By Stephanie Van Hook
Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.
Recently, a friend was shocked when he called his son to the dinner table and heard: “I’ll be there in a minute, right after I kill this guy.”
I gave a nervous laugh when I heard this, because I have heard it in my own home, and I bet that I’m not alone.
It is not young peoples’ problem alone that in playing dehumanizing video games where they are actually being trained to kill, to accept killing as entertainment. Fathers, mothers and sisters play these games together, buy them for each other, bond over them, and don’t take them that seriously.
But what if we did take this kind of murderous entertainment seriously as a hypothesis, as a clue to understanding the mechanisms that enable us to think violence is ‘natural’ in our relationships to one another, not to mention our political landscape and foreign policy.
Neuroscientists and cognitive scientists will attest to the fact that it does not matter whether the act of violence we see is real or imagined, our brain will respond in the same way.
For example, if read about violence or if we see it, we will experience it in physiologically similar ways, e.g. release of stress hormones, tensing of chest, and so forth--no wonder we try to discount violence when we watch it or hear about it – our very bodies are trying to tell us something’s wrong.
Hard science aside, if we were merely passive observers of the world, then these video games and other forms of dehumanizing entertainment would not matter. In general, we as Americans have been conditioned to believe this.
However, since we are in fact active builders of our shared culture, and the imagery in our minds matter, then they might be considered tools of conditioning us to accept an unnatural state of agitation and separateness because there are those who make more money when we feel disconnected from one another, whether that is in the form of gross consumerism, i.e. buying things we hope will make us secure and happy, or in the form of war, i.e. war profiteering.
If this seems implausible, just consider the fact that NBC has introduced the “sport” of “War-o-tainment” into the Olympics! In Stars Earn Stripes, celebrities will pair-up with members of the U.S. military to compete at warlike tasks, creating the illusion – just for fun, you understand – that war is a sport.
There is a way out. Did you know that military recruiters have a quota for new recruits? That in economic downturns, such as this one, they easily meet these quotas, while in times of economic prosperity, they find it very difficult?
Did you know that a year ago, military suicides surpassed the number of soldiers killed in active combat? These clues might tell us something about what really is natural and unnatural about violence -- and reveal something about our humanity.
Maybe our humanity is not reinforced through violence and exploitation, but it is in our ability to maintain healthy, supportive relationships and communities. It is in our ability to find ways of becoming closer as a society, in extending our camaraderie to an ever-widening circle of people.
It is our way of relating that matters, not what we buy. Imagine if we were given more chances to accept this hypothesis, without sounding overly optimistic or naïve—the fate of anything related to peace in a militarized culture.
What kinds of institutions might we have to resolve conflicts when they arise? What kinds of policies would we have around health, education and foreign affairs? How would a family relate to one another, to their community? What would happen to exploitation—would we still think it is normal?
It’s not too late to begin asking these questions, and taking the answers seriously. In fact, this is part of the democratic process and the meaning of a “more perfect union.”
Stephanie Van Hook is the Executive Director of the Metta Center for Nonviolence, a Petaluma organization that works with students, educators, activists and military personnel to instill a vision of healing, respect, justice, and compassion that is aligned with the vision of Mahatma Gandhi. For more information about Metta, visit them online at mettacenter.org