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Ackerman and McPherson Dialogue: The idiot box

Ackerman and McPherson Dialogue: The idiot box thumbnail

The following is the fifth in an ongoing dialogue (cyber-discussion) between two cultural philosophers and regular Transition Voice contributors, Dr. Sherry Ackerman and Dr. Guy McPherson.

ACKERMAN:  We’ve been having a really intense winter up here in Mount Shasta, Guy.

With five feet of snow currently on the ground, it’s been a challenge for us to not get cabin fever. Daylight hours are still fairly short and evenings are long. I’ve been using all that “dark time” to learn to play my harp — I mean, really play it. I’ve messed around with it over the years, but this winter I’m trying to become proficient.

Anyway, when I tell this to some of my friends, they find it strange. Their responses are something to the effect that I could be watching television instead!

I don’t have a TV. In fact, I’ve never had one. When I read the Albert Bandura studies correlating television viewing and violence — ouch — it confirmed my decision to not use TV.

But what gets me is this rather significant disconnect in consciousness that supports corporations spending millions of dollars on prime time advertising based on the concept that TV ads affect consumer behavior resulting in more sales, while it’s vigorously argued that there’s “no proof” that television violence affects societal behavior.

You can’t have it both ways.

McPHERSON: I haven’t watched much TV for about 25 years. And I can’t say I miss it.

But on the infrequent occasions I stay in a motel and turn it on, I’m stunned by the power of TV! In fact, the tube plucks my heart strings like a cheap banjo, making me care about people I’ve never met as they play roles they couldn’t care less about.

Between heroically manipulative drama and humor, the “news” convinces me that the media, politicians, and a vast majority of industrial humans actually care about the living planet. Television feeds our massive case of collective desire, one bullshit sandwich at a time.

Of course, there’s rarely a mention of global climate change or economic decline, much less the thousands of daily insults we visit on the non-industrial cultures and non-human species. The hologram works brilliantly through its ignorance of issues that actually matter and in-the-face irrelevant distractions.

ACKERMAN:  Over the years, TV, like other media, has slowly become the invisible hand of propaganda. People (and society) are bombarded with a steady stream of messages that affirm the dominant paradigm, the way things “are” in an unquestioned sense.

After absorbing hours and hours of this, people’s critical thinking is dulled if not killed off altogether.

Think about it: TVs are on an average of 7 hours 40 minutes a day in U.S. homes. The average American kid sees about 200,000 acts of violence on TV by age 18*. Forty percent of Americans always or often watch television while eating dinner. No wonder we’re seeing so many erosive effects on the quality of American life.

But hey, don’t take my word for it. In Television and the Quality of Family Life (Routledge, 1990), author Robert Kubey reminds us that Frankfurt School theorists believed that a key feature of capitalism was the progressive decline of the family as a successful socializing agent. In this view, some of the socializing roles of the family are passed on to mass media and as a result, the audience becomes passive and one-dimensional (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1972; Marcuse, 1964).

McPHERSON: It’s so seductive. After all, everybody’s doing it. If you’re unfamiliar with the antics of television characters, you really don’t fit into society. The drive to group membership begins early in life, and continues well into conversations around the water cooler. Peer pressure doesn’t end with high school.

Not only is the process of indoctrination seductive, it’s surprisingly passive. Watching TV appeals to our natural longing to belong while reinforcing cultural messages regarding how to act, what to eat, what to wear. All this happens TO the viewer, who’s only function is open eyes and ears.

Not only are TV watchers’ bodies shut down, but he or she doesn’t even have to think. In fact, critical thinking has to be turned off for max TV pleasure. This whole thing only works in the good ole’ U S of A or “United States of Advertising,” to borrow a phrase from long-dead American comedian Bill Hicks.

But it’s very different in western Europe, for example. There, students have to complete a media literacy course before graduating from high school. They actually learn to critically evaluate what they’re hearing and seeing instead of just accepting it without question. This is good for the students and good for their culture.

The dumbing down of America appears to be nearly complete, and TV plays a primary role. Fortunately, not everyone’s taking that sitting down.

In his 1991 book Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, award-winning American educator John Taylor Gatto described the U.S. public-education system as a twelve-year jail sentence. As horrifying as it may seem, TV serves as recess and reward in contrast to an education system gone mad.

So as something we retreat to for escape TV continues the process of stupefying the masses while transforming the average American into an anxious, thoughtless consumer. Talk about hitting us coming and going.

ACKERMAN:  You are absolutely correct on all points!

And, then there’s the element of addiction. TV fits the addiction profile to a T.*

For example, if I make a comment to any of my TV-addicted peers about the amount of time they’re glued to the tube, they invariably come back with a snippy and defensive retort. And I find what they say is mostly denial, rationalization and projection.

Again, I look to Kubey for insight. In his Scientific American article (with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) — “Television Addiction is No Mere Metaphor” — he argues that,

When the habit interferes with the ability to grow, to learn new things, to lead an active life, then it constitutes a kind of dependence and should be taken seriously.

For mental health professionals, TV addiction is believed to be a type of behavioral addiction much like pathological gambling.

In 1990, a symposium at the convention of the American Psychological Association defined TV addiction as “heavy television watching that is subjectively experienced as being to some extent involuntary, displacing more productive activities, and difficult to stop or curtail.”

It’s the plug-in drug!

So, if we see TV as potentially addictive, and note how many folks are hooked on it, we have to ask the big question: Why?

My answer would be that addiction runs rampant among people who don’t feel “whole.”

When people feel “less-than,” or marginalized, discouraged, incomplete, and feel what they do is meaningless, they start having a futile outlook. That sense of futility, rather than being experienced, or dealt with, is avoided through the self-medication of addiction.TV seems harmless in this regard in comparison to say, heroin, or serious alcohol abuse.

But is it? Is it less harmful? I don’t think so because it informs public opinion and behavior while pretending to be authentic and authentically free.

And we need to  call that out, to name and deconstruct and openly criticize the social structures like TV that reduce, rather than encourage, positive human development.

McPHERSON: A statement from writer and environmental activist Derrick Jensen comes to mind:

It’s no wonder we don’t defend the land where we live. We don’t live there. We live in television programs and movies and books and with celebrities and in heaven and by rules and laws and abstractions created by people far away and we live anywhere and everywhere except in our particular bodies on this particular land at this particular moment in these particular circumstances.

What he says resonates strongly with me. We avoid physical reality, and it’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop. In avoiding the natural world — which sustains us, in every way —  we rely on addictive cultural distractions, all of which push us further from the natural world.

How do we break this cycle?

–Transition Voice with Guy McPherson and Sherry L. Ackerman


9 Comments on "Ackerman and McPherson Dialogue: The idiot box"

  1. rollin on Wed, 20th Feb 2013 4:31 pm 

    This is one of the most important articles ever presented on this site. It discusses both the manipulation of society by commercial schemers but also hits home by presenting the mental view most people have of our society. The view is one of separation and extortion, of mental pain and discomfort that is eased by escapism. Lives so devoid of real commitment and real use that it is better to dream them away and game them away.

  2. dave thompson on Wed, 20th Feb 2013 5:44 pm 

    Over the past 2 years I have made an effort to stop watching TV. It is very difficult to stop. The TV is everywhere. When I am in the same room with one I am automatically drawn into its power. You have to really consciously work at not watching.It is like a drug I have had the experience of quitting in the past(cigarettes, alcohol,junk food).

  3. Beery on Wed, 20th Feb 2013 10:24 pm 

    These days my TV watching is down to about 30 minutes a day, and I don’t watch anything with commercials.

    However, I have to take issue with the idea that TV watching leads to violence. If that were the case, violence should have skyrocketed since the 1970s, but it has gone down. If TV does alter our mood, then maybe we should be watching more of it.

    Commercial manipulation certainly happens, but violence? I’m not buying it.

    I thought the tinfoil hat brigade’s witch hunt over TV was done with a decade ago, replaced by the video game witch hunt. It’s the same old technology fear we’ve had since my grandfather refused to have a radio (what he called ‘a tool of the devil’) in his house.

  4. GregT on Wed, 20th Feb 2013 10:30 pm 

    I quit watching TV 25 years ago. When I do happen to be confronted with one all I see is blatant disinformation, indoctrination, and mindless drivel.

    What better place to instill propaganda, than in people’s livingrooms. It is no wonder that the vast majority of people have no clue about what is going on in the world.

  5. rollin on Wed, 20th Feb 2013 11:31 pm 

    Violent crimes in the US steadily increased from 1960 to the mid-90’s where it peaked at 2 million reported crimes per year. After that it fell some and plateaued. Taking into account the aging of the population and the much harsher laws enacted explains the leveling.
    Don’t know if TV had anything to do with this, I would suspect drugs and the loss of intact families had more to do with the violence in the US than TV.
    TV acts as an electronic baby-sitter and trains the child to sit mesmerized in one place for hours on end. TV-zombies.
    Just remember when you are watching actors, sports people and personalities on TV, you are watching people at work and they are generally making far more money than you are. They are doing something with their time, not just glazing out.

    One of the true indicators of mass media’s influence on the population in general is the ubiquitous elevation and adoration of TV, film and sports personalities. We need to celebrate the true heros of society not actors and sports people. People like Edward Jenner and Jonas Salk. People who have eased our suffering and opened our minds to the world. Instead we have a warped society that adores the heroes built by commercial enterprise.

  6. BillT on Thu, 21st Feb 2013 1:21 am 

    Hitler and the SS would have loved to have had TV. Propaganda and brainwashing would have been so much easier. I have not watched TV for decades. We have one, but it is used as a monitor to watch DVDs. Even the History Channel and National Geographic have become tools of the government.

    The Us deserves what is happening to it. Most of the world will cheer when suppression becomes obvious in the 50 states. We are hated for doing it to the rest of world and turn about is fair play.

  7. DC on Thu, 21st Feb 2013 1:57 am 

    TV’s news real purpose, as opposed to its stated one, is to dis-inform people, so they know less, not more.

    TV entertainments real purpose is to sell people shyt they dont even need.

  8. gates outcast on Thu, 21st Feb 2013 5:02 am 

    Excellent article and comments.
    I did read 1984 and Animal Farm years ago, but never understood them. I started reading them again, and wow they are truly horror novels. TV used to make us feel inferior, and worthless unless we buy vitamins, cars, stuff, just buy stuff total opposite from what Jesus said.

  9. Beery on Thu, 21st Feb 2013 11:50 am 

    “Just remember when you are watching actors, sports people and personalities on TV, you are watching people at work… They are doing something with their time, not just glazing out.”

    Everyone’s doing something with their time when they’re at work. The question is, what are they doing when they’re not at work?

    Almost EVERY form of entertainment promotes passivity. To blame TV for all the world’s ills is nonsense.

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