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a lot of cunt, ass, and napalm

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--perhaps the greatest American poet of all time.

 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 Allen Ginsberg with fellow poet and life-long lover Peter Orlovsky

 Ginsberg and Orlovsky
systematic 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 Children play in Tskhinvali, capital of Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia. Image published by the Associated Press in the Telegraph August 28, 2008.

 Kids play with a toy AK-47 assault rifle
movies 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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