“TV, No! – Let’s Get Off the Couch” – revisited
[I gave this speech in 1988, when I was more idealistic and less aware of the underlying causes of our society’s increasingly chaotic and unhappy state, of which screen watching is only one obvious symptom. What was shown by research 30 years ago has only become more evident and damaging today. More importantly, in the world of hand-held devices and computers, all the varieties of screen watching have more addictive and propagandistic influence than ever. That’s the topic of another recent post about “Selfies”, phony images and marketing by Awesome AND Amazing Hyperbole.]
By JUSTIN SYNNESTVEDT, Associate Professor of Humanities, Moraine Valley Community College Delivered at the Weekly Forum of Faculty and Students, Moraine Valley Community College,Palos Hills, Illinois, October 19, 1988.
(Published in VITAL SPEECHES OF THE DAY, January 15, 1989, Vol. 55 Issue 7, pp 209 – 211)
I am going to argue that we should all simply stop watching commercial television. That’s right, completely. My students already know that this is a personal ‘cause’ of mine, which I will pursue with some humor. But please don’t think it is a fanatical viewpoint. On the contrary, there are very good reasons for this view, which I would like to spell out here in an orderly way. And then I would welcome your rebuttal or comments.
In less time than I have been alive, television has grown from nothing to world-wide popularity. In America – even in the farthest reaches of the rural South; even in the poorest of inner city slums – the presence of T.V. can be felt, and its eerie light seen, in virtually every house. The number of man-, or woman-, or child-hours spent before the tube is staggering. The average U.S. household watches television five to seven hours, every day, year ’round. Children typically spend as much time viewing T.V. as they do going to school (and I don’t mean travelling to get there). The pervasiveness of television in our society has suggested to many educators that ‘today’s students,’ as they are called, are not like yesterday’s. It is pointed out that school is basically boring, by comparison to television, and that perhaps we should bring T.V. into the classrooms as the preferred mode of instruction.
Other institutions have, of course, already jumped onto the television band wagon. Religious evangelizers, social service providers, government agency representatives, political campaigners, and special interest persons of every sort vie with each other for media coverage, knowing how huge their potential audiences are.
So much for the obvious presence and influence of television. The question for you to ponder is, so what? Let me answer that. First, consider the effects of T.V. on children. Take violence, for example, which is a large component of popular programming. True, the jury is not all in yet, but some things are already quite clear. Let me report some of the information to be found, e.g., in the sociology texts here on Moraine’s campus.
Children who watch televised violence act violently, accept violence as a means, and are discouraged from cooperating with others. This is because of the “desensitizing, role modeling, and apparent approval” (Brinkerhoff, Sociology p. 155) that such programming involves.
As a result, groups like the National Institute of Mental Health (in 1982) and the American Psychological Association (in 1985) have published resolutions to lessen televised aggression and violence. Please note these are not fanatical groups, or the Moral Majority.
Now you might think that closer monitoring would solve this problem. Even though I doubt that parents will be responsible in this way, I do not advocate censorship. That is not the point. The point is that even if parents could or would monitor their children’s T.V. habits, the major problem would still remain. Changing the channel is not the answer. Neither is changing the program content. Programs like Mister Rogers and Sesame Street may avoid the bad effects of violence, but they do not avoid the bad effects of television watching itself. It isn’t only what children watch that damages them – it is that they watch. Let me explain. Children must play in order to develop physically, socially, and mentally. In early years, a large part of this play involves pretending or imagining – as much as one third of a kindergarten child’s play, for example. Psychologist Jean Piaget suggests, reasonably enough, that pretending depends on a child’s ability to remember and work with symbols, and to imagine what he has heard or seen. Now you might think that television would enhance the fantasy of children, but it manifestly does not. On the contrary, it retards children because it holds them as passive captives before a lot of bright moving images. (See Papalia, A Child’s World, p. 353)
But don’t think that T.V.’s ill effects are limited to immature minds. They are found in adults, too. Take violent adult programs, for instance. I realize that some persons might try, not too successfully, to link certain spectacular or bizarre crimes with particular shows that the criminals have watched. Such claims are hard to substantiate, and are often passed off in terms of the lunatic fringe element that is always present in society. A much more significant claim can be made, however, when one reads of a 1983 study by Phillips showing how closely related are crime statistics and television programming. For example, the rate of murders rises remarkably after every highly publicized boxing match. It went up twenty-four percent after the Ali-Frazier bout. (See Brinkerhoff, p. 154)
So much for sociologists’ and psychologists’ claims. Now let me make some observations of my own, which get more into the speculative realm of ethics and philosophy.
I suggest, for instance, that our country’s political system has suffered greatly from its association with television. It must be obvious to all of you that campaigns have become sales pitches, (almost) pure and simple. Candidates are told what to say and how to look by media managers who deal in Madison Avenue advertising techniques. This year’s national political conventions were media circus events – all show and no substance. The debates between Dukakis and Bush, and between Quayle and Bentsen, were not debates at all, but orchestrated, prepackaged affairs that masqueraded as debates. Nothing of sub stance – nothing reasonable or logical or thought-provoking – comes out of these programs, simply because T.V. viewers do not expect and do not want it. They want entertainment.
You all know this. The question is, what does it do to our democratic society? How can people learn to be responsible participants, when they are trained to be passive viewers of amusing spectacles? The answer is obvious. Remember that television is hypnotic. It is literally physically addictive, in the sense that there is a natural fascination with watching brightly colored moving images. This is easily seen, for example, in the fact that senile people, who have no idea what is going on, will nevertheless sit quietly before the T.V. screen for hours.
Our ability to communicate is altered radically by television, too. In the first place, language – the spoken word – is reduced to a minimum, and takes a back place to pictures. And secondly, the vocabulary is reduced to the lowest common level. But much worse, people are also losing their ability to present ideas, because they are so used to visual communication instead of verbal. It takes words and symbols to deal with abstractions. Animals deal with visual cues. Only language can take us to higher levels of mind. Pictures won’t do it.
Just observe a casual conversation somewhere – say at the McDonald’s on campus here. Here’s what you might hear: “You know, he said, ‘Hey, Don’t be a jerk,’ and I’m like, ‘You gotta be kidding!’ And he goes, you know, ‘No really!’ and I go, ‘Hey, I’m outta here, if you don’t like it!’ You know?”
Notice that such conversations as this must make use of gestures, tone of voice, and mimicking routines to get the thoughts across. They have to be seen to be understood at all, because the thinking is visual and sensual. There is less and less abstract thought.
Of course the very ability to hold a conversation is dying, too, for lack of exercise. As one of my students observed the other day, whenever he goes to visit with a friend, he can expect to have to sit down and watch the tube. What ever happened to families talking around the supper table?
Closely related to our language problems is our increasing disability to think clearly. Many people have noted this. In fact, we currently are considering how to develop critical thinking across the curriculum at this school. Now reasoning, logic, and putting ideas together coherently are linear processes, and are supported by the practice of reading. Television, by contrast, presents its messages in wholes and clumps, which appear in rapid succession, with little sense to their order, and little time to process their connections. T.V. frustrates reason.
It is not surprising, really, that television encourages sensual experience rather than abstract thinking. After all, consider what the driving forces are behind the television enterprise: commercials, on the part of the producers, and entertainment, on the part of the consumers. Commercial interests want people to live for their lowest sensual and material interests, in order to buy commercial products. In the process, of course, they want people to part with their money, so they must at least appear to offer the viewers something in return. What they offer is the pleasure of entertainment and the mind-numbing sales pitches of advertising. Ad men do not want T.V. audiences to think in any abstract way. They design their ads to evoke gut-level responses, to sell material products for their own profit. In short, the commercial television enterprise is trying to keep audiences at the lowest level of human thought, and is using them for its selfish interests. In other words, television is inherently corrupt.
Now you already know much of what I have said here. Nevertheless, many people will still think my position is wrong, or extreme, or even silly. Why? Because even if commercial interests are using people, the fact is, people choose to watch television voluntarily. They want to be used. In a capitalist society, people are free to select what they wish to see, and they must find much of it positive. After all, when people work hard, they need some entertainment. So what is wrong with entertainment? Well, let me tell you.
First, however, I wish to say emphatically that entertainment is a good thing, in principle. It is useful and constructive in its place. But I propose that commercial television is not proper entertainment. Remember that television is free, unlike many forms of entertainment. Of course, we realize that since advertising costs are passed along to consumers, television isn’t really free. But it does appear so, and it certainly is convenient. For these reasons, viewers are not apt to be discriminating about it. They don’t shop around for suitable or truly recreational entertainment. They just come home and flip on the tube. They do not bother to judge whether it has any value.
I have already pointed out that television fare is corrupted, both by its content and its form, which appeal to sensuality and materialism. As entertainment, television does nothing for the viewer, because the viewer does nothing for himself. He is passive, so he cannot possibly grow from the experience. Absolutely any live form of entertainment would be more satisfying and fulfilling by the mere fact that it invites audience participation. Go to an opera, a concert, a ballet, a recital, a play, a lecture, an art exhibit, or a film – even a strip show! Read a book. Visit a friend. Play an instrument. Sing. Take a walk in the country. I guarantee that any of these activities will be more recreating than commercial T.V.
But let’s consider again. Most people, I dare say, watch television simply because they like it. So what is wrong with that? Well, just remember that what we like is not in itself a good measure of what we should have. After all, didn’t John Gacy like what he did too? But seriously, is there really any harm in T.V.? I’ve tried to show that indeed there is. The harm is in catering to our lowest characteristics. Would it not be better that we ask, of anything we do, what good is it?
Entertainment, pleasure, fun – these are not the purpose of life. If they are seen to be so, real evil can result. Recently one of my fellow teachers said something insightful about the modern view of evil. For most people today, wrong-doing does not consist in doing anything really heinous like murder, rape, theft, or adultery. For most of us, it is simply not doing what should be done. It is laziness. It is not doing something because we don’t feel like it. Or it’s substituting what is more convenient, more exciting, more fun for what we ought to do. I suggest that commercial T.V. is completely founded on this view of life. Don’t worry; be happy. Don’t think. Kick back. Relax. You deserve a break. Flip on the tube. Put everything out of your mind. Right?
Look. Let’s get off the couch and go about our business of becoming human. Thank you.