Newkirk opens chapter five defining violence and coming to the most challenging arguments for me in his book. He defines violence as “ the intentional infliction of pain (emotional or physical) on a living creature, obviously most serious when it is on another human being.” Given this definition, he argues that “writing would be a violent act if it caused pain to others; if for example, it caused readers to feel threatened or humiliated”. I can agree with his definition, but am wondering where does the line between Newkirk’s definition and what is my past perception of violent writing lie? How can I justify, even in humorous ways, kids harming other kids in their writing? He asks these same questions, “where does legitimate humor end and humiliation begin? What constitutes a legitimate threat? But I believe there is a distinction between writing that actually harms others and writing that harms others and writing that represents harm coming to fictional characters.” Can kids differentiate between the two? I know my sons know that movies aren’t real, but in many ways, don’t kids try to emulate what they see on screen? So, why wouldn’t kids emulate what they themselves write and create in terms of violent acts? Newkrik sees this argument as well in children’s inability to distinguish between fact and fiction, between fantasy and reality.
Newkirk also points out that many are OK with violence in literature that is classical in nature and seen as appropriate. Take for example the fighting scenes in Romeo and Juliet, the beheading in Macbeth, the death of Piggy and Simon in Lord of the Flies. Truly violent and gruesome scenes, but all seen as appropriate because they are classic pieces of literature. Why then, “when the same violent content in more popular media is seen as provocative and dangerous?...the nonelite group that choose to watch the more popular versions of violence is perceived as more susceptible to suggestion, less capable of keeping the proper distance, more volatile. All of which leads to the question, Is the issue really about violence or is it about the social class and age group the violence appeals to?” To me, this struck me as a huge similarity between reading and writing. Kids are censored from reading because of its violent nature and now we too censor their writing because of its violent nature. Aren’t school supposed to be places of learning where we learn even if we do make mistakes? We can rectify mistakes and make up for errors made, but if we never give kids the chances to make mistakes or to learn from them, then are we letting our kids grow?
Newkirk brings up the example of Japan, “Those who make the case for imitative violence have to deal with the example of Japan, where children’s programming is typically more violent than it is in the United States...the newer imported cartoons, called anime, feature almost non-stop fighting...according to the ‘effects’ research, if this is the standard fare for Japanese children, one would expect that there would be a major problem of violence in Japanese society- yet the crime rate is one of the world’s lowest, most likely due to stable social structures and lack of access to guns.” Newkirk points out that there are many issues with the research on violence, but that many shows that contain violence are not just about violence. They are also about, “ teamwork, loyalty, perseverance, ingenuity, problem solving, stoicism, athletic fitness, courage and frequently patriotism....If 200,00 exposures to violence cause a person to be violent, does the same number of exposures to teamwork create an ethic of cooperation?”
Newkirk stresses the importance of kids perception of violence; he says, “they make distinctions about the gradation of violence, types of violence, degrees of receptivity to violence. They explain what they see as the necessity of violence in some genres of writing that rely on suspense. What struck me most about the kids I interviewed was their willingness to accept limits, including their own” This leads me to wonder though, as I see with my own kids and students, their willingness to justify things that are taboo in order to do them or to do things that adults do?
Newkirk explains that kids will add the violence to their writings but make them safe by “removing it from human pain, by withholding some of its graphic consequences, by interspersing it with humor and by using it in the service of a good cause like saving the planet.”
Most kids seemed to recognize that it was important in their stories to have violence in order to create suspense or believability. But when asked about the connection between their violent writings and their behavior, the kids dismissed the connection. These kids must see the difference between reality and fiction. Kids need to be able to write authentically about the world they are a part of in order to deal with the violence that they experience- and this violence does not mean violence done to them, but that they see or hear about. They are integrated into a world full of insecurities and writing brings those insecurities to light. Rather than shaming their emotions and fears by not allowing them to write, we should encourage them and use these as vehicles of conversation towards the emotions that allowed them to surface. Kids need the power that Newkirk suggests by writing about moments that they feel unsafe or uncertain. This gives them the power to control the situations and outcomes. It allows for them to be the hero in the fight between good and evil. When kids can write about violence, they assume a state of power according to Newkirk- they are able to demonstrate their control and make themselves feel safe.
In no way is Newkirk supporting threatening behavior or disturbing behavior in writing, but I think he is asking the same thing of teachers and educators regarding writing as he did with reading-we need to rethink what is appropriate and what we can allow kids to do in order to reach out to the struggling readers and writers who are turned off from school as a result of their choices being restricted because pieces are seen as “violent.” Often in order to create a more believable story, suspense is used to create the anticipation. This is a marvelous writing technique that appeals to boys.
Even when boys are using their friends in their stories, Newkirk explains that this is a demonstration of friendship and camaraderie possibly even competition to show their friends in there very boy way, what they mean to one another. Boys can also use each other or girls in their stories as a way of creating readership. They want to include people they know everyone likes. If parents are too overprotective, kids won’t be able to show their friends how they feel about them in a way that is meaningful to boys and protective of their boyhood.
Newkirk sees the same issue with writing and reading violent pieces that parents have with video games. However, he adds research and evidence from Smith and Wilhelm regarding the quality learning environment video games provide children:
- sense of control and competence
- challenge that requires an appropriate skill level
- clear goals and feedback
- focus on immediate feedback
And as Newkirk argued earlier, if the video games provide a source of writing inspiration to struggling writers, why deny them this inspiration?