Grand Theft Alito
The depravity of pop culture cannot be contained by market forces, nor even by parents. That is why the recent Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Assoc. comes as a disappointment.
The studies which have investigated the effects of violent video games on young people have been inconclusive -- the Supreme Court found the sum of the studies to indicate that there are no negative effects and that the studies which conclude otherwise are flawed. Some researchers have found that violent videogames lead to more aggressive behavior in young people, albeit not necessarily outright violence. But there need not be scientific evidence that a child will go on a shooting spree after playing Grand Theft Auto to merit our interest in discouraging such forms of entertainment.
This case is mired in a murky application of the 1st Amendment, about which reasonable people may disagree. The implication of the decision is that video games are a form of art. For some of us, this seems absurd on its face. Then again, hip-hop doesn't seem like art either, yet rappers frequently throw around the phrase, "as an artist..." Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia analogized the position of video games relative to society to that of the public's attitude towards movies in the '50s. Formerly, the notion of cinema as art was scoffed at.
This is a slippery slope type of argument. They censored Elvis, and that now seems ridiculous. Therefore, it is wrong to censor the most obscene and irresponsible music, or video game, in any way. That logic has never quite held up for me. The premise is that there can be no objective standard, nor can there be any person worthy of determining that standard, as to what is legitimate artistic expression, and what is simply rubbish that we'd be better off without.
"Yeah, but who's going to be the decider of that? You?" demands the opposing argument. Well, is there no one with common sense? It should not be that difficult to distinguish between The Beatles and 50 Cent (or Eminem, to keep things racially neutral). Isn't there any fair-minded individual or government body capable of making a judgment as to what ought to be covered by the 1st amendment, and what is simply pernicious?
Once a product such as music or a video game is released into the public domain, it becomes all but impossible to keep that product out of the hands of certain demographic groups. That is just one reason why the all-encompassing complaint that parents should be more involved is illegitimate as an excuse to abdicate our responsibility as a society. As we learned in the '90s, to release a music CD commercially, and then warn parents that it is inadvisable for those under 18 to listen to the CD, inadvertently creates a marketing campaign for the "artist." (Usually such an "artist" has no social or political message whatsoever. But in our relativistic culture, no one is qualified to judge that, because there are no objective standards.)
The lesson that we learned was not the lesson we should have learned. It was concluded from this experience that there was really no point to those labels because they only increase interest amongst adolescents. Therefore, it is futile to try to dissuade young people from buying such products, or to warn their parents. Instead, just let the parents bear the responsibility, and everyone can go about their business undisturbed by any moral qualms. The premise is true -- the labels did help increase sales -- but the conclusion is specious.
What should we have learned? To never allow the product to have been released in the first place, I would submit. If we are serious about controlling the tenor and sensibility of our culture, as Plato in The Republic recommends that an ideal society would do, we have to have some standard as to what young people are being exposed to. But we're obviously not serious, and I have not heard anyone even purport to hold such a bold ambition.
The issue at hand in the Supreme Court case -- to ban the sale of violent video games to minors in California -- was hardly a radical act of censorship. As Justice Breyer noted in his dissenting opinion, "[t]he statute prevents no one from playing a video game, it prevents no adult from buying a video game, and it prevents no child or adolescent from obtaining a game provided a parent is willing to help." The law, as Breyer put it, very modestly restricted expression. So this decision, reached by a majority of seven justices both liberal and conservative, indicates how the tide of public affairs is very much against imposing any limits whatsoever on the entertainment industry.
Any type of censorship will be said to run counter to libertarianism, which is currently en vogue among the right. But the ultimate aim of such an endeavor would be decidedly conservative, in a cultural sense. It is nice to have a laissez-faire attitude when possible, but we cannot presume that the entertainment industry will monitor itself, no more than we can presume that industrial plants will monitor their own pollution. In essence, that is what we are talking about -- pollution.
"The court has ruled that games are art," writes Seth Schiesel of the NY Times. "Now it is up to designers, programmers, artists, writers and executives to show us what art they can produce." This is a fool's hope. Why should we expect entertainment companies to accept moral responsibility when they have abdicated that responsibility thus far? They are obviously not interested. And by passing the buck to either parents or the entertainment industry, we have abdicated our responsibility as a culture.