tended. The parent’s job is to patiently work to transform bossiness into leadership, recklessness into courage, nosiness into concern for others, hyperactivity into creativity, talkativeness into eloquence, quietness into a listening ear. Of course, the talkative child also needs to learn to be quiet when appropriate, the quiet child needs encouragement to speak up at the right time, and so on, but wise parents learn the shape of their child’s soul and work with the grain, not against it. The answer to a Levi’s strength is not to hope for atrophy, but to teach him to put on the full armor of God before going to war.

So it is for each of us. No matter our condition, all we can do at any given moment is take our whole selves and lay them before the Father, ready at that moment to be used in whatever way He sees fit. Like Levi, our only concern is that, when the call is raised “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me,” we come, yielding whatever may be in us to be used by the One who does all things well. Whatever past sin might have flowed from a particular facet of our personality, only one question matters now: Whose is it? So long as it is utterly submitted to God, to be used, cultivated, changed, or even destroyed, as He sees fit, no evil can result; and perhaps great good, unexpected good, a blessing bestowed in place of a curse.

It’s never just self-defense

I recently had an interesting conversation with my mother in which she commented that she would intervene to defend someone else who was in danger, but wouldn’t feel comfortable using violence to defend herself. She knows I disagree (the exchange was prompted by a weapon on my Christmas wish list…), and with her usual graciousness she agreed that self-defense is morally justifiable. She said she simply felt uncomfortable with it as a personal matter, because the idea of harming another human being solely for your own benefit bothered her.

It is a reasonable argument, but the problem with such a position is that it assumes an act of self-defense only impacts the attacker and the victim, when in reality, like any social interchange, its effects ripple out far beyond those immediately affected.

With the exception of the extremely rare, truly psychotic individual, every criminal makes a cost-benefits analysis before acting, asking himself if the risks of the proposed action outweigh whatever gain he anticipates. It may be nothing more than a subconscious observation that the victim is smaller or alone, but every criminal wonders, “Is this worth the risk?”

The benefit from any one individual’s self-defense accrues to every member of society when it slightly decreases the likelihood that a future attacker answers the question, “Is it worth it?” in the affirmative.

One of the benefits of judicial punishments such as imprisonment or capital punishment is deterrence: the fact that anyone considering a similar crime is given an additional reason to decide it isn’t worth the risk. Deterrence works. It’s why murder rates went up when capital punishment was shelved in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, then declined as the death penalty was again employed. However, the criminal justice system isn’t the first line of deterrence.

Any time an intended victim fights back, they act as a deterrent to future crime. When John Stossel interviewed imprisoned criminals several years ago, they told him their greatest fear was running afoul of armed victims. Study after study has shown that criminals prey on the weak. They don’t want a fight; they want a quick and painless victory. That’s why many would-be attackers flee at the first sign of resistance, or don’t attack at all if the intended target appears alert and prepared. The more doubt a predator feels about the ease of victory, the more likely he is to decide it’s just not worth it.

The homeowner who kills an armed robber, the jogger who stabs a rapist, or the tourist who attacks a mugger have one thing in common: Each one is making it a little less likely that some future innocent will suffer a similar attack, because they’ve just altered the criminal’s cost-benefit analysis in favor of the victim. The individual who chooses to fight back defends not only himself, but also the shadowy ranks of future victims who now look just a bit more menacing to would-be attackers, and are therefore just a bit less likely to be victims afterall.

Thoughts on video games

A recent discussion in one of my classes regarding video games inspired me to summarize my thoughts on the topic here. There are two issues that must be considered when evaluating if and to what extent a video game is acceptable.

The first area to be evaluated relates to the content of the game itself. Any game in which a player is rewarded for behavior which would be wrong in real life should not be tolerated. Grand Theft Auto, in which players are encouraged to shoot police officers and prostitutes, is an obvious example of this sort of game. Some might argue that the rules are different in virtual reality – after all, you aren’t actually shooting anybody, and a computer pixel is just a computer pixel. Nobody is actually hurt when you beat up the prostitute or line up your sights on the back of the police officer’s head.

And that’s true. The problem, though, is not what you are doing to the policeman; rather, what shooting the policeman is doing to you. Every choice we make inexorably changes who we are on a fundamental level. We create our character by the choices we make, and no choice is without consequence. Every time I look away when someone is in trouble, I become a little more of a coward; every time I ignore the bank error in my favor, I become a little more of a cheat; every time I kick the dog, a little more cruel. Our choices make us. Hoping otherwise is like wishing that gravity would relent.

How does this apply to video games? Because video games make us choose as well. We must choose to beat the prostitute or shoot the policeman. Of course, doing so in virtual reality is less-worse than doing so in real life, but it’s merely a question of degree. American soldiers train with video-game-style simulators because experience in virtual reality transfers so easily to real life.

Beating the prostitute draws you a little closer to being the sort of man who beats women. Shooting the cop makes you value innocent life a little bit less. Obviously, this does not mean that everyone who plays GTA will becoming a cop-killing woman-beater. However, their soul has been nudged a bit farther in that direction. It is simply impossible to choose evil – even virtually – without effect. Do we really want to make the argument, “Well, yes, my soul is becoming more and more the soul of a man who would beat a woman, but I wouldn’t ever actually beat women, so it’s okay”?

It should be noted that the foregoing is not intended to be an argument against all violent video games. After all, violence is not inherently evil. Who would not want a man to be ready to defend those in need, or fight against an invading enemy, or perhaps braid a scourge of cords and clear the Temple courts? Now, I’m not suggesting that video games are the best training for such acts of appropriate violence, but a game in which players battle a legitimate enemy while following specified rules of engagement (like many war games, for example), would at least not carry the same inherent moral danger as a game in which the violence is unequivocally immoral. On the other hand, there are other concerns to be raised against even a game with unobjectionable content, which brings us to the second issue that must be considered in a discussion of the value of video games.

In a nutshell, the interactive, immersive quality of video gaming (one that will only increase) creates the possibility of its serving as a sort of “life placebo.” Why bother with the challenges, struggles, and hard-bitten victories of real life when you can pull up a game and experience the same feelings of triumph without the trouble and with the added benefit of a “reset” button if things get out of hand? In Boys Adrift, Dr. Leonard Sax writes,

It’s not hard to see how boys motivated by the will to power might have been successful in earlier generations. They might have grown up to be successful entrepreneurs, daring innovators, explorers, politicians, or soldiers. They could readily create a productive niche for themselves. […]

If these men were reborn today, it is less likely that they would undertake a meaningful career. I suspect that a boy born today with the DNA of General Patton or Howard Hughes would more likely become a video game addict. He might have a job, but there’s a real risk that his drive and his energy would be directed into the video games rather than into his career. […]

Football coach Greg Sullivan, Mr. Welsh’s colleague, says that he sees fewer and fewer boys playing outside when he drives around northern Virginia. “They are inside playing video games,” he says. “More kids are finding real sports too demanding.”

I’ve talked with other football coaches who describe, with amazement, teenage boys who think that because they can win at Madden NFL, they therefore know something about playing the real-life game of football. “These guys are five-minute wonders,” one coach told me. “They get out on the field, run around for a few minutes, and then they’re done. They have no endurance. They’re in pathetic shape. And they don’t want to do the work that they would have to do, to train the way they would have to train, to get in shape.”

Virtual success is much easier than real life, and no less satisfying if one doesn’t think about it too much. The flood of endorphins from a virtual touchdown or a virtual military victory is just as real, even if the accomplishment itself is not. Because video games so effectively mimic the rewards that once could only be achieved by actually living, they can divert the drive that pushes a young man toward lasting and meaningful accomplishment. If a boy has been too busy developing his skills in virtual reality to learn how to grit his teeth, dig his heels in, and do something real, when will he ever learn?

Of course, a few hours of Halo aren’t going to destroy a boy’s life, and most boys who play video games are able to do so in moderation. Picking up a joystick doesn’t immediately condemn you to a life in which your greatest accomplishment is saved on a hard drive. However, video games should be approached with the cautious awareness that they offer a powerful draw to invest too much of ourselves into struggles which are ultimately without meaning. As Plutarch observes in his Lives, “He who busies himself in mean occupations produces, in the very pains he takes about things of little or no use, an evidence against himself of his negligence and indisposition to what is really good.”