On Violence

from The Nervous Breakdown

July 20, 2009

One summer when I was in my mid-twenties, I visited my friend Jeff in New Mexico. We were going to do some hiking, but all the trails were closed due to extreme fire hazard, so we spent my visit on his couch, playing the video game Grand Theft Auto. Two grown men with master’s degrees, we couldn’t tear ourselves away, so addictive was the action, the anarchy.

In what other world could you hijack a city bus and drive it the wrong way through a one-way tunnel, or trick a cop into getting out of his car so you could steal it and be the subject of a high-speed chase?

Three days of this had a noticeable effect. When we drove into town to get dinner, we passed a Porsche, and I thought, “Ooh! Let’s take that one!”

It was a brief impulse, but obviously some neural connections had been formed. I don’t know anything about neural science, but I picture nanoscopic tentacles reaching from one part of the brain to other, from want to take, from aggression to joy, from mayhem to happiness, each bridge strengthened by each robbery, each mauled pedestrian, each electrical pulse.

The Tibetan Buddhism scholar Bob Thurman once suggested that all that consumption of violence, even in the form of entertainment, has a profoundly negative effect on our perception of the world. Media critic George Gerbner came to a similar conclusion in the 1980s. He found that people who watched a lot of TV had wildly inflated notions about the frequency of crime in their cities and the likelihood of personally encountering violence. They were also more likely to think women should stay in the kitchen, and black people and white people shouldn’t mix.

In my youth I watched what in retrospect is way, way too much cable TV, most of it violent. I loved the Star WarsIndiana JonesBeverly Hills Cop, and Die Hard trilogies, the first two Rambos and Terminators, the two 48 Hours movies, CommandoBloodsportAmerican NinjaDelta Force, even the Timothy Dalton Bond movies. I got a Nintendo when it first came out, and I spent months shooting pixilated ducks out of a pixilated sky with my plugged-in gun two inches from the screen. Maybe that was why, when my friend Bobby came over with his brand-new pellet gun, we immediately went outside and shot a pigeon. Actually, he shot the pigeon. I watched, and even though I’d told him to do it, when I saw the puff of feathers and the bird disappear over the wall, I turned on him: “What’d you do?!”

And there was my lily-white, 60% Jewish tennis camp the summer before seventh grade, when I first heard Eazy-E’s Eazy-Duz-It. What Eazy duz exactly, or did, was rap about armed robbery, “bitches galore,” killing “muthafuckas,” and “sippin’ eight balls.” I had no idea what most of it meant, but it blew my mind. When someone else had the Eazy tape, I listened to Eddie Murphy. He said “fuck” every third word, told stories of his mother throwing shoes at him and getting in fistfights, and he described in great detail what it’d be like to be raped by a “faggot” Mr. T.

Despite all of that, I don’t think of myself as a violent person. My life has been ridiculously peaceful by modern American standards, which puts it in the 99th percentile for most peaceful of all human history. And my instincts tell me it was ridiculous for people to blame Columbine on Marilyn Manson and for Dr. Phil to blame Virginia Tech on video games.

But I also can’t forget that fleeting moment in New Mexico when I wanted to car-jack someone. Or that time, at sleep-away camp, when I threw a kid to the ground and did my best Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka impression, which involved jumping as high as I could into the air and then landing on him with both my knees. His offense? He’d squirted me with a water gun, after I’d told him not to.

There was also the time in eighth-grade P.E. when we were on the field playing Bloodball, a combination of soccer, football and team handball. The coach allowed us to play “aggressive tag,” but not tackle. This kid Andy needlessly knocked my best friend Dougie to the ground. Dougie was very small, and I vowed revenge. While the ball was on the other side and Andy was trotting down the field minding his own business, I came up behind him, got next to him, stuck my leg out and gave him a shove. He slammed facedown, harder than I’d wanted him to, on a rock-hard patch of dirt, and I felt the same mixture of nausea and regret I felt after landing on the kid at camp. Andy looked up at me with shocked eyes, his freckled cheeks burning, and I said, “Maybe now you’ll pick on someone your own size!” like I was some divinely certified karmic repairman. Of course, as the words came out of my mouth, it occurred to me that I was much bigger than him.

Who did I think I was? The Lone Ranger? Zorro? The Fonz? Where did these impulses come from? I don’t know, but the rest of my teenage years were without incident. That might have had something to do with the fact that the other kids were catching up to me in size, and many of them lifted weights and studied martial arts. Also, I played football, and maybe the organized violence satisfied any desire I had to hurt people.

In college I didn’t play any sports, but the significant increase in my drug and alcohol intake left me docile as a lamb. Also, instead of watching movies full of explosions and blood spatter, I read Erasmus, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Dickinson, and Whitman. Eazy-E had long ago been replaced by the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and John Prine.

But sometimes the violence finds you. One night in my senior year I happened to arrive at the front door of my house just as some hooligans from the “hockey house” were hassling my friend Robert, a smallish guy who wore loafers and rolled his own smokes. One of the hockey guys pushed him into some bushes, and the next thing I knew, I’d stepped in front of Robert, and the guy grabbed me, and then he and I were tumbling over some bicycles and thrashing around on the grass. Due to a broken thumb (intramural flag football injury), my right hand was in a cast that stopped just before my elbow. Due to the fact that it was dark outside, I was drunk. When I got to my feet, I just saw shapes. I aimed for the closest one and flung myself at it. He ended up being one of the guy’s friends, and he went down easily enough, but then the guy, or a third guy, was punching me in the back of the head. Then people were pulling us all away from each other, when, just to put an exclamation point on it, I wriggled out of someone’s grip and threw a lumbering right hook with the club that was my cast. It connected with a dull smacking sound against the cheek of — no, not of the guy who’d started it all — but one of the guys who were holding him back. Now this guy wanted to fight. I apologized, and he made gorilla-like noises while he let his friends talk him out of it.

That was the only time I ever hit someone in the face, and it put to rest any notions I harbored about being able to handle myself in a fight. It seems fitting that I fought idiotically, starting a second fight while losing the one already in progress, then using what in court could be considered a deadly weapon, and missing with that weapon the person I was aiming for.

Since then, it’s been smooth sailing, with nothing more confrontational than a “Get the fuck away from me!” to a Manhattan con artist or Amsterdam junkie. Despite that Grand Theft Automoment, and the occasional, brief revisit of my fantasy of leading a band of guerrilla fighters in a heroic and hopeless revolt against invading Russians (thank you, Red Dawn), I don’t try to solve my problems with violence. Maybe I’ve grown up. Maybe it’s the yoga and vegetarianism. Or not owning a TV and not playing video games.

Even now though, I wonder if the negative energy that streamed into my eyes and ears for so many years is still affecting me. I have no desire to hurt anyone or anything, but maybe in a much subtler way I’m giving it all back. “There is no free lunch,” as my high school physics teacher always said. Actions yield reactions. I release the violence I’ve absorbed, not in a killing spree, but over a lifetime, in bits and pieces, arguing with lovers or relatives or customer service representatives, acting cruelly toward smaller or weaker people, cutting people off on the highway, cursing the people who cut me off….

The mythologist Joseph Campbell argued that human beings need to move beyond the notion of tribe — local, racial, religious, socio-economic — and think in terms of the tribe of humanity. Technology has shrunk the planet, provided us with the means to confront the truth that people in the next town, or the next country, or an ocean away, are just as human as we are. We’re making progress on some fronts. I suppose we should be proud of our civilization because we’re playing violent video games instead of going down to the coliseum to see the virgins take on the lions. (Lions: 11,202; Virgins: 0.) Maybe we’ll get our act together in time to avoid burning out in the great climate change, nuclear holocaust, or water and food shortages that await us.

But I doubt it. Our violent instincts are stubborn. They’ve even been naturally selected for, in that if you whacked the other caveman first with your club, he couldn’t whack you. We probably won’t learn to work together, and we’ll continue to bicker with each other even as we destroy our planet.

And every now and then someone will come along, like Jesus, like Martin Luther King, Jr., like John Lennon, and he’ll say, “Hey, we should all be nice to each other.”

And we’ll know what to do with him.