They’re getting bigger every day, using new technologies, becoming a familiar friend that you welcome into your home, no questions asked. They entertain, hypnotize and lie to you. They steal your life as you watch their antics.
Growth of a Wayward Child
Television began as an oddity, a diversion from the real entertainment world of stage and screen. They said it would never last. It was expensive, crude, colorless. It only appeared for a few hours a day, because it didn’t have very much to offer.
Later, as it began to grow, it gained color, offered more variety, started earlier and ended later. Industries began to grow up around it. More people wanted to meet it. It was still expensive, but as time marched on the price for its entertainment began to drop slowly. It learned to take advantage of emerging technologies, becoming faster, clearer and smaller all at the same time. Professional actors and actresses began to sit up and take note of it.
Then it exploded. Somehow, at some time, it recognized its power over the masses and used that power for both good and evil. It started becoming a cultural habit to pre-empt walks in the park and time spent in libraries in order to heed its siren call. Conversations at work centered around what it showed us last night and what it promised for this evening. A new class of star emerged – the television personality. Soap operas. Comedies. Dramas. Science fiction. All began springing up faster and faster.
What’s On Tonight?
Here we are in 2014. Our televisions have evolved into almost-sentient beings with built-in brains that adjust the picture to your personal preferences, search for new channels to offer up for your viewing pleasure, and with the help of their friends DVD and TiVo, allow you to watch what you want, when you want. Their screens have grown to mammoth proportions, but their depth has shrunk to mere inches. Hang it on the wall like a living painting. Grab the 200-button multi-remote and cruise satellite channels from around the world, check out the cable channels, or (gasp) watch the local news. They are no longer hindered by little 4-inch speakers – they now have the intimate acquaintance of home audio systems that would make the majestic movie theaters of the 50’s blush. You can watch several programs simultaneously on the same screen now, all in glorious, fine-tuned color at resolutions that challenge photographs. We even create separate rooms for our televisions now.
BUT…what are we watching, and what is it doing to our personalities?
A Zombie Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving a few years ago. I’m really not much of a holiday-type, but when one of my students invited me over to partake of their family Thanksgiving dinner I thought it would probably be good to leave my monastic cell for a few hours and venture forth into the real world. Beautiful home, beautiful family – and several TV’s lurking in the corners. The main one in the family room was on when I got there and was still going strong hours later when I left, even when no one was paying attention to it. My student’s 10-year-old daughter was surfing the channels and settled on SpongeBob Square Pants for a few minutes, seemingly to the displeasure of her father who wanted nothing more than to watch the big college games. As we all settled in the family room and the smell from the dinner that was cooking in the kitchen wafted through the house, the conversation started off centered mainly upon my work but after a few minutes discussion of meditation and slow-moving martial arts the family’s attention returned mainly to the tube. “What’s on?” was the phrase of the day.
The remote was passed back and forth dozens of times. As one family member would leave the room for a moment, another would grab the Holy Relic and flick over to their preferred channel. In short order, I was treated to the aforementioned SpongeBob (several times), college football, sitcoms, Jerry Springer, soaps and tons and tons of commercials centered mainly on psyching up the viewers for Black Friday the following day. It was the commercials that really caught my attention (of course – they have psychologists working for the ad agencies now). Some were subtle and low-key – usually the ones for luxury cars that cost more than many of the homes around these parts. The other commercials were what I call the “screamers” – the voice-over announcer working himself into a frothing frenzy over the fantastic, unbelievable price-slashing on Clorox® bleach (1-gallon size) at the local supermarket. When they weren’t being smooth or crazy then they were suggesting that you weren’t one of the “in-crowd” unless you ran out that moment and stocked up on whatever they were pitching.
After a few minutes of these commercials, it was almost a blessing to see the game back on and listen to the inane babble of the color commentator about how “this team came to play ball today” (NO! Really?) and “Now THAT is an example of true courage!” (as a freshman half-back is carried off the field on a stretcher for his hangnail).
So what do you suppose all this drivel does to your brain? To your spirit? Is it helping you to really relax, or is it just substituting one mania for another? What about some of the cartoons that are on now? Are they supposed to be for the kids or the adults? Hard to tell with the filthy language coming out of their cute little animated mouths. Do you really want to surrender your mind to this kind of garbage?
Here’s another thing to mull over. As with the Internet, in TV land, you have to be careful of your sources. Even the news shows are slanted to whatever side the owners deem appropriate. Think of it – you’re only seeing what the station wants you to see. Are you content to sit back and let them spoon-feed you carefully-monitored video pablum? Granted, newspapers can have the same problem, but more folks watch television now than read a paper. As for the Net – yes, I suppose there are sites that are carefully orchestrated to slant your opinions, but the very nature of the Internet – so many millions of free-thinking, truth-seeking, interacting users – largely negates any such chicanery.
The Fatal Flaw
Finally, television’s fatal flaw: it is non-participatory. In other words, you sit back passively and let it entertain you. There is no feedback possible from the audience with a television show. (And no, I don’t count those cheesy “audience polls” that some of the reality and game shows have – that isn’t participation; merely pre-programmed servitude). Even in legitimate theater, you can feel the presence of the actors, smell the greasepaint, feel the emotions. Your applause is appreciated by fellow humans, not a collection of transistors and circuit boards. Take stand-up comedy, for instance. Whether or not you’re a devotee of this facet of show business isn’t important – what IS is that the performer relies strongly upon audience participation and feedback to sculpt his show. At this point in its development, television can’t come close to having that ability.
And more’s the pity, because if you’ve ever really looked at a child’s facial expressions when they’re wrapped up in their favorite TV show, you’ll see a face mainly devoid of true emotion. Oh, sure, they giggle and laugh at all the right places, but there are also very long stretches of zombie-like trance evident, especially during commercials. I often find myself mentally willing them to breathe at times like this, so still and unreal do they appear.
Television assumes an inordinately large role in shaping society’s values and morals. Accepting Jerry Springer as low-brow entertainment is one thing, and if you’re of consenting age there’s little anyone can do to stop you from watching it. But you’ll come away from that viewing time with subtly-altered values. The idea that it’s okay to settle differences of opinion with trash-talking and street-brawling will be reinforced. “Hey, they do it on Springer! Why can’t I do it, too???”
Television: Giving It Up
All of the above reasons and many, many more are sufficient to consider curbing if not totally eliminating television from your life. You’ll find that you have tons of free time available again, those headaches will slow down, your language skills will probably improve – hey, you might even re-establish a relationship with your wife / husband / boyfriend / girlfriend (unless THEY have the TV bug too – in which case, why not make it a team effort?). You’ll discover new hobbies and interests, may spend more time with newspapers and the ‘Net and, in general, will realize that you are happy to separate yourself from the hypnotized crowd.
So, how exactly do you do it? Well, there’s several possibilities, much along the lines of eliminating other vices from your life. You can go cold turkey – this works great if you get rid of the TV or haven’t been bitten too hard yet. Another method is to slack off slowly, cutting down your viewing time over the course of several days or weeks until you reach the desired goal. Yet another way is to substitute one viewing habit with another, healthier one. So in this case, you could increase your ‘Net usage – not to the point where it becomes an addiction in itself, of course, and not to hang out on YouTube all day and night, but as a bridge going from enslavement to freedom.
When the conversation around the office water-cooler turns to last night’s shows, you can choose to either wander off and find more stimulating company, or you can proudly stand your ground, declare your liberation from video propaganda and just say “No!” to brainless entertainment.
If you should slip up and find yourself falling back into your old habits, however, don’t be too hard on yourself. Forgive and forget and move on. Keep on motivating yourself with the sweet reward of having more time to develop yourself physically, mentally and spiritually, just as any rational human should.