Events of recent weeks have caused us to question the boundaries of free speech. It’s generally agreed that nobody has the right to falsely shout “fire” in a crowded theater. The safety of the public trumps free speech in this instance. But where is the boundary between curtailment of speech that endangers innocents, and the imposition of censorship?
Elsewhere, OEN Executive Editor Rob Kall, discusses the role of hate speech in fostering the tragic shootings of an abortion doctor and holocaust museum guard. “It is sowing ideation-- ideas of killing,” Kall says. Many agree that when activists promote hate for those they oppose, they create a climate that makes violent reaction seem appropriate. Characterizing all abortion as “baby killing” can’t help but make violence seem justified to certain imbalanced people.
Consider now the Japanese animation genre known as hentai, a form of pornography that has themes of rape, sexual abuse of children, stalking, and molestation. Because the media is drawings (comics, cartoons, computer games) no real person is violated. Defenders argue that it is a fantasy where no person is actually hurt, therefore it should be a matter of taste, not a matter for laws. But like hate speech, hentai create a climate of acceptance that makes the aberrant behavior lose some of its shock and revulsion value. People "entertain" themselves viewing hentai.
The video games carry the experience a giant step further – the player actually actively participates in the simulated acts the game depicts. Here is how Equality Now described one such game in a recent email blast:
“The aim of the RapeLay game is for the player to repeatedly rape the mother and her daughters until they begin to “enjoy” the experience. First, the player manipulates the onscreen hand to sexually assault each woman or girl on a train. This assault disturbingly mirrors the real-life situation in Tokyo where, in 2005, the local government was forced to introduce women-only carriages after a survey found that 64% of women in their 20s and 30s had been molested on public transport. Most respondents said they had been groped several times over the previous 12-month period. The sexual assault in RapeLay continues as the woman or girl becomes increasingly distressed and eventually runs away terrified to a secluded spot where the player can then simulate raping her. Both young girls are virgins and their first rapes are represented by the breaking of their hymen with blood on the penis.
After on-screen raping of the mother and her two daughters, the player has more control over rape scenarios and must “rape-train” the woman and girls by subjecting them to multiple and varied sexual assaults, including gang rapes, until they succumb to each assault and even beg their rapist to indulge them. As the rapes continue the chances of the woman and girls becoming pregnant increases. The player must, however, force the woman and girls to get abortions otherwise one of the girls will stab him to death, again in a manner that sexualizes violence. Illusion Software has also issued a free download that includes depiction of the woman and girls in a cell being subjected to sexual torture, as well as a scene of a particularly brutal rape of the elder daughter with the mother and younger daughter being forcibly restrained and made to watch.”
It is difficult to imagine anyone finding such a game entertaining. But there are many similar games offered and they are commercially successful. What sort of learning is going on when someone plays these games? What neurological connections are being wired up in the game player’s brain as he (it’s usually not a woman) is practicing aberrant behavior using a rape simulator? Is it truly only harmless fantasy, or is it changing the player’s ideation, and possibly rewiring the participant’s erotic responses so the acts depicted seem acceptable and even normal?
Whatever Has Your Attention Has You
The expression “whatever has your attention has you”, coined by Willis Elliott, has become a cliché because it is so true. For at least three decades popular films (think Rambo, Sudden Impact, Clockwork Orange) have depicted graphic violence. Has that exposure to dramatized violence desensitized us to the reality of violence and made our own aggressive impulses more acceptable? One wonders if Columbine and other such tragedies spring from our acceptance of violence in news and entertainment.
On the flip side, has the climate of violence in news and entertainment media raised our base level of fearfulness and anxiety? In the late 1940’s when I was a pre-teen, my parents thought nothing of me leaving the house to play with friends and not returning until mealtime. We had wonderful Huck Finn adventures in the woods and undeveloped properties around my neighborhood. For context, remember that in those years Catcher in the Rye was considered a dirty book. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was risqué. It wouldn’t have occurred to my parents that I might be at risk of sexual molestation away from home all by myself.
In the 1990’s my daughter wouldn’t let her pre-teens out of her sight unless accompanied by an adult. “There are just too many weird people about,” she would say. The danger may be real or imagined, but our behaviors have been changed with our exposure to media depicting violence.
When any activity promotes ideation that fosters the violation of human rights, it has huge potential for evil. We don’t need to await research proving cause and effect to know that it is not good for society. We live in a world where we are all connected through text, voice, and visual communications. The art of producing audio-visual media has advanced to levels of intensity and impact such that we experience cinema as if we were there. And in video games we are there not just watching, but actively participating in outcomes.
Producing and distributing any sort of media that fosters hate, violence, and pathological behavior is not a legitimate exercise of free expression. It is an exploitation of the vulnerable that endangers life, liberty, and everyone’s happiness. As always the challenge is discerning the line between protecting free speech and enabeling sociopathic irresponsibility. There are many ways to cry “Fire.”