I get varying reactions when I tell people that I quit watching television 15 years ago. Some people look at me as though I’m a alien from Mars. Many, though, nod knowingly and say, “Oh, I don’t watch the stupid shows. I just watch it for news.”
What those people don’t understand is that they’re watching the most dangerous thing on television. If you want to watch so-called “reality” TV or low-brow humor, I might laugh at you, but you aren’t under the impression that you’re educating yourself. You know exactly what you’re getting.
The people who watch the TV news channels, however, are under the mistaken impression that they’re being educated about the issues. They don’t seem to realize that what they’re getting is entertainment in a news format. They don’t understand that “television news” is the ultimate oxymoron.
This is counter-intuitive for most people, who assume they’re doing a good thing when they avoid the “stupid shows” and they instead watch news and similar programming to “educate themselves about the issues.” So why do I claim they’re mistaken?
I didn’t figure this out on my own. It was the brilliant and insightful Neil Postman who changed my point of view when I read his 1985 book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” Postman opened my eyes to the reality that what we call news today is really just an extension of the entertainment world. In the book, Postman said:
“Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.”
Think about it. In what Postman calls the “typographic age,” public discourse was about idea, because written material is suited to explaining complex ideas and making nuanced arguments. Since we’ve gotten into the broadcast age (especially since television came to dominate), it’s exactly the opposite. Most people get most of their information from a medium which is not suited to explaining complex ideas. It’s suited to showing simple things and simple representations of ideas. There was a day when books and newspapers offered explanations of the various competing ideas. Now we live in a day when television simply narrows the choices down to “red vs. blue.”
As a result of our society’s love of television, the areas of life Postman mentioned in his quote have been changed. We’ve become a nation of dumbed-down spectators who expect to be entertained. Politics is all about entertaining voters and being likable. Most modern churches have fallen victim to the belief that what we once called a “worship service” is now about entertaining churchgoers — who won’t come back if they’re not sufficiently entertained by the “show.” News is clearly about being sensational and grabbing attention in an entertaining way. Kids in school — including in college — believe they’re supposed to be entertained by their classroom experiences. As a result, we’re doing more poorly in all of these areas. We’re thinking less. We’re turning off our brains. The vast bulk of the population has slowly become passive and irrational, because those people are accustomed to being entertained and having their emotions pandered to.
The world is in serious trouble right now, and most people seem quite content to amuse themselves to death. If you’re content to go down with the masses — who are going to be caught unprepared when things collapse — go right ahead and keep pretending that you’re getting what you need from television news. Even if you see yourself as a serious and informed person, the cable TV news shows are simply entertaining you and keeping you full of hate and anger for whoever “the other side” is for you. What you’re watching on television isn’t preparing you to think deeply about philosophy or history or ethics or theology or any of the other things that matter to the decisions you make. It’s merely entertaining you and giving you a false sense that you’re informed. Just because you have selective facts recited to you doesn’t mean that you’re learning the context with which to properly evaluate those facts. To quote Postman again:
“[M]ost of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action.”
Most of what you get from television news is geared toward keeping you coming back. People who suddenly understand the truth and know what to do about it don’t have a need to keep turning on the show of their choice to be angered again. Once you understand the reality around you, you don’t need Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow or whoever you prefer for your point of view. You’re more interested in understanding (and doing something about it) rather than finding new reasons to be angry.
Turn off your television. Start reading again. (I can say “again” because those who’ve never read much probably couldn’t bother reading this far.) Read ideas. Read history. Read philosophy. Read psychology and sociology. Read theology. Read things you’re sure you disagree with. Think about why people have believed the things they’ve believed. Television will not help you to understand these things. Books will, as can some magazines, some podcasts and some websites. But books are the most important resources you will have. Trust me on this.
How did we get into this shape? I turn again to Postman for an explanation. In the foreword to “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Postman talks about two different views of the future that came from two well-known books from the mid-20th century — and about their competing views of what a chilling future might look like:
“We were keeping our eye on ‘1984.’ When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
“But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another — slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World.’ Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’ In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
“This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”
I believe Huxley was right, and I believe we’ve achieved much of his “Brave New World” already. If you want to opt out of that world, the first step out is to turn off the tube. Become a rational, thinking human being, maybe for the first time in your life.
Honestly, to make the leap from being a passive consumer of entertainment to being an active thinker and proactive doer is a difficult thing. It’s hard work. Most people run away from it. If you want to have the same fate that awaits those passive people, it’s your choice. But if you want to really live life and become a free person, you have to think for yourself.
Turn your television off.