No apologies for free speech

November 14, 2010


Dear Cuba:

Maybe you’ve got a point.

I refer to your outrage over a new video game, the object of which is to assassinate Fidel Castro. In “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” the latest in the popular series from Activision Blizzard Inc., the player is transported to Havana during the Cold War with a mission to kill the young communist revolutionary.

As an article on your state-run news website put it, “What the United States couldn’t accomplish in more than 50 years, they are now trying to do virtually.” It says the game will turn American kids into sociopaths.

That’s a dubious claim, at least according to Christopher J. Ferguson, a psychology professor at Texas A&M; International University and expert in video-game violence, who was quoted in an Associated Press account. “At this point,” he said, “there is no evidence that video games, violent or otherwise, cause harm to minors.”

Youth violence in this country, said Ferguson, is at its lowest ebb in 40 years, even though research indicates that virtually all young men — up to 95 percent — have at some point in their lives played violent video games. So, Cuba, your suggestion that “Call of Duty” will produce kill-crazy psychos seems naive, at best. Hysterical at worst.

All that said, it’s not hard to empathize with your feeling of pique. How would we like it if you produced a game where players had to shoot their way through Washington with a goal of killing President Obama? The U.S. government would likely have a thing or two to say about that.

Not to equate our duly elected president with your former dictator for life, but only to say, I understand where you’re coming from. Castro is a murderous thug, but he’s your murderous thug and it really knots your knickers when people try to video-game assassinate him. Message received.

But the question is, what do you think we can do about it?

We have this thing in this country, maybe you’ve heard about it, called the First Amendment. Among the things it guarantees is freedom of expression. That’s a right enjoyed by everybody — even video game makers. Every American is free to say pretty much anything she or he pleases, and the government is legally proscribed from stopping them.

That sounds crazy to you, right? How can the government be proscribed from doing anything it wants?

In your country it’s different. Say something the government doesn’t like and they whisk you off to the ol’ gulag. You throw journalists in jail. You throw dissidents in jail. You throw poets in jail. Don’t do the rhyme if you can’t do the time, right?

And we’re not talking some country club jail with conjugal visits and a TV room, are we? No, we’re talking jails with moldy, maggoty food, roaches, rats, reek, rampant physical, mental and sexual abuse, and cells so narrow you barely have room to sit. Nor is it just those dangerous poets who get sent to such places. I hear you even lock up private restaurateurs who sell the lobsters that are reserved for tourist hotels and government-owned eateries.

Wow. Sell a lobster, go to jail. Now that’s tough.

Yes, we have some pretty draconian policies in this country, but I’m afraid ours pale next to yours. Heck, we haven’t a gulag to our name. And no law to send video game makers there if we did.

But don’t despair. Maybe your statement will get people talking about the propriety of assassinating other nation’s leaders in video games. Maybe they’ll debate whether that’s in the best of taste. Of course, maybe Activision Blizzard will tell them to take a flying leap.

That’s kind of how freedom of speech works, y’ know? Everybody gets their say. It’s messy and unpredictable. But we like it. We think it works.

Anyway, thanks for listening. And tell Elian we said hi.

— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CST each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com. lpitts@miamiherald.com


Liberty275 7 years, 5 months ago

This is like the third time I've agreed with Pitts. Is the universe ending? Shouldn't we put a paper bag over our heads or something?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 5 months ago

"Heck, we haven’t a gulag to our name."

Maybe not. But we certainly haven't hesitated to kidnap and secretly render quite a few folks to a network of rented gulags.

jafs 7 years, 5 months ago

I usually like Pitts, but this one makes me a bit dubious.

It's extremely hard for me to believe that extremely violent video games don't harm children in any way.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 5 months ago

There are likely many reasons why some kids grow up to be violent, but most don't. I think it's very possible that kids who might be prone to violence for whatever other reasons may indeed be negatively affected by playing these games just enough to tip the balance. But I don't think that most kids are going to become violent in their personal lives just because of these games.

I think the greatest danger is that even if they aren't directly involved, these games can cause people to believe that violence is "sterile," and that it actually accomplishes something. They can watch programs like "24," and believe that that's a proper template for how the US government and its intelligence and military forces should operate. Flying drones over Pakistan or elsewhere, shooting missiles at "suspected" terrorists from an air-conditioned video console in California is perfectly acceptable. The hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people killed are not even a consideration.

jafs 7 years, 5 months ago

They undoubtedly induce a "fight or flight" response, which is harmful to our bodies in a variety of ways.

Also, they desensitize us to violence, as you point out.

And, they promote violent, competitive urges.

None of which are good things, imho.

verity 7 years, 5 months ago

I agree. A lot of things are protected by free speech, but just because something is legal, doesn't mean it's good or should be done. Our culture is saturated with passive violence---we sit on our couch and enjoy seeing the imaginary bad guy get his. As opposed as I am to violence as a means of settling conflict, I always found myself cheering when Margaret Hoolihan (MASH) wiped out some guy who got in her way.

jafs 7 years, 5 months ago

Many modern video games produce a "fight or flight" reaction (stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system) in a way that board games, even war games, probably don't do.

Kendall Simmons 7 years, 5 months ago

I remember when Cal Thomas kept referring in his columns to Jack Bauer as if he were a real person, not just a character played by Kiefer Sutherland reading lines written by screenwriters who could 'guarantee' any results they wanted.

He'd say things like "We need to ask ourselves 'what would Jack Bauer do?'"

Apparently someone he actually listened to finally pointed out to him that Bauer was a character on a TV drama, not a person on a reality show.

Liberty275 7 years, 5 months ago

Look what they did to Henry McCarty. He ended up killing 21 people!

LoveThsLife 7 years, 5 months ago

I agree, I don't think violent video games are "harmless".

RoeDapple 7 years, 5 months ago

Hey now here's a video game even I could get into! Only let's set it up so we can substitute anyone we (don't) like! How about your least favorite government employee, from dog catcher all the way to the top? Or how about your boss? Heck, he doesn't have a clue anyway, right? Wait . . . Journalists! The kind who write articles like this one! How's that make you feel, Leonard? Maybe even your least favorite online commenter . . . oops. I'll be leaving now. Gotta find my e-armor . . .

brian1981 7 years, 5 months ago

Holy crap.

I wholeheartedly agree with a Pitts article. Incredible that we can share some ideological common ground somewhere.

Kris_H 7 years, 5 months ago

We don't have gulags, just terrorist watch lists, no-fly lists, over-the-top clandestine survelliance, "free speech zones," etc. etc. etc. And these are applied to average, ordinary American citizens. You don't think all that has a chilling effect on what some people say and do?

It's a gulag of the mind, that's what it is.

maxcrabb 7 years, 5 months ago

Let the adults have their games. Get involved with what your kids are playing, and talk to them about the difference between reality and entertainment. If you're uncomfortable with the content of the games, don't let them play them.

Kendall Simmons 7 years, 5 months ago

Well...I know that my 13 year old grandson most definitely understands that 'Call of Duty: Black Ops' - which he got to go buy at midnight because he got great grades - is makebelieve.

Heck, he spent the night and didn't bring it with him, opting for Paper Mario, etc. because, as he put it, "I'm tired of bloody violence and random mayhem. Time to play some silly games."

maxcrabb 7 years, 5 months ago

You are an awesome grandparent, and have an awesome grandson.

Fangorn 7 years, 5 months ago

I agree with Corky's point. It was perfectly acceptable for the Left to fantasize about assassinating Bush. I think Pitts is at least being consistent here. Although we sit on opposite sides of the political aisle, we do seem to have some common ground between us. And even when we disagree, he is usually a thoughtful writer, as he is, I opine, in this instance.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 5 months ago

"It was perfectly acceptable for the Left to fantasize about assassinating Bush."

Acceptable to whom? And exactly who is this "left" with whose fantasies you are apparently so intimately familiar?

Avery Pearson 7 years, 5 months ago

Black Ops Is awesome. Although I have not been moved to head to cuba in an attempt to reenact a video game's rendition of bay of pigs...

KUinAussie 7 years, 5 months ago

its not the violence in games that tarnishes the kids images.. its the simple concept of video game playing that is making them all lazy.

content of games does not matter... our kids do not try to body slam their brothers (yet), but merely turning the games on is why they dont want to clean their room, take out the trash etc.

Kirk Larson 7 years, 5 months ago

We've got plenty of other reasons why we're raising a generation of sociopaths.

jafs 7 years, 5 months ago

Very possibly.

But the increasing violence in video games and movies is part of the problem, in my opinion.

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