The Preposterous Posturing of Platonic Piffle

The Preposterous Posturing of Platonic Piffle

or

Why South Australian Attourney-General Michael Atkinson Needs A Brain Enema

By Andrew Russell

As is well known by regular readers of this blog, I happen to be fond of playing video games. This has led to my own following of the debate about permitting an R18+ rating for video games in Australia. Since my tastes in games tend towards those with darker subject matter, occasionally there are times where games I want are refused classification by the OFLC and hence banned from being sold in Australia.
As you are probably all aware, video games are rated on a different scale to literature and films. Specifically, the highest a game can go is MA15+. If a game cannot be fitted into this category, it is refused classification and it will not be sold in this country.

The fact that games are rated differently to other forms of media causes a lot of discontent amongst the Australian gamer community. As such, there are proposals involving the introduction of an R18+ rating for video games. In order to do this, every State Attourney General must agree to modify the classification system.

The one State AG that has refused to allow this to happen is Michael Atkinson, ALP member for Croydon and a social conservative who is a devout Roman Catholic.

To put this in context, the support for allowing an R-Rating, equivalent to the one used for films, to be introduced to the Australian video game classification system is overwhelming (see the following: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1427266). To put this in further context, the study clearly shows that the average Australian gamer is a legal adult.

So no, it is not fair to say that “games are for kids.”

But this is not about the fact that Atkinson is attacking human liberty in the name of his values. This article attempts to place Michael Atkinson’s censorship in an historical and philosophical context.

To state my argument in brief, what Michael Atkinson is doing is nothing new. It is part of an old pattern of behavior which has repeated itself on multiple occasions within the history of Western civilization. This pattern of behavior has both leftist and rightist variants and cannot be seen as exclusive to either ‘side.’ Ultimately this pattern of behavior can be best understood as a product of a specific narrative of cultural degeneration. In simple language, Atkinson (like his many forebears) is doing what he does because he believes (contrary to all evidence, logic, reason and knowledge about how society actually works) that he is the one last hope to save our precious Christian values from the moral degeneracy that has infected the youth.

He does seem to attach a lot of significance to himself, doesn’t he?

So, what is this narrative of cultural degeneration, and how does it play into censorship? I think it is best we start by looking at one of the earliest examples of this debate; Aristotle versus Plato.

Being that I am an Objectivist, one may think I am being somewhat stereotypical by blaming yet another social evil on Plato. Regardless, I maintain that Plato is a wonderful example of this narrative of cultural degeneration. Plato is known for complaining about the youth of his day. He is known for saying the following (see http://www.anxietyculture.com/antisocial.htm):

“What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?”

Remind you of anything? Anything your parents said? Anything said in pretty much any newspaper editorial on Generation X, Y or the Internet Generation? Did statements like these often include pining for “the good old days” where child-beating solved every “behavioral problem” (conveniently defined as “any behavior the parent does not like”)?

I am reminded of the song “Kids” from the musical “Bye Bye Birdie.” In particular, the lyrics,

“What’s the matter with kids today?!?
…Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way?”

Regardless, what I wish to argue is that this sentiment, this narrative of cultural degeneracy, has driven censors and those that wish to control the material society may access. Plato, indeed, advocated censorship.

Plato is most well known for his epistemological framework, or the theory of the Forms. In Plato’s philosophy, a thing X is placed in its category Y (i.e. the thing you are using to read this article is placed into the category ‘computer’) because X “participates in the form of Y-ness.” The Form of Y-Ness exists, according to Plato, beyond every thing that participates within it. It does not exist inside things like thing X and all the other things that are placed in category Y, but rather it exists in a realm of transcendent perfection, i.e. heaven. And most importantly, it is perfect.

In other words, according to Plato, we live in a world that is but an inferior copy of the ultimate reality (i.e. the world of forms), and everything and everyone in it is inevitably flawed. This belief was heavily influential on Christianity; particularly Gnostic Christianity, but it still is arguably the basis for the idea of Original Sin.

But, according to Plato, because we are in a world that is merely a copy of the real one, the art that we produce is another inferior copy. So art, according to Plato, is two steps removed from actual reality. To contemplate art, according to Plato, is to be distracted from contemplating the proper objects of contemplation (being the forms). As such, Plato advocated banning art; it was a waste of time.

In this situation, is is possible that the censorship of art and the degeneracy of youth were independently held stances. Plato’s call for censorship was a logical consequence of his epistemology and metaphysics. However, almost every other example of this narrative in action has the call for censorship as a consequence of a fear of youth degeneracy.

We fast-forward to a time considered by modern advocates of censorship to have been a Golden Age. A time where children were obedient and calm and only acted in ways convenient and pleasing for parents. A time where people where virtuous, when there was no child abuse, no homosexuality, no excessive drinking, no abuse of illicit substances (is my utter sarcasm sufficiently apparent here?), everyone went to a socially-agreeable Church on Sunday and actually believed what the clergy (who of course were as morally pure as could be, and never abused children) said, when wives were submissive to husbands, when husbands never beat their wives, when the only sex that occurred was lights-out-missionary-position between a married couple… I am of course talking about the 40’s and 50’s.

And yes, back then there was indeed a terrible threat to morality, a hideous bad influence that threatened to poison our children’s minds, a terrifying beast that could corrupt the moral fibre of our youth (much like Plato’s mentor; Socrates) and destroy wholesome democracy and ultimately Western Civilization.

This menace was Comic Books. And they were seducing the innocent minds of our children! Cue Dr. Frederic Wertham’s The Seduction of the Innocent and the resultant Comics Code Authority, which sanitized American comics to the point where scary creatures and questioning authority (because obviously the most important value we must inculcate into our children is to submit and obey and never ever think) were banned.

Flash forward about five or ten years.

The new menace was Rock and Roll music. Elvis’s swaying hips were apparently enough to induce people to engage in hideous acts of sexual debauchery, possibly in public!

And then flash forward to the 80’s,

Metal music, Dungeons and Dragons (and all other tabletop games), it was all causing children to give their souls to Satan.

Then comes the 90’s. Columbine was caused by the video game Doom, Marilyn Manson, the Goth lifestyle, lack of gun control, and banning prayer in schools.

Next year, Eminem is causing widespread misogyny and wife-killing and suicide of his own fans.

We reach the 00’s and things only get worse, apparently. Because now Video Games have become an accessible, mainstream, mass-market form of entertainment. Bring on the moral panic.

The point is simple: every single cultural crusader out to censor our media is driven by some sort of idea complex that includes the following ideas:
1) Our children are morally denerating at a rate unprecedented in history,
2) The primary determinant of our children’s actions is the media they consume,
3) Thus the only way to stem the tide of cultural degeneracy is to control the media,
4) Screw individual rights, they are an irrelevant consideration.

As I said before, there are two varieties of this idea complex (The Narrative of Cultural Degeneracy), one on both the left and the right. They vary on two issues, firstly what the threats are, and secondly, the ultimate victims of the threats.

The right wing variant; the variant that Michael Atkinson is afflicted with, believes that the threat is essentially “sinful conduct” being portrayed in the media (i.e. personal behaviors that are considered intrinsically bad), and ultimately attempts to save “the children” who are being exposed to the depictions of behavior. Because damaging their moral fibre and hence setting them up for an un-Christian (or any other faith) lifestyle means setting them up for divine punishment. Yes, the act of exposing children to this material is what is seen as the crime.

The leftist variant, often held by people devoted to various philosophies which are often referred to as “postmodernism,” believes that the primary threat is the depiction of certain classes of people in specific ways. This, according to the postmodernists, means that people’s concepts of these various classes of people are constructed by the media they consume. They will then proceed to act in ways determined by the concept. For instance, if a male consumes media that portrays relationships between the genders as involving male dominance and female submission, that man will likely become an abusive boyfriend or husband. The victims of this are the people that will be victims of the hate crimes.

An interesting feature of the leftist variant is that it alleges all people, not just children, have their concepts socially constructed by the media they consume. The scope of cultural degeneracy is not just the youth, but everyone (however, our youth are even more vulnerable). This, however, is irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

The fact is that all four elements of either of these idea complexes are false when seriously analyzed. So why do people still buy into this Narrative of Cultural Degeneracy? Possibly they are so enslaved to nostalgic reminiscence that they actually believe it to be true. But there are other possible reasons.

Just imagine that this is an absolutely watershed moment in the history of civilization. A threat to all that is true and good and beautiful has emerged. And you have the ability to stand up against this threat, a chance to become a savior of civilization, hopefully to be fondly remembered as a great man that saved our children. Perhaps, maybe divine powers are summonning you to be a champion of light against darkness? Perhaps, maybe your actions would avert another Holocaust?

Perhaps you are sufferring delusions of grandeur and are prepared to sacrifice human liberty for the sake of getting your name mentioned in the paper adoringly?

Let’s look at the historical context; media has been getting progressively freer. It took only a few decades to circumvent the Comics Code; the Bowdlerized 50’s eventually gave way to the 90’s, when sex and violence was rather prominent in comic books. Dr. Frederic Wertham became a total laughingstock. All attempts at censorship in the modern west have ultimately failed and those advocates of censorship have never been remembered as anything but self-glorifying ranters that advocated fascism for the sake of the children. Or, they have been forgotten.

Michael Atkinson will be no different. He is yet another entry in a long line of people simply postponing the inevitable for the sake of achieving some personal glory which history will (thankfully) deny them.

I could wax lyrical about Atkinson’s hypocrisy on the issue of violence. He is a Roman Catholic and not a single denomination of Christianity seems to have the same borderline-fetishistic fixation on the exquisitely violent minutae of Jesus of Nazareth’s death (please inform me if I am wrong here). Remember that The Passion of The Christ, a.k.a The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre, is a monstrously violent film. I, a goth who loves horror films such as “Hellraiser,” found The Passion very difficult to watch. The film’s violence clearly outdoes many R-Rated films such as the original Halloween and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The Passion is rated MA15+.

Would Atkinson object to a video game where you get to crucify Jesus? Catholic dogma clearly says that all of us are responsible for Jesus’s crucifixion.

Regardless of speculation, it is fair to say that Atkinson is nothing new. He is merely spouting and practicing a narrative that has been parrotted since Plato. And just like Plato’s theory of the forms, only someone that is either stupid, intellectually dishonest, or power-mad and self-aggrandizing could accept it.

20 thoughts on “The Preposterous Posturing of Platonic Piffle

  1. No doubt the first caveman that saw a bunch of kids playing with fire thought that it would bring about the downfall of civilisation too.

  2. Terje,

    Thanks for cleaning up the HTML code! I greatly appreciate it.

    Tim,

    Thanks for the compliment! Sorry I haven’t been posting much, but I’m glad you like the article.

    Also,

    I didn’t mention the Aristotle thing (i.e. Aristotle’s contribution) because his theory of Catharsis is more relevant to the debate of the effects of violent games. I stuck entirely to the whole “why people are backing censorship” angle… if I were going to analyze Plato’s ban on art vs. Aristotle’s theory of art as good for the moderation of extreme emotions, I’d argue the Aristotelian perspective validates violent games as a form of venting.

  3. Just a random side note:

    Plato’s theory of the forms is also called “essentialism”.
    Richard Dawkins talks about it in his new book on evolution, The Greatest Show on Earth. According to Dawkins, the Platonic idea that animals, shapes, etc. that exist in the real world are imperfect shadows of their true “essence” took part in holding back the discovery of evolution by natural selection. Essentialism runs counter to the fact that over time, members of a species are just statistical distribution around an average which shifts over time.

  4. I know people from various Christian denominations who believe the exact opposite about regulation.

    Whether they appreciate the violence etc in the medium or not (some do) is irrelevant. They appreciate they don’t and and don’t want to live in a theocracy. Some of them are even quite “devout” admirers of secular constitutional democracy which secures their religious freedom.

    I found this disturbing, particularly after the Americans helped to defeat Nazism:

    “Cue Dr. Frederic Wertham’s The Seduction of the Innocent and the resultant Comics Code Authority, which sanitized American comics to the point where scary creatures and questioning authority”

    American and Catholic history is full of heretics and rebels. John Proctor and Fr Bob Maguire spring to mind. This stuff will never wash because the people pushing are a loud minority using the bully pulpit and are not supported by the majority. Hopefully in Australia one upside of the awful bigotry we had during the 1950s over religion is that no one sees dogma or doctrine as the rational basis for law anymore. I don’t think that most do.

    The SA AG needs to realise his religion is about his own spiritual well being, not regulating everyone else. Unless he can point out an event which conferred to him a divine right to rule. This was stamped out of Catholic theology a long time ago.

  5. Nice one Andrew.
    I’d forgotten that Plato held art generally in such low regard. Bit of a worry considering Plato is probably the #1 most influential and most studied philosopher of all time. Art is a human need and you’d think a philosophy that condemns the value of art may have some problems.

    A theme in Objectivism is to show how different philosophies can effectively amount to the same result. In your article, both the subjectivists (lefties) and the dogmatists/traditionalists (righties) are in effect attempting to downplay Aristotelean logic and reason. By denying the efficacy of reason at the epistemological level, they end up defaulting to and seeking out other means of knowledge such as emotionalism/faith/collective consciousness type theories based on race or culture or nation or class etc. Utlimately this means both groups end up being a lot more similar than their followers would probably like to admit. eg/ Authoritarian politics.

    My video-game playing friends and I have cursed Atkinson plenty of times over the years. And I have been surprised at Atkinson’s infamy amongst my non-politically interested friends. So I hope this is representative of the masses at large. I believe it is. And you have pointed out how unpopular Atkinson’s stance is.

    The Passion is quite sadistic. However perhaps you just got bored like me. The best character was Satan, Rosalinda Celentano, but she wasn’t in the movie much. Just kind of lurking in the shadows looking cool 🙂

    I was interested Andrew, has some recent event inspired this article? Is the MA/R classification for video games up for review again?

  6. Tim R,

    I too got bored watching The Passion. Good film making involves making a point in an interesting way, then moving on to make another point or to make the same point in another way. The Passion repetitively bludgeons the film-goer with the same simple message – Jesus suffered. Yeh, I get it.

    Sorry to go off topic Andrew, but I really hate that movie. I definitely support your campaign for an 18 plus rating for games. Not least because it means people will be more likely to buy the games than download them illegally. The game ban doesn’t actually stop many people who want to play the game but does encourage them to steal – not something the government should really encourage.

  7. Fermi,

    Usually when I hear the term “essentialism” it is applied to moderate, rather than Platonic, realism. However, you are correct about the conflicts that Dawkins sees between evolution and (both Aristotelian and Platonic) essentialism in Epistemology.

    Mark,

    I agree, there are rebels in religious history. Even Jesus himself can be read as one. Im not attempting to argue “all religious people are fascists” however. I’m very aware that they often aren’t, and it is these religious people I do not consider a threat.

    Tim,

    I agree Satan looked very cool in The Passion! One event that made me do this is the foundation of a new political party, Gamers For Croydon (www.gamers4croydon.org.au). It’s pretty much a “lets get Aktinson voted out” party. However, I think the LDP should either 1) reach out to Gamers For Croydon and try to encourage them to back us, or 2) reach out to gamers directly.

  8. Yeah, I think the R+ rating for video games as well as the proposed mandatory internet filter are perfect issues for pro-freedom political activism.

    Oh, I looked up that website. There’s no .au on the end. So it’s just http://www.gamers4croydon.org if anyone else is interested.

  9. I agree 110% with the sentiment behind this post. I enjoy adult video games too, and I’d love to see an R rating introduced. As far as I’m concerned, Atkinson can go f@$% himself.

    But the sad thing is: ‘Gamers for Croydon’ doesn’t have the slightest chance of achieving anything.

    According to the SA Electoral Commission, Atkinson got 67% of the votes in Croydon in the 2006 election. That’s not two-party preferred, that’s straight up! On a TPP basis, he got 76%!

    His seat is as safe as they come. Atkinson could roam the streets of Croydon, abducting children and eating them for dinner, and he’d still get re-elected.

    It’s so depressing …

  10. Nice entry but could do without the poking at Catholics – I’m a devout one, and I’m also a big proponent of individual rights. The two are not mutually exclusive. (And if they are, someone should tell Thomas Woods et al…)

    That being said, I really liked this post. Certain things about modern culture really worry me but I’m not about to call for the state to ban or regulate things because of it, because if I don’t like it, I can just choose not to be part of it or engage in such behaviours.

  11. Andrew, the Authorities are right! Playing realistic video games is practice for being good with the weapons you play with in the games! Obviously they are worried about anarchists training themselves to be better than army recruits, and taking over the state! Let’s all learn only solitaire, and we’ll have a perfect world!

  12. BPM,

    Apologies for any offense taken. I’m aware that not all members of the Roman Catholic church are in favor of having their values coercively inflicted society via state policy.

    Nuke,

    Oh no! Not Solitaire! That game could make them anti-social!

  13. BPM,

    Well, I agree there. Since you are a libertarian Roman Catholic, you are undoubtedly in the best position to raise your voice against coercion in the name of your religion. Who knows, you might find many more Roman Catholics agree with you!

  14. What’s interesting is that according to the aims Catholic social teaching, Ron Paul’s (& Thomas Woods, for that matter) style of libertarianism is actually pretty spot on in most instances. I could drag up a bunch of links that compare the two if anyone is interested.

  15. Apart from the proposed R rating for games, here are Gamers4Croydon’s other policies:

    * An extension of the Elizabeth City Council’s solar rebate to cover the entire state of SA. (More detail soon)

    * Committing legislation to make rainwater tanks for all new homes mandatory, and starting a retro-fitting program to have them installed on all existing homes where practicable.

    * Investigating the feasibility of a desalination plant to only pump water directly into the Murray river system.

    * Creating the world’s largest solar electricity farm.

    * Providing government support for Zero Emissions Vehicle manufacturers to set up the first mass-production facility for electric vehicles in the country.

    * Provide governmental rebates for electric vehicles conversions.

    I don’t think they’ve really grasped the whole ‘freedom’ thing.

  16. I agree that G4C’s policies other than R18+ games are not exactly pleasant.

    However, outreach to them may promote economic literacy, if not in G4C then at least in their target demographic (gamers).

  17. Pingback: Michael Atkinson’s censorship crusade continues. « Tim R

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