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Television: friend or foe?

Editorial 3: In which the eternal battle between good an evil is fought yet again (on a small scale): Last week we were talking about dangers of television. I revealed the rather startling fact that Americans watch an average of six hours of television a day. I’d like to delve into this little piece of information a little more. First, a little math (I promise this won’t take too much time; don’t worry, I won’t make you miss The Simpsons): At six hours a day, you’re spending a quarter of your entire life watching television. That’s 42 hours a week. 2,190 hours in a year. And over 150,000 hours of television watched in a lifetime (assuming you live to be 70; a fairly low estimate as our life expectancy keeps going up faster than we can age). That’s longer than will be spent eating, going to the bathroom, and having sex, combined; and these are three things more important and satisfying than television can ever be.

One of Karl Marx’s most famous quotes (often taken out of context) is that “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” Whether this was in fact true or not in his time is debatable. What is not debatable is television has replaced religion as the opiate of the masses. TV provides a salve to ease our pain, without the necessity of actually removing the conditions the pain stems from.

But what else does television to do us in addition to the missed opportunities and lost time? Television is the constant presence in our lives, our most constant “friend.” It can stay with us no matter where we travel or live.

Television speaks in a particular language in its attempt to try to make us our best friend. Television is like the jealous friend that tries get your attention and resents all your other friends.

Does this sound paranoid?

Perhaps it is, but just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean your TV’s not after you. Television’s sole purpose for existing is to make money by having people watch their shows. They make money through advertising dollars. Now, the ways television actually goes about getting viewers are many and various. Television sitcoms are a popular form of entertainment. Sitcoms, of course, try to get people to laugh, and one of the easiest ways to draw laughter is through the abuse of others, even your closest friends. Someone watching sitcoms can get the notion that everyone out there is vicious, and the only way to survive in the outside world is by viciousness and a wicked wit. This leads to the idea that maybe it would be a better idea to stay in and watch TV instead of going out into the cruel world.

Another form of television is the hour-long drama. These shows show a life that is far more interesting, with people who are so stunningly gorgeous it seemingly puts our humdrum everyday lives to shame. It also promotes the idea that we should stay inside watching TV, because nothing in reality can approach what we can experience for free on the tube.

Hour-long dramas are even more insidious than sitcoms for encouraging sloth. By their very nature, they present long involving plotlines extending over weeks and months to encourage and reward regular watching.

If TV were intellectually stimulating, this wouldn’t be quite as much of a problem as it in fact is. Most television shows simply serve to reinforce our preconceived notions and repeat simple moral “truths.” Some of the moral lessons of television are: good will always triumph over evil, evil only exists in the hearts of a few evil people and that godliness exists only in the good and effective actions of individuals (I am indebted to Quentin Schultze’s Channels of Belief for this).

These actions promote inaction in a variety of ways. The belief good will always triumph over evil is much akin to the religious belief God will solve the problems of the world, with or without human interactions. Good can triumph over evil because most people are believed by TV to be inherently good, and evil is caused by specific causes such as a poor upbringing, the bad crowd or substance abuse, rather than an inherent weakness in the human condition. Also, evil is focused in individuals, rather than nations or corporations.

This gives an image of evil easily surmountable by the good actions of a few people to counteract the evil actions of one or two bad guys and his minions. (It should be noted TV is not the only format suffering from this problem. But because of TV’s overwhelming presence in our lives, it’s the most important).

It should be fairly clear by now I’m incredibly wary of television. However, I’m not incredibly convinced television is evil. There are some incredible shows on TV, intelligent and entertaining. At television’s best, it can be an equal to the best of film and literature, constantly telling expansive stories and reinventing itself. It is of the moment, defining and defined by the trends of our modern pop culture. It is for precisely these reasons TV is so dangerous. In 1955, at the very genesis of television, Thomas Merton wrote prophetically: “It would seem that television should be used with extreme care and discrimination by anyone who might hope to take the interior life seriously.” History has borne this observation out.

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