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a lot of cunt, ass, and napalm

March 14th, 2010
by Michael

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the general moral sensibilities of our American public. You often hear of Americans being somewhat repressed when it comes to sexuality and the like–certainly as compared to European mindsets. What strikes me as odd, though, is that while nudity, sex, and matters of our physical human bodies make so many Americans uncomfortable, acts of horrible human violence are far less troubling it seems. I’ve seen this clearly in what we choose to shelter our children from and in what we allow them to be exposed to. Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that we expose our children to “especially mature” matters of adult life anytime before they are, well, adults (or near to it), but I am curious about what we teach children about violence.

Just this morning, my son and I were watching a video adaptation of the Dr. Seuss classic Horton Hatches the Egg, which we had gotten from our local library. I did not prescreen the video before watching it, and was shocked when the following image presented itself seemingly out of nowhere during the course of this children’s story. Press play to see what I mean.

This bothered me and prompted us to turn off the video. Violence is taken so lightly in our society and children are repeatedly exposed to images of brutality; many parents I know do not bat an eye at this. But each and every time I see a child pick up a toy gun (or other weapon) and proceed to “play” war, my skin crawls and my stomach turns. Despite that some are quick to say it is just play, I disagree with the “just” part. Jean Piaget said that play is the work of children. This is how children learn to lead their lives. Now, I’m not saying that kids who play with toy guns will find themselves one day in a clock tower picking off the neighborhood. No, not at all. That is not my point. What I am saying is that when kids “play” violence, they imagine it, and when they imagine it, they become that much less sensitive Allen Ginsberg  Allen Ginsberg–or downright desensitized–to it. It becomes a little more okay–somehow a little more acceptable in the world. This is deeply troubling to me.

The other day a friend of mine sent me an e-mail with a poem attached. The poem is by Allen Ginsberg–one of America’s greatest poets and a man who did not shy away from hard language. He could all at once invoke the beauty of lyricism and and simultaneously slap a person across the face with his words. My friend included this comment in his e-mail with regard to the Ginsberg poem he attached: “Notice how the ‘dirty’ words make us feel uncomfortable but not napalm…”

I’ve included the Ginsberg’s poem below; it was written in April 1973.

UNDER THE WORLD THERE’S A LOT OF ASS
           A LOT OF CUNT

a lot of mouths and cocks,
under the world there’s a lot of come, and a lot of saliva
           dripping into brooks,
There’s a lot of Shit under the world, flowing beneath cities into rivers,
a lot of urine floating under the world,
a lot of snot in the world’s industrial nostrils, sweat under world’s
           iron arm, blood
gushing out of the world’s breast,
endless lakes of tears, seas of sick vomit rushing between
           the hemispheres
floating towards Sargasso, old oily rags and brake fluids,
           human gasoline–
Under the world there’s pain, fractured thighs, napalm burning in black
           hair, phosphorus eating elbows to bone
insecticide contaminating oceantide, plastic dolls floating across Atlantic,
Toy soldiers crowding the Pacific, B-52 bombers choking jungle air with
           vaportrails and brilliant flares
Robot drones careening over rice terraces dropping cluster grenades,
           plastic pellets spray into flesh, dragontooth mines & jellied fires fall
           on straw roofs and water buffalos,
perforating village huts with barbed shrapnel, trenchpits filled with
           fuel-gas-poisen’d explosive powders–
Under the world there’s broken skulls, crushed feet, cut eyeballs,
           severed fingers, slashed jaws,
Dysentry, homeless millions, tortured hearts, empty souls.

Certainly, we notice the “dirty” words–a few of which are unspeakable and unwritable to many people. In fact, if you’ve read this far after seeing the title of my post and reading the Ginsberg poem, I am surprised. (Actually, I fear that I may lose the only two or three readers I actually have with this post.) But consider the comment made by my friend with his penchant for beat poetry. We notice and are bothered by the “dirty” words–words like cunt–but are far less bothered by mentions of napalm, barbed wire, and cluster grenades–tools and horrors of modern warfare. What exactly accounts for these twisted sensibilities? Why have so many become numb to the truly horrifying action of human mutilation and Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky  Ginsberg and Orlovskysystematic destruction and so easily offended by the benign obscenities of human anatomy? Why are we more willing to tolerate a cartoon fish shooting himself in the head, children playing guns, and war simulation video games like “Call of Duty,” not to mention actual war, genocide, torture, and crimes against humanity than we are willing to utter the word “cunt,” “ass,” or “fuck” in polite conversation?

I’ve seen parents shield their child’s eyes from paintings of nudes in an art gallery, or bristle in fear at the sight of two men holding hands or kissing on the street, and then a week later I’ve seen those same parents watch as their child runs about the backyard–toy rifle in hand–“shooting” his little sister. “Tommy! Don’t shoot your sister in the face!” screamed one mom. Presumably the chest was okay, though; keeping the shot in the center mass results in a more reliable kill.

It is not uncommon to see the brandishing of firearms and intense aggression in the likes of G-rated children’s movies (if you are sensitive to such things, that is), but a naked woman’s breast with the slightest suggestion of sexuality would surely warrant an R-rating. And forget about the glimpse of a male penis; this will invariably push the movie toward an NC-17 rating. Why is the male anatomy more troubling than a hand grenade? The Motion Picture Association offers its G-Rating for movies where “depictions of violence are minimal”–minimal–but clearly states that such Kids Playing with Guns  Kids play with a toy AK-47 assault riflemovies will have “no nudity.” According to a 2000 study coming out of Harvard and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), G-rated films are violent and are getting more so. Today, their is an average of 11 minutes of violent content in G-rated films intended for children, up from an average of 6 minutes in films released in the 1940s. The JAMA study reports, “Most of the violence in these films shows characters fighting with each other and using violence as a means for resolving conflict” with characters using a “wide range of weapons in their violent acts like shotguns and swords….” Children are learning all the time. Repeated exposure to anything dulls sensitivity: one becomes less aware of the message but the message itself persists. Children glean their attitudes and view of the world from their parents–whose sensibilities are being shaped (along with their children’s) through a constant onslaught of mass media. (We will spend nearly five months (3,502 hours) next year watching television, surfing the Internet, reading daily newspapers and listening to personal music devices, according to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract of the United States. Note, too, that this is sought-out media exposure and does not include the passive exposure we all endure each and every day.) That’s a lot to contend with. Certainly, good parents everywhere will try to insulate their children from what they feel is inappropriate. But I wonder when is gratuitous violence for entertainment purposes ever appropriate? Geez.

Isn’t it about time we get our fucking heads out of our asses and stop being offended by our own bodies, our sexuality and the sexuality of others, and the occasional bout of crass language? There is a shitload of real fucking horror in this world to be offended by and to take action against. Let’s be sensitive to that.

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  • Celeste

    What a horrible thing to put on a child’s video, or any video for that matter. Was this in the book? was it a book? It was really out of context with the story line of the film. Who knows what else was in that video.
    Many parents think it’s OK if violence is in a cartoon form and not actual people, but violence is violence in any form just like cruelty and apathy.I’ve thought of this for several years, how our society has become use too or apathetic to what our children see.
    And even Adults seem not to be affected or shocked by the news anymore.It’s just accepted as the way things are.
    And we wonder why the crime rate has increased and the suicides have gone up in numbers.
    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if kind, compassionate, and positive issues were exposed to our children and youth instead of the things they are exposed to now.
    The sad part is society as a whole don’t realize the affect this is having on our future generations, and they don’t seem to care.
    Good comment Mike. Thank you.

  • Christina

    Amazing, amazing post. I stumbled upon it while researching Allen Ginsberg, and am really glad that I did. The media really is pretty fucked up, isn't it?

    Also, random sidenote, did that fish remind anyone else of Peter Lorre? Haha…

  • jon

    The world is horrible violent and sexually repressed. I don't see how this is surprising. I can't tell anyone how to parent, but I wonder how helpful it is to children for their parents to deny (and I'm tempted to say shelter them from) the nature of the world they live in. I ask this in all honesty, will no presupposed answer.

    • Michael McGuire

      Yes, the world is those things, I agree. But I also believe that–if I may borrow the words of Ghandi–we must be the change we seek. Perhaps in some areas of life I'm guilty of "sheltering," but I really don't think so. We talk to our son about violence and aggression. He understands as much as any 7-year-old (probably more) that there is war, violence, and injustice in our world. But the thing is he remains sensitive to these matters. My argument is that ongoing, casual, and romanticized exposure to violence through media and through play systematically desensitizes children to the point where the real horrors of our world no longer phase them. One might say this prepares them for the world, but I would argue it only prepares them for a world where such things will continue to be tolerated.

  • Andrés

    I completely agree. War is seen as a nation's way of making profit or a whole nation's lifestyle. I don't think that this is a recent phenomenom in the human story line, the thing is that we now know better than that, and we don't do much about it.

    PS Your post reached further than you thought, I'm reading it tomorrow at class in Querétaro, Mèxico. This if you don't mind ofcourse. I won't say it's my intelectual property. So you've at least crossed borders.

    • Michael McGuire

      Andrés, thank you for your comment. I very much appreciate it and never thought my post would reach across borders or be read in a class. Thanks for passing it on. Do you teach? Where? At what level? I'm curious because I teach at a College in Chicago, IL.

      • Andrés

        I study visual arts and graphic design at the Autonomous University of Querétaro in the 5th semester (of 8). I printed your post and handed it out. We are studying contemporary art and I considered it to be important to include the reach of violence. In the end even this cartoons and the movies at the cinema are part of the imagery of a generation. Plus I'm a fan of Ginsberg jajaja. Thanks Michael.

  • Susie

    How wonderful this is and how correct you are.

  • Max

    >>"Today, their is an average of 11 minutes of violent content in G-rated films intended for children, up from an average of 6 minutes in films released in the 1940s."

    Then, in the context of your general argument, it seems ironic that "Horton Hatches the Egg", the cartoon which irked you in the first place, was produced in 1942. And that when screened today on Turner Entertainment channels, the clip you have posted here is edited out because, presumably, they deem it too violent for today's children. Obviously, not everyone thinks we're less sensitive now than we were back then.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horton_Hatches_the_E

    I don't find the gag with the fish offensive or shocking, just odd. I imagine audiences of the '40s would've appreciated this reference to Peter Lorre's somewhat morbid screen persona better, as at the time he was very well known, thanks to the likes of 'Casablanca' and 'The Maltese Falcon'. An anthropomorphized cartoon fish shooting itself? I must say that it seems unlikely to me that anyone, even a child, could become less sensitized to actual violence by such a thing.