49 Degrees: Canadian Pagan Perspectives

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On Killing *Trigger Warning*

Sobering food for thought -

I have always rejected the idea that TV, movies, video games and other forms of entertainment media cause us to become more violent.  I believe that we can face imaginary scenarios without attaching ourselves to them and examine hypothetical situations in ways that encourage us to think.

But I have been reading a book called On Killing by a soldier-psychologist who taught at West Point, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.  This book was written in the 90s, after the Gulf War but long before 9-11.

In this book he postulates that much of PTSD suffered by our war veterans - not all, but much of it - is sparked by overcoming the natural human resistance to killing; which is considerable, I am pleased to say.  He points out that only about 20% of American WWII soldiers actually killed somebody, and he points out that this ratio is probably typical of every previous war in history.  For instance, American Civil War sites repeatedly reveal weapons that were loaded up to a dozen times.  Which means that the soldiers loaded the weapons, aimed, but did not actually fire, up to a dozen times.

However in Vietnam, about 90% of the veterans killed someone.  The reason that he cites for this is a change in training techniques that involve desensitization and conditioning, to make the training environment as realistic as possible.  Soldiers are trained to distance themselves emotionally from their enemy, to become comfortable with the idea of violence, and then to kill without thinking.  These techniques make them very effective in combat, but without support to ease them back into the world, and support from their loved ones, they are horribly traumatized.  Even those who did not actually pull a trigger share the "diffusion of guilt" and may suffer as if they had.

These training techniques have a filter, however.  Soldiers are taught only to shoot whoever have been deemed "the bad guys," and only whom their leaders tell them to shoot.

He then points out that violent movies are desensitizing us to violence in the way that CIA assassins are (or were) trained, and that video games, particularly first-person shooters, condition us to shoot at people in the same way that modern military training techniques train soldiers to shoot at people.  He says that one of the problems of Vietnam was that the soldiers were teenagers, led by more teenagers.  Unlike other wars, they lacked older, more mature role models to guide them.  And statistically, most of us are now raised in single-parent families, usually by single mothers.  Our children now mostly grow up without any kind of meaningful interaction from male role models, aside from what they see in the media. And unlike in the military, we are given neither direction nor leadership.  We are taught in the media that it's perfectly okay to kill people for revenge, even for minor humiliations.

I don't know for sure that this is true.  But I wonder.  You see, I don't watch much TV.  I especially don't watch the news - though I do read it!  And I don't play many video games, especially not first-person shooters.  And neither do most of the "metaphysical" types I know.  Is it that we sense, subconsciously, that we are being conditioned to become killers, and we reject this conditioning?

I posted a video a few days ago to my Facebook page. A two-year-old girl named Wang Yue was run over by not one, but two vehicles on October 13, 2011; and there can be no doubt that both of the drivers were aware that they had at least hit something. As she lay bleeding on the road for more than seven minutes, at least 18 passers-by skirted around her body, ignoring her.  She was eventually taken off the road but she died of her injuries.  I'm including the video, but TRIGGER WARNINGS all over the place.  I thought it had to be a hoax - but it's not.  It's really not.  I cried.  I hope you do too.

Original footage HERE (more awful than the window below).

A few days ago was the first time I had seen this video.  I was horrified.  And I asked in all seriousness, "What the hell is the matter with us as a species?"  Is this societal conditioning and desensitization the answer?

Lt. Col. Grossman writes that the entertainment industry swears up and down that it cannot influence our behaviour in this way - but marketers pay crazy amounts of money to advertise with these media, with the intention of doing just that.  Makes you think, doesn't it?

If so, how do we fix this?  Maybe we just need to do it in a more responsible way.  Studies indicate that roleplaying gamers tend to react more effectively in real crisis situations.  Why?  Because we have already visualized such situations in our minds and imagined what we would do.  We have seen ourselves doing these things.  I saw it in action myself at least once; my household plays tabletop RPGs as our major social activity, and when a car went off the road through the neighbour's front yard onto its roof, it was all of about three minutes before one of us was on the phone to 911, one of us was flagging traffic, and two of us were pulling people out of the car and making sure they were uninjured.  This before our neighbours, whose yard this was in, had done more than gone out the front door.

Or perhaps it involves a complete change of attitude.  Lt. Col. Grossman believes that "dehumanizing" the enemy is one of the major ways in which military training overcomes human resistance to killing.  So the answer might be to "sensitize" us instead by teaching ourselves to be more empathetic to our fellow and sister human beings.  The internet may be quite beneficial in this, if we don't fall victim to the "siloizing" that social media encourages (namely, gearing the internet to connect you only to people who already share your views and interests) and make liberal use of Google Translator.  Also, I believe we must fight any widespread prejudicial view that allows us to polarize humanity; from racism, to sexism (vs. women, men, the transgendered or gender-queer) to homophobia; up to and including the left/right political divide.  In other words, love really might be the answer.

I invite you to consider what I've said.  And I ask you to support your war veterans, no matter what your view on war is.  We ask them to bear the burden of humanity's darkness.  It is not fair that we also make them the scapegoats for a guilt that we all share.

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Sable Aradia (Diane Morrison) has been a traditional witch most of her life, and she is a licensed Wiccan minister and a Third Degree initiate in the Star Sapphire and Pagans for Peace traditions. Author of "The Witch's Eight Paths of Power" (Red Wheel/Weiser 2014) and contributor to "Pagan Consent Culture" and "The Pagan Leadership Anthology," she also writes "Between the Shadows" at Patheos' Pagan channel and contributes to Gods & Radicals. Sable is just breaking out as a speculative fiction writer under her legal name, and a new serial, the Wyrd West Chronicles, will be released on the Spring Equinox this year. Like most writers, she does a lot of other things to help pay the bills, including music, Etsy crafts, and working part time at a bookstore. She lives in Vernon, BC, Canada with her two life partners and her furbabies in a cabin on the edge of the woods.


  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Saturday, 03 May 2014

    Military training should be a feminist and a pagan issue. The other day Ted was writing about masculine role models. We need to provide alternatives for our boys to the killing machine they are told is the image of real masculinity. I would also say that warrior gods or goddesses should have no place in our pantheons. If living in harmony with nature is one of our goals, should not living in harmony with all other human beings be another? Either images matter or they don't. (I know this view will not be popular with all pagans, but I hold it deeply in my heart.)

  • Kveldrefr
    Kveldrefr Tuesday, 06 May 2014

    For tens of thousands of years, males were conditioned by evolution to be warriors, protectors, and hunters. You're not going to change that by banning video games or movies, and the sort of emasculation-by-shame you preach will serve no purpose other than to make us as a society too weak to resist when we are threatened by more aggressive societies that know the value of strength. There is nothing inherently wrong with strength, and aggressiveness, and the warrior spirit, and there are many Pagans and more Heathens who know this to be true.

    I note that the little girl's (tragic) death took place in China, which has for centuries gone down the path of devaluing of the individual in favor of the faceless masses. There is where you should look for reasons why the death of a little girl went unnoticed. When society devalues the individual in favor of the collective, it should be no surprise that people step around a single little girl's bleeding body.

    The culprit is the devaluing of the individual as a result of collectivism, not an insensitivity to death by extolling the virtues of warriorhood.

  • Aryós Héngwis
    Aryós Héngwis Tuesday, 06 May 2014

    "I note that the little girl's (tragic) death took place in China, which has for centuries gone down the path of devaluing of the individual in favor of the faceless masses."

    This veers a little close to Sinophobia. Let's not perpetuate stereotypes.

    Insofar as the tragedy of the little girl is concerned, the problem of the "bystander effect" is neither culture-specific nor a modern phenomenon. It's actually a pretty well-known idiosyncrasy of human behavior, well-known to psychologists and sociologists.

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