Thursday, March 10, 2011

Our Tolerance for Violence

When writing this column I often use the word “learning”. But this word has many meanings, the most important distinction being between learning in school and learning from life.

Learning from life is natural for the human brain and body. The brain, especially in children is literally organized (brain cells connect) when children have experiences that include sight, sound, touch or movement, or engagement of feelings. The impact is compounded when such experiences occur more than once, or are particularly violent. Then they lead to the development of “patterns” or habitual ways of seeing or doing something.

So here is my dilemma. At the recent Idyllwild Independent Festival of Cinema I observed something so disturbing that I had to get up and leave. Before going into detail however I need everyone to understand that we support the film festival and thoroughly enjoy the people who are involved in the film industry. Without exception they strike us as creative, positive and totally committed to their art. And the Festival is great for Idyllwild. It is a young festival and Steve Savage has assured us that the situation I describe here will be addressed next year and should never have happened.

On this particular afternoon the film series began with a thoroughly delightful film intended for adults and children alike. It was called “Libby Girl Online,” produced and directed by a wonderful young woman, Janet Mayson. Everyone enjoyed a very clever computer literate dog and her friends.

But following “Libby Girl,” and with hardly a break in between, came a film of darkness, violence, cruelty, and foul language. I expected parents to get up immediately and take their children outside but instead I saw only one father take his infant out of the Center. These were “good parents” in the usual sense and the children were well behaved.

Even the next film, which could have been funny for an adult audience included sexual content of a very explicit nature. To an adult mind the blatant sexual scenes could have been seen as silly and entertaining, but what were these children experiencing?

In children the emotional system is far more developed than their ability to reason. They have no way of putting things in perspective. Parents may not see an immediate reaction in their child, especially when children are taught to “behave” when in public. But the kids (and sometimes the parents) often have nightmares and what may be seen as unreasonable fears that are never connected to what they saw or experienced.. In my own case I had a dream about human beings being taken over by monsters that had very thick skins with barnacles on them. I have a lot of experience interpreting dreams and it didn’t take long before I realized that my unconscious was saying that we were all becoming “hardened” to watching violence of all kinds. A callousness was taking us over.

Fear and terror act as subtle undercurrents that affect all of us but especially children. Have we as a society become so desensitized to violence and violent language that we no longer see it’s potential to influence our thoughts and actions?

But whether you believe like Isaac Asimov’ character Hari Seldon that “violence is the first refuge of the incompetent,” or you believe that guns should be available for everyone, hopefully you have used your reasoning capacity to decide these things. Children do not have the ability to reason out what they see and experience – they mostly absorb impressions and feel things that ultimately add up to a shift in beliefs and actions. Over time experiencing violence of all kinds will influence their tolerance for violent acts. And children without caring parents present as they grow up are especially vulnerable. In this case, parents should have acted instantly!

We will address issues of fear and helplessness this Saturday, February 12, at the Caine Learning Center. We will be showing a fantastic film. It will begin at 4 p.m. and will be followed by all of us talking about how this is relevant to our lives, communities and what is happening in schools. See you there.

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