A response to culturally accepted violence

Published 9:15 am Friday, September 27, 2013

Column: Paths to Peace, by Jeremy Corey-Gruenes

The video game “Grand Theft Auto V” was released this month to rave reviews, including claims that it might just be the greatest video game ever. I’ve never played “GTA” and know it primarily from critical reviews of its violence.

For example, ever since “GTA III,” a player has been able to pay for the services of a prostitute, which improves his health, and then recover his money by killing that prostitute afterward. It’s disturbing, to say the least.

Jeremy Corey-Gruenes

Jeremy Corey-Gruenes

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I enjoy my share of violent films and TV shows, so I’m not claiming to be above it all. And while I would never defend the game’s portrayal of prostitution and murder, I’m honestly not convinced that violent video games cause people to be violent. I suspect most people, including adolescents, are capable of distinguishing between virtual reality and reality.

I do wonder, however, what lasting cultural effects America’s love affair with violence-filled entertainment may have, especially among young people, and I find it interesting how we typically respond to voices opposing violence, how we often don’t respect them, tell them to stop thinking so much, to lighten up or toughen up.

Growing up on a farm, I experienced some of this myself each year when we butchered chickens. I can’t think of anything I feared or hated more than butchering day, a day of blood and guts at the Corey farm, of old tablecloths stained by the entrails of countless innocent birds, of loose feathers blowing across our backyard, of the panicked cackling once the doomed creatures were caged and headed to the chopping block, of that stench left on your hands after it was all over.

We raised chickens because we ate a lot of them. It’s a pretty simple explanation and process: raise them, butcher them, freeze them, eat them. Each spring we would buy some chicks, and once they reached roasting size, it was only a matter of time before we executed them, often with the help of my grandparents and teenaged aunt.

“They won’t hurt you, Jeremy” my grandpa chuckled as I refused to help one summer. “I make sure they’re already dead before you get them,” he went on while casually decapitating another one with the nonchalance of a seasoned serial killer.

“Go ahead, Jeremy, so we can get on with the rest,” my dad added, in a softer, gentler tone. He recognized I was conscious that 9-year-old boys — especially farm boys — weren’t supposed to be disturbed by such things, that this was humiliating for me.

I insisted on wearing gloves — an embarrassing-but-necessary coping mechanism — when I finally acquiesced and collected the severed heads in a pail, then carried each chicken by its feet to the feathering table.

Feathering sounds so light and fluffy, like some reward after a long, hard day. But pulling a headless chicken’s feathers out of its skin is not light and fluffy work. It’s actually wet and sticky. You’ve got to drop the birds into boiling water first to loosen them up enough for the feathers to come out without so much struggle.

“Good gravy! Look at your at little sister. She’s up to her armpits in innards,” my grandma added from the gutting table. “And she’s only 3 years old.”

That’s just it, I thought, She’s only 3 years old. If she knew any better, she’d be screaming bloody murder. Her brain hasn’t had a chance to develop yet; every day she wrestles with the question of whether it’s worth it to walk all the way to the potty chair or just poop her pants instead. She doesn’t understand what she’s really doing.

“Jeremy, sometimes you just have to do things that you don’t want to do, even things that scare you,” my dad finally said. “Waiting’s not going to help. Everyone’s pitchin’ in.”

My dad’s words were thoughtful and in no way shaming. But I felt shamed nevertheless.

I don’t blame my parents for insisting I help. They wanted to raise me right, to respect tradition, to foster a strong work ethic in me. Still, I thought others viewed my reluctance as laziness, and I was embarrassed by my squeamishness, my sensitivity, because I hadn’t seen anyone respecting that sort of thing in the rural culture I was raised in. Guys who shrank away from blood and guts were called “pansies” and worse.

It’s funny how different we are a generation later. My 10-year-old daughter, Ava, decided to be a vegetarian nearly a year ago because she’s an animal lover. I wasn’t the thinker she is at 10. I knew I was uncomfortable with the violence behind bringing meat to our table, but the concept of vegetarianism was foreign to me. I’m also pretty sure my parents would have thought I was crazy had I suggested such a thing for myself back then.

Yet they honor her decision today, even though they continue to raise livestock. When Ava stayed with them for several days last summer, my mom made a point of making a healthy meatless alternative for every meal and respecting Ava’s diet as she would an adult guest’s. It might have seemed like a small thing, but that gracious accommodation and message of acceptance made me both a proud father and son.


Jeremy Corey-Gruenes is a high school teacher in Albert Lea, where he lives with his wife and two young daughters. You can reach him at jcorey2@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @jemcorey.