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Broken Record

I admit it: I do tend to go on and on and on about my abhorrence of violence. Why? It’s just stories, right? Fiction. Entertainment. First, let me clarify that my aversion is not as much to violence as to killing. A life ended, snuffed out, never to be restored.

It would be easy to call me a hypocrite in this. I’m not a vegetarian. I’ll kill a black widow spider if I can’t safely remove it from the area. I support the careful application of capital punishment in rare cases as the only humane means of removing from society a monster who has been proven conclusively to be a great and unredeemable danger. But in every case, I am sad. Death is final, so in a way it’s odd that I am not particularly afraid of my own mortality. But perhaps that’s the point. My life is my own. It’s the one thing I have that is absolutely mine, and violating that in others is profound. That’s why the idea of death as part of an entertainment is so repugnant to me.

And I will acknowledge another hypocrisy as well: this is a comparatively new development for me. Some of my favorite movies have been Dirty Harry and The Godfather and the James Bond series. All have their share of killing. To be honest, since I reached this point in the past couple of years, I haven’t watched any of those movies, and have some trepidation about how I would respond to them today.

So what changed for me? I suspect that a lot of it has to do with the increased prevalence of children being mixed into these lethal entertainments. When children die, or kill, in these violent books and movies, an additional element is added, and taken away. Not only is there loss of life, but of innocence as well. The tragedy is doubled.

I understand the counter-argument. Conflict drives the plot, and the stakes are never higher than when life is on the line. Our emotional response is part of the enjoyment of what we read, or view on a screen as the case may be. It’s part of the essential catharsis. Okay, fair enough. But context is everything. You see, while the defenders of hyper-violent entertainment say that the tragedy of death is part of the overall “message,” they tend to undercut it by how they present it. In most cases, only a handful of deaths are actually tragic. We see this at the ludicrous extreme in movies where the main characters endure horrific catastrophe, where the end of civilization has occurred. But the dog survives! That scene always elicits a rousing cheer. Presumably because the dog also represents innocence. It’s enough of a cliché that writers and filmmakers will take great pride in subverting it, sometimes to drive home the seriousness of the story, sometimes for laughs.

SPOILER ALERT:  I’m guilty of the former case. In my book a beloved dog is killed when trying to protect a main character from the bad guys. I wanted to make it clear the stakes were high, and that the danger was real. Yet, oddly, that scene met with considerable objection from several of my critique partners, who somehow had no problem with all the dead children in The Hunger Games, but insisted that I revise my scene  so that the dog lives, or else readers would hate my story. Because of one dead dog. Twenty-two children hacking each other to death? What a great story! Pass the popcorn.

It ends up being a numbers game. Most deaths in violent stories are largely unremarked upon. Terrible, yes, but of import only in the moment. The story goes on. Sure, that’s realistic, because life goes on. And let’s face it, an action story where every single death was treated as a profound tragedy would not be a pleasant thing to watch.

But maybe that’s the point.

This all came to mind when I encountered a recent quote by Michael Gerson, writing about the way the people of Rwanda have dealt with the horrific genocide of two decades ago. They focus on remembering the victims. By affirming, in Gerson’s words, “that every human story is more important than the diseased narratives of dictators and killers.” And this is where the creators of dark, violent dystopian stories get it wrong.

These authors, and the filmmakers who come after them, think they are sending that message. But they aren’t. Perhaps they can’t. People claim these stories tell us about standing up to violent oppression, that every life matters. And yet, in these stories, the only lives that actually matter are those of the main character and her small circle of characters-with-names. The body counts are almost incomprehensible (brace yourselves, Hunger Games fans who are anxiously awaiting the next movie without having read the book it will be based on, where there’s literally death on every page). Stories like Game of Thrones make the frequency of death a selling point. But mostly it’s something that just happens. As long as the characters you are actually invested in continue to live, it’s all good.

But that disconnect is precisely what makes these stories diseased narratives themselves. It doesn’t matter whether the narrative is about a tyrant or the plucky young girl who stands up to him. Only some deaths matter, and all the rest are just part of the body count. Which brings to mind another quote, one that, nearly a century later, still speaks volumes:

“One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.” The words of Josef Stalin. One of the dictators and killers. Who would understand that truth better?

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Boys and Girls Together

It’s been a very interesting week.  A number of circumstances have come together in a remarkable way to challenge my convictions, and, in the end, I am able to stand by them.

My earlier decision to remove the nudity and sexual content from my book met with a surprising amount of disagreement.  Granted, that sort of content is something of a minefield, and could well bar me from getting past a lot of editors.  So be it.  But none of my fellow writers have told me I made the right decision to cut the content—not one—while many were disappointed and said I shouldn’t.  Fellow writers who are parents have universally said they would have no problem with their teens reading my sex scene.  One reader called the scene “adorable”; with that to go on, I can hardly leave it out.  My decision to restore the content has met with approval.

I accept that not everyone will see it that way.  But if books about children murdering each other can be considered suitable for teens—and preteens, for heaven’s sake—then the fact that my book has sexually active teens shouldn’t be any problem, unless someone is willing to argue that teens having sex is somehow worse than teens killing.  I make no apologies at this point for the fact that I am presenting sexual content (and nudity), because I’m making it a positive thing.  My book in no way sends the message that teens should all run out and have random sex, but nor does it say that sex is automatically bad or that it will ruin your life.  Rather I’m saying that it’s okay to have sex, even as teens, if you do it responsibly.

My position on this is borne out by a recent study that came to my attention comparing attitudes toward teen sexuality in the United States and the Netherlands.  The study has raised considerable controversy because it has examined the idea that Dutch parents, instead of forbidding their teens from having sex, are instead permitting the teens to do so in the family home.  It is expected to be kept private and the parents are teaching the teens to be responsible.  People in the US are reacting quite predictably, saying that this sort of moral decay is yet another example of the evil that plagues modern society, and are insisting that allowing your children to be sexually active guarantees there will be teen pregnancy and STDs

Except, that’s unequivocally not the case.  The study has made clear that the incidence of both unplanned pregnancy and STDs in the Netherlands is significantly lower than in the US.  Conclusion: promoting healthy attitudes towards sex encourages healthy behavior.  Teens are having sex, and will do so whether or not we try to forbid it.  So what we should do is make sure they are being safe and let them know that there is nothing wrong with them for doing so.

Now, this is easy for me to say in the abstract, but I recently had the opportunity to put it to the test.  It have become aware that the fourteen-year-old daughter of a friend has been having sex with her boyfriend.  My friend is, of course, running the gamut of emotions regarding this, and I’ve been very careful how I have reacted, but, in all honesty, I think it’s fine.  In fact, I’m proud of her.  Let me explain.

They’d been dating for some time, and, to all accounts the boy is a good kid who is well-behaved and the family likes him (or did, at any rate).  There was no pressure involved: it was a mutual decision.  They have been stringently using condoms, and they are at this point monogamous with each other.  In other words, they’ve been very responsible, which is more than can be said for a hell of a lot of adults.  I encouraged her dad to commend her for being honest and mature about it.  After all, isn’t that how we want kids to be as they grow up?

But, I hear you say, that’s because I don’t have a daughter of my own.  If I did, I’d change my tune.  Well, I can’t say for sure, but I’d like to think that I would raise my kids to have healthy attitudes.  But let me be clear I’ve known this family for years and watched their daughter grow up and I’m very fond of her.  Yet at the same time, I think it’s safe to say that I have the benefit of objectivity.  And from where I’m sitting, I don’t see where the harm is.  I’m happy for them.

I know what you will say in response: the harm is to the girl psychologically.  She’s too young to handle that sort of thing.  What exactly does that mean?  Too young?  Handle it?  Plenty of alleged adults can’t seem to handle sex.  What if they break up?  Then they break up.  It happens all the time; heartbreak is part of life, with or without sex being involved, and people survive it.  Again, what real trauma will there be, unless it comes from an overly judgmental society condemning her?  And I agree, that is a problem.  See, that’s the other point you might make: the harm is to her “reputation.”  She will be known as a girl who has sex, and apparently that’s bad.

You know… a “slut.”  I hate that word, for many reasons.  We love to condemn sexually active girls.  We tell them that boys don’t like that sort of girl.  Are you kidding?  Boys don’t like girls who are willing to have sex with them?  Hello, Earth to clueless person!  Well then, we say, they like them for sex, but they don’t “respect” them.  No man will want to marry a girl if she’s damaged goods.  What is this, the middle ages, where virgin brides are required?  And what if she doesn’t want to get married?   What should she do, become a nun?  We tell girls, “Why would he buy the cow if he’s getting the milk for free?”  How offensive is that!  We are essentially telling girls that they are livestock and their sexuality is a commodity that they should hold out for the highest possible price.  There’s a word for when you exchange sex for material compensation like that: it starts with “p” and ends with “-rostitution.”

What bothers me most is how these sorts of discussions always focus on the girl.  It is the most pernicious double standard.  We are so concerned about girls maintaining their “honor,” but what about boys?  Who worries about their honor?  We teach girls to have respect for themselves (aka keep your legs crossed) but we teach boys to have respect for girls.  It’s all about protecting the girls.  This despite the fact that these days girls are at least as sexually aggressive as boys are.  And studies have shown that the majority of boys want to be responsible, and are concerned about pregnancy and STD’s and, most notably, want to have sex with a girl they love.

Yet there is no male-equivalent term for “slut.”  A girl who has sex is damaged, but a boy who has sex is a lucky stud.  This came to my attention in the form of a recent Twitter brouhaha where someone posted video of a teen girl having oral sex at an outdoor concert.  I was amazed at the number of people calling her a slut, or a whore, or worse (if you can imagine).  But absolutely no derision was pointed at the boy involved.  When someone raised this point in a discussion group, asking why we condemn her but not him, someone else responded, “Because boys are not girls.”  Great, they passed Biology 101, but what the hell does that mean?   It means it’s okay for boys to have sex, but not girls.  Again, the double standard.

The result is girls with really negative attitudes towards their own sexuality, and towards men.  But it’s damaging for boys too.  I saw this illustrated as well, in the case of another family friend, who discovered his eight-year-old daughter had been involved in sex play with the twelve-year-old friend of her brother.  To his credit, my friend did not freak out, and has been reassuring his daughter that she did nothing wrong and things are okay.  Let’s face it, sexual curiosity among children is extremely well-documented, and rarely does it lead to any long term problems—provided we don’t overreact.  What about the boy?  He was, apparently, deeply apologetic and embarrassed.  But I know what people are thinking: Who cares!  He only was remorseful because he got caught, but mark my words, he’ll do it again!  He’s a deviant, a sexual predator who can never be trusted for the rest of his life!  Really?

More like, he’s a confused kid whose hormones are kicking in big time but who is ignored by a society that is obsessed with female sexuality and offers boys no clear support for navigating this emotionally perilous time.  So, absent any clear path, they put on a macho swagger and behave in the only way they see: based on the tacit encouragement that society gives to men to “Get out there and do it (just not to my daughter).”  We can’t escape the double standard.

What we really need to do is acknowledge that teens are sexual beings and encourage them to discover their sexuality in safe and healthy ways.  That’s far more realistic than expecting them to just ignore their screaming hormones.  I believe that fully and it’s reflected in my book, and, alas, it may be an impediment to publication.  But I stand my ground.  In my book the girl is far more sexually experienced than the boy, and is not apologetic about that, nor is she damaged by having had sex at a young age.  It’s part of the society she knows.  It is the boy who is the more concerned about any notions of monogamy, and, while he is not opposed to sex, he wants there to be love involved, which is a revolutionary idea for the girl.  Yet I’m not implying that monogamy is the only valid option; as the two of them come closer together, they will try to find a reasonable middle ground.  It’s all about making choices.

Will I be sending the “wrong” message in my book?  I’m a storyteller, not a therapist, so that’s not my greatest concern.   I am pretty sure that most teen readers like stories that involve sex (that’s why they sneaked a look at their moms’ copies of Fifty Shades of Grey).  But I do not believe my book will make my readers run out and have sex, any more than The Hunger Games made readers run out and start killing each other for sport.  Teens already know what sex is.  They are extremely interested in it.  And a lot of them are already having sex.  Hopefully they are being smart about it.  That’s more likely if we teach them to be smart, rather than trying to shelter them from themselves.  But be assured, they will make these choices, regardless of what we do.

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A Question of Morality

“She would of been a good woman,” the Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Flannery O’Connor “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

I’m not religious, not a “believer.” I have a low opinion of organized religion, and am wary of “faith,” especially the unquestioning kind. That said, I believe there is room in this world for spirituality and I can respect it. There are many religious people who are deeply spiritual, and far more who are not. And there are some very spiritual people who do not ascribe to any belief system. It’s pretty complicated.

I function comfortably in a world of believers, a society where people seek out and embrace supernatural explanations for the complexities of their lives, and govern themselves in accordance with ancient rituals that are increasingly difficult to reconcile with the world today. I’m okay with that. I don’t get all frothy when people reject what science has confirmed because it goes against superstitions that have been handed down from thousands of years ago. I’m more troubled when they try to compel others to do the same. Fortunately, I live in a society where that’s pretty hard to do on a large scale, at least overtly.

True, there are small manifestations of religion that fill our culture, but I’m not going to get all bent out of shape if a well-meaning Christian says, “God bless you,” when I sneeze, or wishes me a “Merry Christmas.” I ask only they also don’t get upset if I don’t do so. When they take the equally well-meaning “Happy holidays,” as being somehow an attack on their beliefs, then there’s a problem. But, for the most part, things are fine, and I’m happy to live in a pluralistic society that can be so dominated by one particular faith, yet not become totally repressive.

Where I do get unhappy is in a rather odd place, one that comes of the melding of religion and morality. There exist things like the “Christian Yellow Pages,” where people can seek out businesses run by alleged Christians. The assumption is that a Christian will just innately be moral and ethical and trustworthy. Why? Because he believes in Jesus? More to the point, because he professes a belief in Jesus? Like someone wouldn’t lie about that? Come on, a dishonest person won’t hesitate to say whatever you want to hear. And even if he is Christian, that doesn’t make him innately more moral. Actually, the fact that he’s making such a big show out of being Christian is, as I understand it, antithetical to the actual teachings of Christianity.

But the real problem is the presumption of morality. This goes beyond business practices. Many religious people believe that a believer is more moral than a non-believer. They hold this perspective to the point that they think we need to emphasize religious practice, that we need to put religion back into the schools in order to make our children more moral. Underlying this entire premise is a very nasty assumption: not merely does religion instigate morality, but in fact in the absence of religion, people will not be moral. This is frightening.

When someone says that without religion we will not be moral, it tells me a great deal about that person. Whether or not it’s true that people cannot be moral in the absence of religion, it’s indisputable that he himself is only moral because of his religion. In other words, he only does the right thing because he believes in, and fears, some sort of divine retribution. Take away his faith, and he will become a savage.

People who are only moral because they believe some invisible superbeing is watching and keeping track aren’t moral at all. It’s said that the truest test of character is what we do when we think nobody is watching. If a believer behaves well only under threat from an all-seeing God, it’s not morality, it’s imposed behavior.

That’s why I submit that in fact non-believers are actually more moral than believers. A believer acts a certain way because he believes there is an eternal reward coming for doing so, and certain punishment for not. A non-believer, on the other hand, has no such motivation. He rejects the idea of an afterlife or reincarnation or anything else like that. He understands that this life is all we get, there are no second chances, nothing better waiting for us. When this life is over, that’s it. So he makes this life the best it can be.

And he realizes this is also true for everyone else. He, far more than the most crusading fundamentalist, understands how precious life is, in all its myriad forms. He will hesitate to kill because, unlike the believer who thinks it’s all part of God’s plan and the dead are on their way to paradise, the non-believer knows that killing takes away everything, and it can never be returned. This is why the rampant killing in our entertainments sickens me. Even in fiction, I am heartsick at a life snuffed out. Forever.

Yet our books and movies are full of killing, often done by supposedly good characters who then give no further thought to the monstrosity of what they have done. The victims didn’t matter because they weren’t major characters and, thus, their lives were unimportant. But all lives are important to someone, and a moral person never forgets that, even playing a computer game. In my book, there is death, and it’s always profound, and my characters cannot avoid the psychological consequences and moral implications. Alas, that may well make some people avoid my book, because the last thing they want is for morality to intrude on an exciting story. Not surprising, given the role religion plays in most of their lives.

Religion shields people from having to acknowledge the finality of death. It makes it easer to kill. Why else have so many wars and organized atrocities been done in the name of religion? When our conscience is imposed upon us, we are spared the burden of minding it ourselves. Now, I’m not one who says that if there were no religion, the world would be a better place (sorry Mr. Lennon, but it’s just not true). Human beings have an infinite capacity to be horrible to each other, and without religion, we’d find some other justification. But religion is a particularly good one, because rather than making us moral, it obviates our moral responsibility to each other, and thus frees us to justify the most heinous immorality as “God’s will.”

And I say that as a moral person who does not need to believe in God to be that way.

(ps I know this isn’t the follow-up to my last post as promised. But that’s still coming, so stand by.)

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