When Societies Watch Too Much Television   (August 13, 2008)

Watching too much television weakens your grasp on reality on many levels, and that over-reliance on scripted, dramatic outcomes is a key factor in Americans' drift into fantasy.

A reader recently termed me "the contrarian's contrarian" and I would have to agree, because I can't help turning the same skepticism I focus on the MSM and TPTB (the powers that be) on group-think contrarianism.

It is a human weakness that we seek simplistic answers to complex puzzles. Astute correspondent U. Doran recently sent in a humbling list of common flaws in human thinking: List of Cognitive Biases.

On top of these potentially crippling natural biases toward group-think, self-delusion and fantasy, we have a literally endless stream of dramas in which some resolution is reached in two hours, an hour, or perhaps even 22 minutes (the other 8 minutes of the programming slot being reserved for consumptive propaganda, i.e. adverts).

Consider the key features of all television drama. Most importantly, there is always an explosive dramatic "problem" or obstacle. The solution/resolution will either require explosions and violence, a tense stand-off, or some equivalent high-stakes emotional compression and release. Settings which never seem to go out of favor are seething hotbeds of life-and-death drama: hospitals, courtrooms, criminal/police matchups, etc.

Even comedies and so-called "reality shows" follow the same script of ramped-up drama and cathartic resolution. The only difference is the resolution is supposed to be humorous and touching (some thin veneer of self-realization/self-knowledge is popular--"awwww, see, he found out something important about himself") or some decision by other parties is imposed/announced: you win, you lose, you're off the island, you're guilty, you shouldn't have torn the heads off her Barbie Doll collection, etc.

If violence is not in the script, then sex is substituted as the grabber.

The only problem with this script is that it rarely maps real life. One could argue that all human storytelling revolves around the same scripts--the cliche is that all stories can be reduced to seven storylines, or even down to one: a stranger comes to town--and there is a kernal of truth in this.

But never before have people spent 8 hours a day absorbing these scripts in visual form. Around the flickering fire, you still had to imagine the scene in your own mind as the storyteller wove his/her tale. Myths and "timeless stories" tend to focus on human weaknesses and obsessions--warnings, if you will--and on conflicts within characters.

There is a famous study which tracked changes in behavior of children in remote Canada after TV was introduced. Violence in all settings increased dramatically, as did other anti-social behavior. This has long been studied--for instance: Children And TV Violence. After watching lots of TV, children tend to:

  • become "immune" or numb to the horror of violence
  • gradually accept violence as a way to solve problems
  • imitate the violence they observe on television; and
  • identify with certain characters, victims and/or victimizers
  • Perhaps we should look at the survivalist "contrarians" in light of the above. Where did the "Rambo" scenario of one heavily-armed brave survivalist eradicating faceless "bad guys" who threaten his family come from? Did it come from any historical evidence, or has it been planted, like all good propaganda, deeply and unconsciously via thousands of hours of scripted violence-as-solution-to-your-big-problems?

    Even the most cherished American myths of "lone gunman wiping out evil bad guys" are false; most gunshot wounds in the truly Wild West resulted from people shooting other people in the back (ambush) or accidents (firearms accidents were far more common than duels or "cowboys and Indians").

    For a more realistic view of the West, take a look at the 1979 book (apparently out of print) Hanta Yo.

    The entire SHTF (dung hits the fan) scenario on which so much survivalist thinking is based is likewise suspect. First, the U.S. is the wrong society to be in if you're looking for the collapse of social order. Better to pick Russia or China, where fear of widespread social disorder is a key prop under any functioning government: just keep chaos at bay, and we're fine with the rest of your policies, corruption, graft, etc.

    The reason is that those nations experienced catastrophic social disruption in the early 20th century and people have good reason to fear it.

    While New Orleans made for excellent TV--all the elements of a "catastrophe script" were made to order, with governmental incompetence playing out a hackneyed "disaster flick" script like Towering Inferno--the flooding in Iowa was not.

    In fact, the rest of the nation has already forgotten about those thousands of homes which were inundated and ruined, and all the lives upended and the billions lost. Why? The script was boring. People saved what they could, helped each other out, got on with their lives, and government functioned as well or better as could be expected in trying times.

    I know this is a huge, grave, staggering disappointment to many, but that's the likely scenario in most of America. Americans don't really fear widespread social disruption the way other cultures do; even if the government disappeared, their instinct is not to duct-tape extra ammo clips to their calves and run away from their neighbors because they expect them to form criminal gangs bent on pillaging and great violence.

    In other words: the whole survival-via-violence is a script which bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to thousands of hours of TV programming. Yes, looting does occur in urban America; but is that the script everyone follows? If you live in one of the hardcore urban ghettos of the U.S. (less than 5% of us live there), you have historical evidence to back up your fear of mob looting. But even then, where do the mobs go after the looting? They vanish.

    The Iowa flooding aftermath has been ignored precisely because it didn't make for dramatic TV. Think about it: how much of your thinking about New Orleans and the Iowa flooding is shaped not by experience or a deep knowledge of conditions and events, but by heavily edited/scripted TV, which exists for one reason and one reason only: To conflate reality into a heavily dramatized script which attracts your attention long enough to sell you some products via shameless propaganda.

    We all know what causes the slowdowns on the highway--not the actual crash, or vehicles blocking lanes: it's the "looky-lous" who slow down to look at the twisted metal and ambulance in the median strip.

    Yes, this is human nature, for just like mating, mayhem draws our deepest interest. But is this primal urge the best foundation for decision-making? Obviously not.

    Can you scrape away the pernicious propaganda-influence of all the thousands of hours of TV you've watched? It isn't easy. Even beloved "nature" shows are scripted and pared down to the most dramatic events: the chimp mother dies, the other troop invades, the new Lion King kills the cubs of the previous king, etc.

    It is amusing to note the way such shows play upon our sympathies. When the show is all about the struggles of the cheetah mom and cubs to survive, we are rooting for the cheetah to bring down the prey to feed her poor starving cubs.

    Then, in the next program, the focus is on the gazelle family, and we fear and loathe the horrible, wretched cheetah which threatens to kill the poor little adorable gazelle.

    Regardless of the false perspective chosen, the key ingredient is killing and violence. Most of life is boring--chewing grass, sleeping, etc. To get people to watch, you have to distill all the boring parts down to the dramatic scripts of mating or violence.

    But how realistic is the worldview established by such relentless editing and scripting? How valuable are such scripts in real life? How much do they distort our expectations and "inner scripts"?

    The best propaganda, of course, isn't recognized as propaganda: it's simply "the way things are" to the person who has absorbed the scripts unconsciously.

    How much of our thinking is based on unrealistic planted scripts of drama, romance and violence? Thinking for oneself gets a lot harder when we realize virtually all of television is based on turning us into looky-lous so something can be sold to us: a product, an ideology, or even an entire worldview.

    New Readers Journal commentaries 8/12/08! New commentary by Harun I.

    New Readers Journal Essay by Chris Sullins:

    Come and Take It
    (Chris Sullins, August 12, 2008)
    The state capitol court building was still in remarkable shape given everything that had happened in the nation over the last five years. It was now surrounded by an outer wall of steel-reinforced concrete topped with a spiral of razor wire.

    Plus two new readers' poems

    Readers Journal essays express the views of the essays' writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of CHS. I post essays with a variety of views in order to stimulate our collective critical thinking. I have long posted essays which run counter to my own views because I could be wrong--and often have been.

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