April was “Media Awareness Month” at our sons’ school. I took a couple weeks off from the Porch, and I also published a first draft of this piece in the school’s weekly newsletter.
When my wife and I met as graduate students, neither of us kept a television around. We always had reading to do, lectures to attend, friends to hang out with. When we married, she brought along her ancient black and white TV from her childhood home, and we would regularly watch The News Hour on PBS and then (to recover from news) The Simpsons before dinner. When our son was born, we put it away in a closet. We took it out on 9/11/01, and returned it to the closet three days later. It did not get packed when we moved to Philadelphia, and we have not replaced it.
Originally, we did not have televisions because we always had something better to do. This to me is the first question to ask yourself with regard to watching television: Is there something better I could be doing – something better for me, for my family and household, for my community? As it turns out, the answer to that question is always yes. Even when we need to relax, there is always a better way to do it than in front of a screen of moving images pumping them directly into our minds.
But clearly, that was not enough for us. For awhile, we kept the TV around, and benefited in a way from programs offering somewhat thoughtful perspective on the news and providing a good laugh. The final decision against it was made on the basis of what kind of family life we wanted to have and what living environment we wanted to shape for our children. A television in the house is always a temptation to slothful self-enervation, always something to negotiate and fight about, and sends a message that this piece of equipment and the programming it invades us with has a place in our household life.
Obviously, the content is nearly always bad. As Mark Mitchell observed, even sporting events are saturated with the loudest and most wretched commercials. There is really nothing happening on television that we can’t afford to miss. When Villanova makes it to the big tournament, I have no objection to walking down to the local pub (on the rare occasions when I have time) to watch the game on a silenced screen. It also gives me a chance to commune with a different cross-section of my neighbors, and at their most festive.
In an odd way, I am glad I saw the Twin Towers collapse and shared dramatically in the national horror of that day. But upon reflection, I can’t say that my life would really be worse in any way if I had missed seeing it. Again, that can be said about everything that is on (especially now that we can often get access to what we’ve missed online).
But our objection is just as much to the medium itself. The most thorough examination of the harm it does us is Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander (a former advertiser who gradually realized that his job was to undermine viewers’ power to make free and sensible choices, and for the last 15 years headed up an anti-globalization outfit). Mander looks at TV viewing from a lot of illuminating angles. Physiologically, it puts us in a state like sensory deprivation, making us susceptible to hypnotic suggestion, which it amply supplies. It stockpiles our minds with images fabricated by others, with virtually no participation on our part in appropriating or contextualizing those images and shaping their meaning for us. As a medium, it is incapable of capturing many important experiences (like the powerful living aura of an ancient redwood forest), and so bolsters the positions of those who would treat everything reductively and exploitatively. This is a small taste of Mander’s rich analysis.
In my own effort to make sense of my intuitive reservations about the medium, however, it has helped me to turn to one of my favorite writers, Simone Weil. One important thing she points out is the vital connection between love and attention.
The quality of our life depends to a great extent on the quality of our love. The quality of our love depends on the attention we give to other human beings and to our natural surroundings. Attention is not only a sign or expression of love. In an important way, it is the very substance of love, a central part of the very practice of loving. By receptive attention, we make space in ourselves for the presence of something or someone else. If we do not do this, we do not love.
What does television do to our habits of attention? It habituates us to see less, to see it less completely, and to engage it less actively and imaginatively. Our attention is strung along moment by moment, from one thing to the next. What we pay attention to is managed, packaged, enclosed in a frame according to someone else’s priorities for what we should see. We are encouraged to be passive and impatient at the same time.
The attention that constitutes love – love of others and love of the beauty of nature – requires patience and a kind of active receptivity. While a person, or a plant, animal, stream or valley is in front of us, we cannot take it all in at once. There is looking and listening to do, and this involves a real effort on our part, both to direct our attention and to quiet our distractions. We have to let it sink in, and reflect along the way on what is actually there before us and how it all fits together.
By habituating us to follow along impatiently and passively, to filter and frame the world before we’ve had the chance to see anything, television damages our capacity to love well, to love others and the natural world for what they are rather than for what they can do for us. Television is, after all, one of the great tools and purveyors of consumer culture. The culture of consumption and exploitation has every interest in encouraging our self-centered and unreflective egoism and our oblivion to the loveliness of the natural world. Why should we be surprised if the medium that is its most powerful tool encourages the same vices?
Ultimately the question is this: Does the presence of a television in a home ever increase the happiness of those who live together there? My suspicion is that, on the contrary, it mostly decreases their happiness by increasing their self-enclosure and alienation.