Ban…Or Band-Aid?

Bans don’t work. Or at least they don’t achieve the desired end, which is generally to fix some problem in the culture. The Prohibition of alcohol in the U. S. from 1920-1933 was a disaster and gave rise to modern organized crime, helped fuel the “Roaring Twenties” and did nothing to prevent those who really wanted alcohol from getting their hands on it.

Two bans currently making headlines will probably do only that. The so-called Happy Meal ban in Santa Clara, California, and the ban of violent video games have certainly created a lot of posturing from public officials, but most of it is idiocy.

Consider Ken Yeager, Santa Clara County who says that toy premiums encourage children to eat unhealthy food. And it’s not like the other side is sending Valentines. Calling politicians “Frankenstein monsters” is about the only thing in the expletive-laden rants we can print in a family blog. Neither side is behaving rationally.

Here’s the reality. McDonald’s introduced the toy-with-meal concept in 1979, first to promote its drive-thru windows and then to compete with other fast food restaurants. The thinking, which has been consistently validated through research, has always been that the choice of a toy could drive the choice of restaurant by kids as the family was in the car. The toy never played a role in a decision to eat “healthy food” versus fast food, but which fast food restaurant to choose. Eliminating the toy doesn’t change the desire to buy fast food. That’s the behavior and mindset that needs to be addressed. Moreover, fast food restaurants have offered healthier choices in their kids’ meals for several years. But guess what? Consumers prefer the traditional meals. It is too easy and facile to blame the toy without addressing the underlying issue: Americans eat too much calorie-laden nutritionally compromised fast food. Banning toys makes noise, but it won’t solve that problem.

Similarly, banning of the sale of “violent” video games to kids younger than 18 will not eliminate violence in the culture. First and foremost, “M” and “T” rated games represent only about 6 percent of the total video games out there. Secondly, despite all the noise, there is no research that links playing violent video games with violent behavior. This is for one very simple reason: It is impossible to structure research that limits kids’ exposure only to video games or TV. In fact, there is increasing literature that debunks this and other video game myths. Common sense would tell us that if exposure to violence in literature, art or video games really did promote violent behavior, you could say that kids shouldn’t read the Bible. There’s a whole lot of violence in there from the smiting to the retribution to the plague. No wonder it’s called “violence of Biblical proportions.” No, we live in a country that lionizes violence, that values it as a show of strength.

In his wonderful book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, author Chris Hedges addresses just this. We look to violence through the illusion of everything from political parties to professional wrestling to right wrongs and validate us. And it comes at a very steep cost to our ability to see clearly and accomplish things.

In this case, it is the illusion that the bans will change fundamental beliefs and their respective behaviors that is being promoted. A real solution that goes deeper doesn’t make sexy sound bites or headlines and offers no quick fixes or guaranteed results. It might, however, work over time. Right now, people are making a lot of noise, but no one’s getting less violent or having more healthy diets.

It would be nice if a ban could work, but things aren’t that simple, and on problems as endemic as obesity and violence there are no easy, isolated fixes. Toys and games are merely expressions, to make real change we must dig deeper—and be willing to change.

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