Home > Culture, Mallinak > What Television Says about Us

What Television Says about Us

May 12, 2008

Shhhhhh.  Your television is talking.  Just listen.  Quiet now, everybody.  Can you hear it?  No, no, don’t turn it on yet.  Even when it is off, it still has plenty to say.Â

You probably know what I mean.  It speaks to you at night, when you sit down with a plate of Oreos and a mug of milk.  It calls your name.  It begs.  It promises you a good time.  “Just pick up the remote… go ahead!  It won’t hurt anything.  Just for a little bit.  Won’t you please?”Â

Of course, your television talks to you when have it turned on, too.  And I’m not just talking about the images on the screen, either.  They talk to you, of course.  But not just them.  Your television talks, too.  You listen, sometimes.  Your television reminds you that there are other options than the one you are watching.  It reminds you to check and see.  You could check the TV guide.  But why ask someone else?  Your television is right there, promising an answer.  “Go ahead, answer your curiosities.  Forget what that newspaper says, I’m the expert about myself.  I’ll tell you whether there is anything else worth watching.  Just use your remote, and explore me for a while.”  You oblige.  The TV keeps its promise.  And doesn’t.Â

Your television doesn’t just talk to you.  It talks about you.  We already saw that.  It tells us about your priorities, about your life, about your relationship(s).  It has a lot to say.  More than you know.  But that is not all it says.  Your television talks to you, talks about you, and talks about us.  It not only tells your story, but it also tells our story.  The story of our culture, of the so-called “Age of Information” is projected in its glow.  Listen carefully.  Your television has something to say.

Driver or Passenger?Â

First, I would point out the fact that television really does speak about us.  In a culture that talks incessantly about television, we should note this.  Television actually has more to say about us than we have to say about it (as hard as that is to believe).  But we commonly believe the opposite.  To hear most talk, the TV is sucking us down into its own sewer.  TV, we are told, keeps pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.  They shock us, then they tranquilize us, then they neutralize us.  And yes, the ethereal “they” represents those shameless TV people, with their big ole’ agenda to do away with all that is good and decent in America.  “Shame on them!”

We tend to picture television as the driver, a maniac behind the wheel, furiously launching us down the road to destruction.  And I am arguing that this picture is inaccurate.  In American culture, the television is NOT driver.  Television is passenger.  Along for the ride.  Perhaps nagging us along the way, like a backseat driver.  We would do well to remember that backseat drivers are not driving.  Backseat drivers do play-by-play.  They comment on the driver’s driving.Â

Put another way, television is neither the image nor the golden calf of America’s idolatry.  Television is a reflection of that image.  Television serves as a mirror, showing us ourselves.  Don’t like the sitcoms?  They mirror American culture.  They, more than anything else, show us what humors us, what we find to be the soul of wit, the image of what is truly important.  Television does not drag us down.  We drag television down.  Television does not take us to new depths of depravity.  We take television to new depths of depravity.  Television reflects us.  Television mirrors American life.  Television is us.

Nor should this surprise us.  We, after all, worship ourselves.  American culture is obsessed with the self.   We consider ourselves the apex of civilization.  We are obsessed with we.  “They” had it all wrong.  Or at least mostly wrong.  At least, they weren’t so enlightened as we moderns.  The golden calf need not be fashioned.  The idols of stone and wood need not be engraven.  Give us a mirror, and we have our object for worship.  Better yet, give us a television.  Television speaks about us.  And we are obsessed with the sound of its voice.

Pert or Parrot?

Not that we really listen to what our televisions are saying.  Our national obsession is more about the sound of the voice than with the words or the content.  We resemble a toddler playing with one of those toy parrots, the kind that records whatever sound you make, and then repeats it back for you.  The toddler coos and gurgles at the parrot, and squeals with delight when the parrot repeats the sound.  TV’s voice can be coherent, or incoherent.  Either way, doesn’t matter to us.  We are delighted with the sound it makes.  The toddler has found a new power.  He does not understand it, nor does he care to.  He can operate it, and so he does.Â

For a moment then, we would do well to listen, not only to the sound, but to what the sound is saying.  We might be surprised to hear what our televisions say about us.  We have made some sweeping assumptions about television’s commentary on American life and culture.  Perhaps we should stop assuming and really listen for a change.Â

So, in one of the great traditions of TV land, we’ll give you the news… straight up.  We report, you decide.  We think that television says of us that we are cultured, refined, sophisticated, savvy, informed.  So goes our delusion.  One of our most misinformed opinions about ourselves is that we are one of the best informed cultures in history.  We think this, at least in part, because we have televisions.  More than a few times, I have been told by someone that “I only have a TV so that I can watch the news.”  I am told that we need to keep up with the news, and television news is the most convenient way to do this.  And, since we watch the news on TV, we are well-informed.  Or so we think.

Now, I am not disputing the fact that television news is a convenient means of accessing all the latest.  Nor am I arguing that television news has absolutely no value whatsoever.  But I am arguing that television news does not, cannot make us “well-informed.”  Television news can make us well-entertained.  It can make us well-amused.  But it cannot make us well-informed.  For one thing, television news gives us the top fifteen or so news stories of the day in thirty minutes.  Including commercials.  Including weather.  And sports.  That means, television news dedicates no more than one minute to each of the important/essential news items of the day.  In fact, one minute is a long time to spend on one news story.  The average story is covered in less time than this.  Can we really claim to be well-informed about the issue when that issue was summarized and fed to us in a capsule?Â

The truth is that television news is all about entertainment.  I like to watch the news, just as I like to watch crime shows and the NBA playoffs.  Not because I like to be well-informed.  Well-informed requires hard work, diligent searching, and reading.  I enjoy television news because it demands nothing of me, because it promises to keep my eyes delighted, to keep my mind amused, and to avoid forcing any kind of diligent thought or exposition on me.Â

And here is the point.  If television in its most “sophisticated” state (as TV news claims to be) is really just trite and trivial, then television does not make us cultured, refined, sophisticated, savvy, or informed.   In fact, it says just the opposite.  Television says that we are bored and immature and trite and trivial and apathetic.  Images dancing across a screen, blue lights flitting on the darkened walls of the surrounding room, make us feel important.  Yet, when we examine the medium, we find few words that can fully define the emptiness of it all.  All is vanity and vexation of spirit.Â

To see the point, one need only observe the increasing rise of TV in both popularity and “importance” to our cultural life, and to note the parallel rise in the immaturity of our population as a whole.  It is no accident that a direct proportion exists between the two.  The two are bound to each other.  We like to watch ourselves on TV, like an adolescent preening and prancing in front of the mirror.  We just can’t pull ourselves away from it.

I hope I don’t need to mention the spiritual impact this has had on our nation.  We are dull, and growing duller.  We are glued to the television, and we avoid rational thought the way Obama avoids his pastor.  Those who are actively engaged in evangelism will note the difficulty of getting an adult, particularly of the male type, to listen to or follow a line of reasoning.  Is it that they are uninterested?  Or is it that they are unable to follow an argument, even if it tied a rope around their waist and dragged them down the path.Â

Active soul winners have long noted the apathy of the average listener.  When we begin to share the glorious gospel with a lost sinner, we hit a wall.  Not a wall of unbelief, not a wall of rebellion against God, but a blank, staring, unblinking wall of oblivion.  They can’t follow the argument long enough to reject it.  We have amused ourselves into a spiritual death.  Into a spiritual dark age.Â

We may live in the “age of information,” but we do not live in the age of “discourse.”  And no, the blog world is not changing this.  Not when the typical blog piece is less than one page in length.  Not while more than half the content consists of gratuitous statements and “atta-boys.”  Blog discourse models itself after the kind of discourse created by television.  Nor could we have it any different.  We aren’t used to lengthy discussions any more.  Only long movies.  Or long hours spent staring blankly at a TV screen.

If we are to pull ourselves out of the spiritual mire that has clogged our wheels and de-booted our feet, we must pull ourselves away from our televisions.Â

Categories: Culture, Mallinak Tags: ,
  1. May 13, 2008 at 10:00 am

    Appreciate all the silent atta-boys… Reminds me of a standing ovation at the mime convention.

  2. May 13, 2008 at 11:39 am

    I hope you know that I’m not being gratuitous when I say to you “atta-boy” for this post.

  3. May 13, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    The sound of one hand clapping.


  4. May 14, 2008 at 6:40 am

    I hear that all the time!


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