02 March 2010

TV and Me

(One of the many Bill Watterson strips that I've appreciated more as an adult than as a child reading them in the newspapers.)

I have a curious relationship to television. I knew it rarely as a child:  television sets were barred from my parents’ Pentecostal home, and so we only saw shows if we visited friends or relatives or stayed a motel. Like all children, I assumed what my parents said was  true and right to follow, although the rule made increasingly less sense as the years went by. Why could we watch Full House at my aunt’s house, but not at our own?

Eventually television found its way into our home in a very limited form. It never became a central pillar of my life, although I did grow accustomed to a routine of shows and thought my life ill-served if I missed one. When I moved into college dorms for the first time, I gained access to cable television on a constant basis. If I wanted to, I could spend every hour of the day watching something: sitcoms, dramas, documentaries, music, English football matches -- whatever I wanted.

And yet… I didn’t. I was experiencing no lingering conviction from my Pentecostal upbringing:  the anti-television rule made so little sense that I was thwarting it before puberty, covertly hooking up an antennae to a monitor we used for watching VHS tapes to watch shows when my parents were away.  What I was experiencing was the honest enjoyment of life, and had been doing so for a little over a year when I first gained cable access. I found everything mundane to be wonderful -- the skies, the trees, the sound of dogs barking and people talking, even the feel of grass under my fingertips.  This was the result of my leaving the Pentecostal cult and realizing I was a Humanist at heart, someone who wanted to be in love with the world but who had before then been forbidden to.

Now I was madly in love, and television’s enjoyment seemed shallow by comparison. I could and at times did spend hours at a time immersed in the blue glow, but once the day ended I felt nothing but remorse for having wasted the day in such a manner. I cannot say the same of the days I spent under trees, reading Thoreau and writing in my journal, or walking around town with friends and discussing philosophy. Those days I remember vividly: they had a magic about them. I sometimes suspect that everyday could have magic about it, if we truly lived it.

As my formal education increased, my disinterest in television grew. I think this disinterest began when I became a skeptic and started spotting all of the advertising gimmicks in commercials -- the dishonest little tricks advertisers were up to.  More significantly, the past two and a half years have turned me into a social critic, at least in private.  After reading Neil Postman's Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death, I wondered if his advice wasn’t valid. It resonated with the Stoic idea of only concerning ourselves with matters we could control. It seemed to me that Postman was right: people have grown addicted to being entertained by drama outside themselves.

Soon, every facet of my intellectual life was grumbling about television -- it became a tool of consumerism,  a values-defining tyrant as despicable as organized religion, and a medium through which the economic elite manipulate the news in their favor.  It reduces human conversations to exchanges of shallow, obnoxious one-liners while glorifying violence and  prostituting human beauty and love. It’s insulting, insipid, and ignorant.  Worst of all -- it’s noisy! How can a person think through that barrage of moving pictures and sound?

The irony of this is that while my parents go to a church with an official ban against television, they and nearly everyone else in that church possess a well-used set. Their son who has emphatically rejected Pentecostalism and its many decrees, meanwhile, only watches television if it happens to be on while visiting at someone else's home.

That I again have something in common with Pentecostalism makes me uneasy, and I do not like the possibility that I'm becoming a self-righteous snob where television is concerned. I find precious little to recommend television, however: what intelligent and humane shows I do like, I can find on Youtube sans commercials. On those happily rare occasions when I want to slip into a mindless hour, I have DVDs a-plenty of How I Met Your Mother, Boy Meets World, and the like.


Baley Petersen said...

I'm curious how you negotiate the waters of both Humanism and Social Criticism, simultaneously. I'm fairly certain I know how you will respond, but I had to ask the question anyway. ;)

smellincoffee said...

I see social criticism as an extension of using reason to inform and structure our lives -- both individually, and in society for the benefit of all.

That said, it's easy to become a crank, getting so far distant from society in the course of criticism that I can no longer relate to it or enjoy it. Television is no different: I suppose it's better to enjoy an idiotic gameshow every once in a while with someone than to cloistering myself away thinking lofty thoughts and becoming an alien. No point in taking life too seriously. ;)