It seems that in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings (and other random acts of publicized mayhem), every internet group is discussing violence and its causes and implications in our society. This is no less true on parenting groups, where it seems to tend to settle on culprits such as violence in movies, TV, and that devil incarnate, video games. These are what I tend to think of as external influences, perhaps even tangential ones. Much is made of them, but sometimes I wonder if they act as does the purposeful wave of the magician's hand as he diverts your eye from the truly important action. Now I'm no defender of Mortal Mayhem V6.0 or whatever the latest blood-n-gore action on the screens and movie theaters is, but I think to be mistaking such things as causal factors is to either deliberately or inadvertantly ignore the greater societal truths.
When we were on vacation last week, we had the benefit of getting Animal Planet on our hotel TV (a channel we don't have in our cable lineup at home). So we were watching a special on Rogue elephants. In the past, rogues were rare - often a newly-matured male on a testosterone-fueled rampage. But these days they are becoming increasingly common, purposeful, vindictive, and downright violent. Elephants are killing rhinos (a previously unheard-of act) at astonishing rates. In one game reserve, officials shot three bull elephants responsible for the deaths of 63 rhinos. And they turn on each other as well: in Addo Elephant National Parkin South Africa, up to 90 percent of male elephant deaths are now attributable to other male elephants, compared with a rate of 6 percent in other, more stable elephant communities (does that sound similar to differences among human communities?) A biologist studying these elephants on the television show we were watching offered up this bit of wisdom (I paraphrase from memory here): Young elephants are experiencing traumatic incidents as youngsters, and are being taken away from their elders and family structure and left in scenarios where their only social encounters come from equally immature peers. In these scenarios, they resort to bullying other elephants and to killing elephants, rhinos, and humans. Funny, though, they don't have access to violent video games.
I was instantly struck by the parallels between the elephants' behavior and our current society's issues with violence, particularly among adolescent males. Breakdown in social structure, kids who do not grow up with the influence of stable family elders, or kids who are removed too early from family relationships and intimate bonds (elephant studies have shown that young elephants stay within 15 feet of their mothers for nearly all of their first eight years of life, an age by which the average American child has spent a huge percentage of their hours in daycare, preschool, schools, and before and after-school care) are all factors we share with elephants. In elephant herds without the older matriachal females who have typically presided, calves are now being born to and raised by ever younger and more inexperienced mothers, in a downward cycle that mimics one being played out by younger and younger teenaged mothers in our own culture.
Not that there are any easy answers to this dilemma, either for the elephants or for ourselves. The New York Times has a fascinating and informative ten-page article from last fall called An Elephant Crackup? that I found while searching for more information online about these issues with Rogue elephants. One take-away that I got both from watching this TV program and from reading the article is that no act of human connection, either with each other or with animals is unimportant. I know when I was a new mother, I was very passionate about Attachment Parenting, breastfeeding, maternal bonding, mom-care over non-necessary daycare, and parental attachment over larger school institutions for "socialization". But that passion felt unanchored by much more than my own intuitions that such things were of huge and overwhelming importance. Too often they are seen as personal choices, and any discussion thereof must be tempered with a necessity to validate all other choices as somehow equal. When looked at from this ground-level viewpoint, a mother's choice to breastfeed or to put her child in daycare is a very small and personal choice. But when we look at overall patterns of attachment and social fabric, the choices we make on a daily basis combine with everyone else's choices to weave a pattern that either draws us closer to a society of cooperation and harmony, or one of destruction and violence. These small personal choices are of the utmost importance, and anything we do to help parents, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and community members draw together and form strong bonds benefits our entire society.
As for those pesky video games, I see them as symptom, not disease. They're the snot that sprays out when a rhinovirus has invaded a sinus passage. But they're not the virus. What possible lure would choking a virtual victim hold over someone who is intimately connected to their family, friends, and community? Such acts are like the rhino-murdering elephants: sad aberrations that point to a disintegrated social fabric.