Friday, January 11, 2008

Turning the Other Cheek and the Two Swords

I was going to post my thoughts about Harry Potter now that I've finished the series, but that will have to wait for another post.

Xenophon got me Bioshock for Christmas, and given my new workingman's game playing schedule I haven't gotten very far into it. But one of my very early fights was worth relating, because it got me thinking:

I was coming out of an elevator in the abandoned underwater art-deco city of Rapture, whose inhabitants (as far as I could tell) had been mutated and deformed by something (some of which I suspected I had just foolishly injected into my own body, altering my own genetic code) and were none too happy to see me. Well, as the elevator opened I could hear a mother sobbing hysterically off to my right. From the sound of it her baby daughter was dead, and she was standing over the corpse, asking it why it wouldn't get up and come to mommy. I cautiously poked my head out of the elevator and sure enough, there was a young woman with her back to me, pleading with something in a stroller. There was a revolver on the ground behind her, which I quietly picked up (I had been attacked several times, after all). It turned out to be loaded. The woman still hadn't heard me.

Now, of course I knew perfectly well that the woman was 98 3/4% likely to attack me the moment I revealed my presence. The prudent thing to do would have been to blow the back of her head off before she realized I was even there. But of course there was the slightest chance that she wasn't a mutant. What if her baby was the homicidal one? At any rate I just couldn't bring myself to execute this poor distraught young mother, who might just have been trapped like me in this nightmare of an enigma. I stepped forward and tapped her on the back.

Of course she turned out to be crazed and mutated, and she blamed me for her baby's death, and proceeded to try and bash my skull in with a pipe wrench, so I zapped her with a fistful of lightning (genetic code altered, remember?) and beat her head in with a pipe wrench (didn't want to expend a bullet).

Well, what would you have done?

The point was that even as I rifled through her pockets (hey, I'm not stupid! Mysterious underwater city full of homicidal maniacs!), I felt bad about what I had done. I mean, poor woman was probably so driven out of her mind from genetic modification that she didn't really know what she was doing. Maybe she really did believe that I had killed her baby. And now I was searching her hideously deformed corpse as it lay in a pool of blood. Not that I had a choice, of course; it was her or me. But I still felt bad.

This is the best kind of video game violence, the kind that strikes a balance between the three extremes of "violence is always bad," "violence is good," and "violence has no consequences." Here was the sort of situation a philosopher might posit: if you were trapped in an undersea city with a woman who believed you had killed her daughter, whom it was impossible to sneak by but whom you must get past, who could not be incapacitated, and who would kill you if you did not kill her ... what would you do? Oh, and toss in the fact that you're in short-wave radio contact with a man who is begging you to save his wife and kids, and who is the only person down here who has not manifested a desire to kill you upon your first acquaintance.

To me, at least, it's a thorny and disturbing problem, and therein lies the value. Here is simulated violence that is actually saying something quite valuable, and quite nuanced: this encounter says, "Violence is messy, violence is gross, violence is bad, but violence was also your only option." Well, unless you count letting my skull get bashed in by a pipe wrench an "option."

I mean, it's not.

Is it?

Today while researching the topic of communion during weddings (what's your opinion?) I stumbled on a passage of Scripture that I had read many times but never really noticed. Everybody is familiar with Matthew 5:39:

But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.

And plenty of people know of Matthew 26:52:

Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.

But listen to what Jesus said to his disciples before uttering that famous line later that evening (Luke 22:35-38):

Then Jesus asked them, "When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?"

"Nothing," they answered.

He said to them, "But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: 'And he was numbered with the transgressors'; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment."

The disciples said, "See, Lord, here are two swords."

"That is enough," he replied.

I have heard it preached that by "that is enough" Jesus was saying, "That's enough of that;" i.e., that he was telling them not to resort to violence. But plainly that is not true. Jesus is telling his followers to arm themselves. And then when the moment comes to defend him, and Peter actually uses one of the two swords, Jesus tells him to stop.

What's going on?

Here's what I think is happening. Jesus anticipates the possibility of violence that evening. He is perfectly ready to be arrested, but he foresees the possibility of things getting out of hand, and he doesn't want his arrestors to get the idea of butchering his disciples just for good measure. So he tells them, essentially, "Uncertain times are coming. I am telling you to prepare." He obviously didn't intend them to defend him with those swords, but it also seems unlikely he didn't intend for them to be used ever. And he obviously didn't intend for the group to be heavily armed, if he was content with two swords out of twelve men.

To me, this smacks of telling his men to arm themselves in case they need to defend themselves as a last resort. And that's what's interesting - it's as if Jesus is saying, "Yes, there are times when you will need to use deadly force." And what about turning the other cheek? Well, it occurs to me that Jesus said to turn your cheek to a slap, and perhaps he chose his words with care. Maybe he didn't say, "Whoever stabs you through the chest, turn your back to him also" for a reason.

Which leaves the age old question of when it's okay for an individual to use deadly force as an individual. Which I think is a question we need to explore ourselves, and with our youth. And any exploration of that must begin with the simple acknowledgment that violence is a terrible thing.

Most people say that video games desensitize you to violence, but I've never believed that. There are basically four ways that violence can be presented in a videogame. You can present it as good, hopefully with your tongue in cheek (e.g., Syndicate). You can present it as always bad, which basically nobody does (except for the news media) due to technological and literary limitations. You can present it as having no consequences, which in my opinion is the worst of all (e.g., games where you kill people but there is no blood, no gore, and no attempt to present the dead as real people). All of these three options I think are bad, unless you choose them for satirical effect. Whether they desensitize people to violence is another matter, but they're certainly bad.

And then you can present violence in a fourth way: that violence is not good, but neither is it always bad, and it does have consequences. A game like that looks violence straight in the eye and says, "This is a terrible thing, but there are times when it is appropriate." Which in my opinion is a heck of a lot better than pretending that there is never an appropriate time to deploy deadly force. In a world where most people never experience violence and those who do often experience it used inappropriately, I've long felt that video games are one tool we can use to sensitize ourselves to violence.

Just one tool, mind you. I'm certainly not claiming that video game violence lets you know what the real thing is like, and you'd be a great fool if you thought otherwise (either as a hypothetical superpredator or as a ratings-seeking news anchor, mind). But no single tool, not even personal real-life experience, can teach you everything you need to know about the morality of violence, and I do think that video games are one tool that can be useful. They can help.

I'm pretty confident I did the morally right thing by bashing that woman's skull in (I could just say "killing that woman," but the whole point of this exercise is not to ignore what violence really means, remember?). But I still feel like it was a terrible thing to do.

Which is probably the way it should be.