April 1, 2015

Is television inherently bad?

Just to show you how long it sometimes takes for me to get to things, I first started this piece sometime in January, and now I'm making another attempt to finish it.  (I suppose I should mention that I'm writing this paragraph at the end of March; in case I don't succeed this time, you'll probably never read the above words.)  I don't usually procrastinate for this length of time, but I've got a concept here that I've had trouble getting my hands around.  In fact, I'm not completely sure I've got a concept at all; I guess ultimately you'll all be the judges of that.

It starts, though, with a trip to the neighborhood used book store - the television section, to be precise. There, I'm accustomed to running into a copy or two of Jerry Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.  A provocative title to be sure, especially for a blog like this one, I'm sure you'll agree.

Now, I haven't read the book so this isn't a review, but from what I understand (i.e. the blurbs I read), the crux of Mander's argument is that

many of the problems with television are inherent in the medium and technology itself, and thus cannot be reformed. In specific, the technology of television is not a neutral, benign instrument, or tool. The author argues that in varied technologies and institutions such as militaries, automobiles, nuclear power plants, mass production, and advertising, the basic form of the institution and the technology determines its interaction with the world, the way it will be used, the kind of people who use it, and to what ends.

This is territory we've covered here before; as longtime readers know, my opinion has always been that technology is neither moral nor immoral in and of itself.  It all depends on how it's used - objects can be used to save lives or take lives; drugs can be used to kill or cure; money can corrupt or resuscitate, and so on.  We wouldn't say that gas stoves are inherently bad just because bad men once used them to kill millions of people.  The bottom line is that objects are morally neutral until used by someone, at which time the use of that object or technology assumes a relative stage of morality vis-a-vis the person using them.

Mander apparently doesn't share this view, believing that "that far from being 'neutral,' television predetermines who shall use it, how they will use it, what effects it will have on individual lives, and, if it continues to be widely used, what sorts of political forms will inevitably emerge."

Now, I don't dismiss this argument out of hand.  In fact, there's much in what Mander says that I'd likely agree with it.  Could it be that he's right, and I've been wrong all these years?  I'd hate to think that was the case; my ego might be so dashed that I'd never write for the blog again.  Seriously - although there is sense to Mander's comment, it just doesn't pass the smell test for me.  Television provides great services for people - it can educate, entertain, inform.  Just because it doesn't always (usually?) do that, just because it isn't a perfect technology, does that mean we have to chuck it out altogether?

I think not, but why?

This is where the original piece stopped, by the way.  It wasn't because I lacked an answer; to the contrary, I believe I've found one, but I haven't been sure how quite to explain it.  Finally, I've decided to just go with it.  This isn't a formal review, and I don't write a scholarly site, after all.

What gave me some confidence in my viewpoint came from the teachings of the great scholar and theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas.  Aquinas wrote at length about man's virtues and vices, and how to relate them to the world.  Even though he wrote about them several hundred years ago, his words - as is the case with those written by Shakespeare and other visionaries - tend to be timeless, and just because television didn't exist in his day doesn't mean that his words can't be used in this discussion.

The virtue I have in mind is temperance.  Simplifying things greatly, Aquinas defined temperance as freedom from slavery to things that don't appeal to reason, and further said that we can't be subject to thinks that are lesser than us.  In saying that, he didn't mean to suggest that it was literally impossible for baser, lesser things to control us.  Drugs, alcohol, pornography - these all appeal to our baser instincts, rather than our intellect, and the abuse of them, the addiction to them, certainly controls us.

What Aquinas meant was that the practice of temperance means we don't allow lesser things to control us.  And television, for all that can be said about it, is definitely a lesser thing.  It was invented by humans, a product of human intellect and ingenuity.  From a scientific standpoint, it is a testimonial to the creativity of man.  It is, however, still a lesser thing, one not to be allowed to control us.

When Mander says that television "cannot be reformed," I think he misses the point.  He says that "the basic form of the institution and the technology determines its interaction with the world," but how can that be, if television is a lesser thing?  We can't allow television to become our master; we can't allow the lesser to become the greater.  It can happen, of course, but the virtue of temperance means it is within our power to prevent it.  Mander's hypothesis completely discounts the abililty - the amazing resiliency of humans - to withstand and defy control by the lesser.

It's the same thing with advertising.  Of course advertising is corrupt - as Aquinas would say, advertising wouldn't work if we weren't of a fallen nature.  Our desire for things, for possessions that go above and beyond our immediate needs - materialism, in other words, which is anything but a virtue - may well be the backbone of modern advertising, the foundation upon which our economy is built, but it's also a baser instinct.  We don't have to let it control us, any more than we have to let television control us.

Now it's true that the system can appear rigged, and furthermore I won't argue against the difficulties of maintaining a virtuous life while living in a culture that has allowed itself to be defined by adherence to the lesser things.  Yes, it's difficult, but difficult has never meant impossible.  Yet by accepting Mander's premise, it would appear we have no choice in the matter, which goes directly against the free will with which man is created.  And therefore, I feel entirely justified in rejecting Mander's argument that television cannot be reformed and should be abolished.  (The way in which TV is used, on the other hand, would probably often horrify Aquinas, but it would again come back to not letting the lesser control the greater.)

Does this make sense?  Even after reading it again, I'm not sure if it does.  I think it's part of a much larger discussion, which encompasses not only Mander but other philosophers and sociologists as well.  One of these days I'd love to write a book, or at least a longer essay, entitled Everything I Needed to Know About Television I Learned From St. Thomas Aquinas.  With a title like that, how could it not fly off the bookshelves?  I jest, but I'm serious at the same time.  For example, I've written before about how shows like Mission: Impossible sometimes give me pause when it comes to justifying American involvement in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation.  This is, after all, a strong element of many of M:I's plots.  But Aquinas has an answer for that, in his discussion of the virtue of patriotism, and the abuse of same.  True patriotism not only respects the country in which one lives, but the independence of other countries as well, and his opinions lend greater clarity as to when a nation is justified - and not justified - in intervening in the internal affairs of another.

And so on.  You can see why I view this as such a fertile area for discussion.  It is, though, a discussion for yet another time.


  1. I believe television is simply a medium. If you go back to the old model of communication taught in school, it's the line that connects the transmitter that connects the source with the receiver. It sounds as though Mander may be confusing the source with the transmitter. I agree that no source is neutral, but that's goes for books, films, music, etc. And one might also accept a constructivist view to how content is interpreted by each of us. My "good" may be your "bad."

  2. Am with Rick29. It makes no logical sense to describe television as bad. I am writing at the moment about one of the great defenders of the medium, Sir Huw Wheldon, who ran BBC TV from 1965-1975, and who strove to make television that was neither "pap" nor "propaganda". Forgive my self promotion, but you may find details of my book here: http://unbound.co.uk/books/kicking-the-bar.

  3. Now that most people in western nations have access to cable tv with hundreds of channels, with nonstop offerings of films to be downloaded by streaming to our own devices or tv’s, the question of temperance is greater than ever.
    I notice that working with the American public, as a tourguide fulltime since 1996, with people from all over the USA and the world in fact, that more and more all references are to movies and tv shows and the actors and actresses in them. People from all over Europe and Latin America know these American actors too; our shows and movies go around the world. Asian folks: some do and some don’t; they have their own programs and actors. It’s all fake reality that they are discussing, such as “Mrs doubt fire” when I point out the house used in the filming. They want to all jump out of the bus and get photos close up, especially since Robin Williams’ suicide.
    These images in their minds are very real, just as hundreds of heads ago, children’s fairy tales and famous poetry, Bible stories and the Greek myths, would dominate in the references of writers, to reinforce their own views.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!