Date: August 3, 1995
Did you know that person can have their eyes wide open, their mind racing a thousand miles per second, and their mouth spewing out words and be completely asleep?
No real thought is required to get out of bed, shower, shave, or put on make-up. This is all done on automatic pilot. Like an automaton, we simply follow the program that was insidiously instilled in us before we had the capacity to decide if it was good or bad, which is reminiscent of the children in the nursery in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Because this sleep has dulled our senses, extremes are requisite if one hopes to gain our attention.
The farfetched and distasteful extremes which typify current talk shows reveal the extent to which the media must go to catch the attention of the sleeping populace. A typical range of subjects for these television spectacles can be found in a single week’s television schedule alone for talk shows: “Women who work in adult entertainment,” Dreams foretelling tragedy,” Convincing strangers to do silly acts,” and “Cheating lovers.” What Huxley referred to as “man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions” helps explain the popularity of these farfetched topics and further upholds the conviction that the public chooses to sleep rather than think.
The mind that is sluggish with sleep does not respond well to thinking or ideas. Realizing this, the media, particularly television, choose methods of communicating which will override this sluggishness. Marshal McLuhan, a professor of Neil Postman’s, taught his students that the “clearest way to see through a culture is to attend to its tools for conversation.” Postman, the author of “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,” believed this was a “dominant influence on the formation of the culture’s intellectual and social preoccupations.” The mentality of which I speak, lacking in conscious control of thoughts and feelings, is automatically attracted to the myriads of visually stimulating scenes, regardless of the absence of values or ideas.
The television medium, according to Postman, tends to “suppress the content of ideas in order to accommodate the requirements of visual interest. The media “offers viewers a variety of subject matter, re2quiring minimal skills to comprehend it, and is largely aimed at emotional gratification.” This reminds me of the “Feelies” in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in which the viewers were treated to a sensual experience without meaning. The talk show phenomenon aggrandizes or increases the influence of extreme forms of social behavior, while taking the viewer through an emotional experience without any attempt to appeal to the faculty of reason or higher thought. The focus is always kept on the problem, which is naturally the source of all the emotions, rather than on the solutions.
The real value is gained from working through the problems and challenges in life and by taking responsibility for what happens and being willing to correct any personal defects contributing to the problem. The talk shows concentrate on the “condition” as though it were a permanent part of the person’s life.
This increasing mental numbness is clearly evident in the gradual deterioration of television over the past thirty years. Programs that promoted high personal ideals and family values, such as Father Knows Best, My Three Sons, The Danny Thomas Show, and The Partridge Family have been replaced by Cybil, Grace Under Fire, and The Simpsons, which tend to reflect families as products of divorce with unclear roles for family members or a lack of respect for authority, be it parents or otherwise. This is perpetuated and expanded by the talk show prattle, which gives credibility to the less than 4% of the population representing the extremes of a normal bell curve of behavior. For example, a talk show called Marilyn had a program this week devoted to “Blabber Mouth Lovers,” in which a woman, her lover, and a male friend argued the pros and cons of the woman’s discussion of her lovemaking in detail with the male friend.
This week Reed Hunt, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), spoke to the National Press Club. He contends that the FCC is at fault for the low status of programming to which television has sunk. I disagree with him totally. The apathy of the people is responsible for creating the conditions whereby television is fast becoming a wasteland. In the medium of the theater, one must practice a “willing suspension of disbelief” or a willingness to join into the fantasy of a stage production. However, as Postman stresses, we fail to remember that television is also entertainment, not a disseminator of factual information. We have extended our willing suspension of disbelief to television, but in our dulled state of mind, we have forgotten this and have begun to accept these productions as reality.
Many years ago, the Leake family of explorers found a tribe of natives living in the jungle worshiping a replica of a plane made from branches and leaves. Evidently, a team of military men had landed a plane and set up a strategic listening post there during World War II. Having never seen white men before, the natives believed them to be gods, especially with the photographs, food in cans, and voices from the radio being their “magic.” It was their ignorance of the processes of science and technology that influenced their reaction to the presence of the plane from the sky. We are just as ignorant when it comes to television. It is our shrine. We see a finished product and we are willfully ignorant of the purposeful maneuvering and sensational staging that makes the presentation believable and titillates our senses. Consequently, we endorse what we see and hear as the truth because we heard it on television in the form of news or talk show discussions.
Television talk shows create an insidious distraction because the sleeping, non-thinking populace is being programmed while they “sleep.” Their concentration is on the “condition” as a permanent part of one’s life, which I mentioned before, depicts individuals as victims of circumstances without power or recourse. In addressing the relevance of this perspective, we are confronted once again with the issue of whether television is entertainment or a valuable source of information. By putting the focus on a victim philosophy it implies that these programs do not care about improving the people’s understanding in order to effect change. Instead they are interested in generating emotional excitement in order to increase their ratings, that is, their entertainment value. Unfortunately, their “entertainment” influences our social mores, and many men and women accept the “pop psychology” irresponsibly handed out on these programs as viable and attempt to apply it unsuccessfully to their own lives. It is a vicious cycle.
Whom do we blame? The programmers or the viewing public? The choice is ultimately in the hands of the public for the programmers are only responding to the ratings. Unless we wake up and recognize the nature of the television medium, we will eternally be “amusing ourselves to death” as Postman’s book title suggests.
©1995 John Dean & Dannye Williamsen