Television: The drug of an absurd nation


While eating Chinese for lunch today, I had an odd experience that left me once again thinking about calling for action. I'd rather complain or point out the faults I perceive exist in American culture. The problem with calling for action is two-fold. First, a lot of folks simply don't bother to report the manner in which the action influenced or changed or challenged their perceptions or faith. Secondly, instead of asking what my experiences have been like after making such changes, many, many people simply respond negatively to the call for action. There are multiple reasons why folks don't “need” to make such a change; they don't “do” the things that I contend produce bad outcomes, or, worst of all; folks simply dismiss the idea by saying “it won't work or it won't change anything...”

This happens most often when I suggest that someone try living without television. The most typical response is: “Oh, I hardly ever watch it, and when I do, I watch PBS and movies.” The next most common response includes History Channel and “educational programs.” Hardly anyone I talk to ever admits to watching football, CSI, Sons of Anarchy, or CNN/CSNBC/Fox. I do appreciate those folks who still tune in Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons. Yet, none of these programs, even if it is what my friends and accomplices really limit their viewing to, are relevant to the matter at hand, which is my experience at the Chinese restaurant today.

During lunch with my daughter, a cable news channel was on the dining room television. It was not Fox, but CNN, and when we sat down, the news being broadcast was about uprisings in Palestine. OK, war during lunchtime. This is not new to me. I grew up in a home where combat in Vietnam was being broadcast and viewed by my family while we sat at the dinner table. Because I was raised like this does not, however, make it acceptable. But, in the context of American television culture, it is not unusual. War is television news no matter who is fighting, and no matter what meal is being consumed. My response to this reality, more than 15 years ago, was to eliminate television.

Of course, telecombat was not the only reason we eliminated television from our home. The manner in which sexuality was address, mostly by advertising, and the manner in which women are most often presented in character on any number of shows, were even bigger issues. So was the nature of how tv is often confused with what is real, or, even worse, with what is important. My primar concern is that the more we watch television, not only do we have a skewed vision of what is real, and what is important, but we get a really skewered sense of what we know. We live in a nation that tends to believe what it sees on television, so long as it is delivered by an entertainment outlet we understand will cater to our version of truth.

Today during lunch, however, after the uprising had been given its allotment of attention, the story of a Michigan teen who was shot to death by a police officer was the next story. The sound was off, but after witnessing a video that seemed to be a record of a roadside murder on endless freaking loop for ten minutes – I recognized not only that I was eating and watching – but that I was eating lunch while viewing what was basically soft-snuff. I was witness to murder over and over again during lunch, as was Emma, and we never said a word about it. I finally walked over to the tv and ask them to turn off the television so that we could finish our meal without being witness to violence on parade. She told me they generally watch the news during the afternoon because people like to see it.

The endless loop-o'-killin' was still being run on CNN, and I asked if this was standard for afternoon lunch broadcast. She looked thoughtful for a moment and then said, “I don't know. I never really notice. It's just on in the background for me.” So – we have a culture that is so adept at avoiding reality, distrusting what is presented to us as real, or so numb to violence; that we cannot notice when murder occurs under our noses. We tend to accept it as normative for our background ambiance, even during a nice lunch. We have ambivalence toward our ambiance.

So, I have reenforced a belief that I have had for some time. I should not eat in restaurants that have televisions in the dining room. That is easy enough. I make that choice almost every time, or, I sit away from the tv. There needn't be a hard and fast rule about where I eat, just a recognition that I might subject myself to imagery that is inappropriate if I do sit in a viewing area. Yet, it is not televisions in restaurants that I am worried about. I mean, we gotta watch football, right?

But we have this imagery in our homes. Even when we only have tv to watch PBS and the World Cup every four years, when breaking news occurs, we go straight to the tv news, and what we see on tv is not what is really happening. We are only viewing the worst or most incredible aspect of the events, we are often being fed misinformation, and our emotions are often stolen by what we view, leading us to express unhealthy and misinformed emotions and opinions that more often than not lead us to blaming and accusing and angering others instead of finding facts and identifying ways to positively effect our communities by acting, and not reacting. Our emotions and communications are media driven. Our actions, well, our actions are lacking.

We spend too much time watching the latest news, adding to our outrage by viewing an endless loop of murder, political pandering, polls, and uprisings – all the while failing to really act on our beliefs. Because of the hyper-emotivist nature of our image-driven culture, we cannot act in a manner that seems to meet the social standard of meaningfulness, because everything we perceive to be real is larger than our lives. How can a neighborhood book study ever be as legitimate as an inner-city uprising? How can I love my neighbors and enemies when they are all armed and defying the federal government? How can I adopt infants and financially support young mothers when I have to stop the murder of all those babies? There is only so much money to go around, and we have to stop abortion, not take care of the children we have. There are baby murderers and Hitlers around every corner. I know this from television.

Murder became common television fare for me today. I kindly asked that it be turned off. Now if I can only get folks to stop buying new televisions and go to their local churches, free-though societies, mosques, or high schools and begin talking about what we can do together. And when you do something, turn the cameras off.

Of course, I am a theologian, so I must suggest that my call for an end to television consumption is somehow representative of just how absurd the Gospel of Jesus Christ really is. You see, it is very American to respond to a call to forgo television by saying that “I don't watch that stuff, so tv is not my problem. PBS does some good, and the History Channel teaches me about aliens building aqueducts.” I understand. You are not the problem. TV is not the problem either. TV's are nothing more than an electronics device. They have no capacity for evil, or even good. TV is a morally neutral object. But the church must learn that Jesus calls us to give up our right to enjoy things responsibly because those very things, like all of the programs we don't watch, have a very destructive influence on our communities. More than that, television, and news programs that are entirely entertainment productions, are not meant to inform us, but addict us to information by sparking our emotions, and not our intellect.

Thus, it may be just as unethical to enjoy the industry as it is to fully participate in a Fox news culture, because we tend to support, not the antitheses to Fox News, but the entertainment operations that compete on an level playing field. If you love Public Television, you'll love NPR. In fact, you most likely already do. Now just bring print media back into the culture with real journalism over internet click bait, and we will make a statement together. Oh, snap. Did I just suggest you give up your Huff Post habit?

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