Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Here There Be Boogeymen

There's a good piece over at Matthew's site regarding the silliness of the corrupting effects of video games:
I thought it was odd back in 1992 when many people were inclined to blame high crime rates on violent video games rather than, say, high rates of drug abuse, a dysfunctional parole/probation system, a law enforcement community that often has its priorities screwed up, a structural shift toward diminished earning potentials for low-skilled workers combined with an inadequate public school system, etc., etc., etc. But since the time I was eleven years old, video games have only gotten (much) more violent and (much, much) more vivid in their portrayals of violence. And guess what? Since that time the rate of violent crime in the United States has gone monotonically down. The video games are fine. If you don't like them, don't play them. If you don't want your kids playing them, then take a deep breath and think of all the things you and your friends liked to do when you were kids that your parents and their friends didn't approve of. Remember the great comic book scare?

The last sentence is where I'm going with this. Conservatives NEED a boogeyman in order to muster support for their agenda. Look back at the 50's (or still, in today's nuttier evangelical churches) and Rock n' Roll was going to create an army of sex-crazed teenagers roaming the streets looking for their next rape victim. Listen to any right-wing radio loudmouth and you'll get a litany of troubles attributed to liberals. George Bush and Dick Cheney got quite a bit of mileage convincing a lot of Americans that terrorists were just waiting for a Kerry victory so they could walk into our cities and detonate a nuclear bomb. Marriages at risk? It's because of the radical gay agenda.

As I said in a previous post, the politics of fear is the bread and butter of the Republican party. It's much easier to identify a scapegoat than to deal with the complexities of an issue and make hard decisions. As Matthew points out in the quote above, blaming video games requires much less thought than considering a multitude of issues that are most likely the true causes of the problem.

Psychologically, if 'A' is the cause of 'C' but 'B' is easier to identify and, easier to beat up on, then even if beating up on 'B' doesn't solve the problem, it sure feels good. In the face of powerlessness, having something to flog gives us the impression that we're doing something about the problem. Furthermore, beating up on something - ANYTHING - helps to eliminate our distress with the issue.

About 15 years ago, Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky released a paper on stress reduction behavior among sub-alpha males in baboon troops in East Africa. Sapolsky noticed that once a sub-alpha male was beat up by an alpha-male, the sub-alpha male would turn around and wail on a sub-sub-alpha male. Sapolsky wondered if this behavior, turning agression around on a weaker member of the troop, was eliminating stress. He took cortisol levels (a stress hormone) after the sub-alpha male was attacked and then again after the sub-alpha male attacked a weker male and found that indeed, attacking a weaker baboon lowered the levels of stress hormones.

The tendency of conservatives to scapegoat is analogous, I think. Video games might not be the reason for high crime rates but it's an easy target, a target that can't defend itself, and although condemning video games might not solve the problem, it sure feels good. It might be something to consider the next time you hear a baboon like Rush Limbaugh attacking liberals.


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