On normalization, violence in games, and intellectual honesty

I have a lot of ground to cover on this one and not much time to do it today, so I do apologize if this post comes off a bit slapdash and skeletal. I’ll try to revisit it at a later time to flesh more concepts out and provide stronger linkage between salient points. That said, full disclosure: my training and knowledge are in political science and public policy, which is strongly informed by sociology and philosophy but not those fields in and of themselves.

I’d like to open this post with discussing a rule of inference in classical logic: the hypothetical syllogism. If one thing implies, enables, or causes a second, which in turn implies, enables, or causes a third, it is valid to infer the first implies or causes the third. Formally,

P > Q, Q > R, TF P > R.

If “P” then “Q”, and if “Q” then “R”, then it is valid to state if “P” then “R”.

An example pertinent to public policy: drinking, or even drinking and driving, in and of itself doesn’t cause traffic accidents. Impaired driving does. Excessive drinking causes impairment, but moderated drinking does not necessarily. Drinking to excess and driving does not guarantee one will get in a traffic accident, but it does strongly correlate. Likewise, it is possible to become impaired absent alcohol use (drug use, fatigue, distraction). However, it remains true permitting drinking and driving enables traffic accidents, the removal of that causative factor increases public safety, therefore our society legally prohibits drinking and driving.

Drinking (P) causes impairment (Q). Driving while impaired (Q) causes traffic accidents (R). Therefore, drinking (P) and driving is at least one causative factor in traffic accidents (R). It reality it’s a lot more complicated than that — need to add in driving as an independent factor, link driving and impairment as a conjunctive addition, demonstrate relevance, etc. — but that’s the bare bones of the argument, which is sufficient for demonstrating my point about the relevance of hypothetical syllogisms themsleves.

The same argument is present in debates over gun control. The legality and availability of firearms (P) enables persons (Q) to engage in violent crime (R), therefore firearms’ availability and legality enables violent crime. I’m making no judgment as to the quality of that argument, simply stating it exists and in that form.

Now, how is this relevant to vidya? Social justice advocates and prominent critics claim violence in games normalize it, particularly in this case against women. Or reworded, video games incorporate violence against women (in any form, presumably) cause it be normalized. There’s our “P” (violent games), our “Q” (normalization of violence against women), and our “P > Q” statement.

To get our “R” we need to have a brief discussion of “normalization”. The aforementioned advocates and critics derive their definition of normalization heavily from Michel Foucault’s work Discipline & Punish, in which Foucault argues normalization as a process occurs when those with “disciplinary” power hold a behavior or standard of conduct as ideal, and engage in a system of positive reinforcement for adhering to that standard and negative reinforcement for deviating from that standard, through formal (government) and informal (society at large) institutions, although Foucault focused on formal institutions. Foucault, of course, argued all those prerequisites must be present for normalization to occur, and despite however more “civilized” it may be from historical systems of justice and punishment it is still an inherently coercive process through which power is gained and control perpetuated.

These advocates and critics also argue that in an environment of normalized violence against women, it is not only permitted but promoted (see, Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women: Damsel in Distress: Part 1”). Violence against women, it is claimed, is held as idealized behavior and its engagement is positively reinforced (see, Ms. Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women: Women as Background Decoration: Part 2”). I’m not saying it’s right (in fact, I’d say it could not be further from the truth especially being they can’t even get their Foucault right), I’m saying that’s the claim being made. And, there we have our “R” (real violence against women), and our “Q > R” statement (normalization of violence against women enables real violence against women).

It is then valid to employ the hypothetical syllogism, to argue games cause (or enable) violence against women. The intellectual dishonesty of these social justice advocates and critics comes into play, by leaving the syllogism to the realm of inference on the viewers’ part, and by downplaying or outright denying that is the implication in fact being made, especially through cheap rhetorical tricks when called upon it.

This is why most, if not all, of these critics refuse to make any normative (i.e. what society ought to do to correct this asserted injustice) arguments regarding violence in video games. Prohibiting or restricting violent video games is, if their argument is truthful, the only reasonable policy position and they cannot admit that without tipping their hand.