January 22, 2020

On censorship

It's all the rage, censorship. China does it, Russia does it, the Internet does it, the government does it. There's a difference between censorship and "censorship," of course, between not being able to get your TV show on the air and being jailed or killed for having shown it. The word's been cheapened through overuse, and I suppose I'm about to add to it. What is censorship, anyway? Is it when you regulate the amount of sex and violence in TV shows and movies, or is it when you regulate the amount on the evening news? The networks used to employ censors; they probably still do, although it's hard to say what they do nowadays. They decided what was acceptable and what crossed the line.

That's part of it, deciding where "the line" is, and if it were only about sex and violence, it would be hard enough to say. There are other lines out there though, and people eager to help you decide what shows are best for you, what you ought to watch. In a TV Guide from 1967, editor Merrill Panitt reports on an interesting suggestion by Democratic Representative Torbert Macdonald that schools should teach children courses in "critical viewing" of television. As children watch anywhere from six to 40 hours of TV a week*, often indiscriminately and uncritically, they need to be taught the importance of "selecting programs and evaluating what they see."

*I hate to think of where I might have fallen on that spectrum.

Panitt agrees with this idea in principle; after all, it would be good not only for the children but, as they grow older and audiences become more critical of what they watch, it could potentially be good for improving programming as well. But, on the other hand, he points to the words of a New York TV executive who reminds us that "If we produce shows that bore children to death, TV can teach them nothing" because they won't be watching it.

Acknowledging the truth of the statement, the editorial notes that "we doubt that if the proposed school courses are set up they will signal the total extinction of Batman, Gomer Pyle, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Monkees.*"  In much the same way as a balanced nutritional diet doesn't try to eliminate every treat from the menu, there's always going to be room for "elements of nonsense, fantasy and Walter Mittyism." However, the hope is that "the courses would probably cut down the volume of this stuff and get a wider audience for some of the more constructive material now being offered to children."

*Intriguing, their choice of shows, don't you think? I own half of them.

t  t  t

I suppose my attitude toward censorship (the lesser type, that is, the kind that decides what we see on TV) vacillates between libertarian and churlish, and one of the reasons I can’t quite make up my mind is that it’s not as straightforward as it ought to be.

As you know if you're a regular reader, the controversy about the quality of programming is one that's raged for years, often in the pages of TV Guide, and the timing of this editorial would fit right in with the general debate. We're used, therefore, to seeing TV Guide express concern, for example, about the TV diet that children are fed. On the other hand, TV Guide has frequently been against the idea of controlling the content of programming, particularly when it emanates from outside bodies such as the government. The shorthand for this. although we could have a protracted discussion on this at a later date, is censorship. We'll use that word because it comes up frequently in these conversations, and TV Guide itself used it when discussing the content that appears on television.

One of the arguments made by those against censorship, for example TV Guide's Edith Efron, is that it absolves the viewer of his or her own responsibility in the matter. If the government, or some other authority, decrees that thus-and-such shouldn't be show on television, then you’re spared having to decide whether or not you would have watched it if it had been broadcast. This leads to a lot of righteous breast-beating from some parts, people who might say “of course I’d never watch a public execution if it were televised,” secure in the knowledge that they’ll be true to their word—they won’t watch it, since it isn't televised. But as Joyce Carol Oates once wrote, when the demon beckons, “You won't know until it beckons. To you. So long as it temps others you can judge—can sneer—can express shock, disgust, outrage, and prim disdain—the usual emotions of punitive people. But you won't know. I didn't." Or, put another way, someone once said that the difference between an honest man and a man of integrity is that the man of integrity does the right thing even when no one is watching.

t  t  t

So one argument against censorship is that we should require the viewer to make choices, keeping in mind that ultimately, the market decides, and insofar as the market is a bellwether for public opinion, the public gets what they want. (That doesn't mean that society is prepared to accept the consequences emanating from those decisions, but there you go.) The other argument you hear, and this is probably the more prevalent one, is that “if you don’t like what you see on TV, change the channel. Nobody’s forcing you to watch it.” This is true, insofar as it goes; however, it's a truth that exists in the laboratory, outside of the real world, which is where most of us spend most of our time. And there, it's not so easy.

For one thing, even if we don't watch "that kind of thing," we have to live in a world where other people do, and to the extent that it affects their behavior, we have to live with the result. I've always found this argument most compelling when it comes to shows that objectify women. If men are constantly exposed to shows that portray women as nothing more than sex objects (either willingly or unwillingly), then it’s more likely that’s how men will see them. That's dehumanizing enough, but add a dollop or two of violence to the mix, and then see what happens. If we're taught not to show restraint, isn't that what eventually happens?

However, even here, the question arises as to whether or not we can be sure that watching this kind of behavior on television does, in fact, affect the viewer’s external behavior. For instance, I love watching Road Runner cartoons. In every single one of them, something hideous happens to Wile E. Coyote—he’s blown up, has an anvil dropped on his head, falls off a cliff; you get the idea. Pound for pound, these cartoons might be among the most violent things ever seen on TV. But can you demonstrate that there's a correlation between me watching these cartoons and me becoming a violent, anti-social person? I doubt it, because it isn't true.*

*The violent part, anyway. As for the anti-social part, I suppose the jury is still out.

t  t  t

And yet, there’s something about the smell test here that supports the overall contention. After all, why do advertisers bother to put commercials on television if they don’t think the viewer’s behavior (in this case, their shopping habits) will be influenced by it? It’s somewhat fatuous to argue that viewers who fall for commercials—blatant attempts to get them to buy Product X, with no bones made as to why it’s being shown—will have the discernment to filter out the behavioral messages presented in their favorite shows. Isn't it?

So while I don’t accept the premise that viewers are completely influenced by their environment, neither do I think they can be totally unfazed by it. There has to be a residue that rubs off on them, the difference being the moral and philosophical background the viewer brings into it. And with that, we're back to the question of personal responsibility. One would like to think that people with well-formed consciences (or at the very least people who understand and appreciate the value of a civil society) will be able to watch television with a discerning eye; they neither become hostage to the behavior shown on screen nor do they accept programs that promote a message at odds with that of the wider society. And that brings us back to critical thinking.

Now, I'm all for critical thinking (or, if you want to be precise, critical viewing); I think it's a skill in short supply nowadays, and schools ought to be teaching kids how to think. But too often nowadays education is about teaching kids what to think; the mechanics of thought have been sacrificed in the interests of pushing the correctness of thought. And who decides what is correct? The whole idea has the whiff of elitism, the idea that people in general have to be taught not how to watch TV, but how to watch the right programs. And who determines what makes a program "right"? I'm thinking here of everything from HGTV's decision a few years ago to ax a show hosted by two brothers who opposed gay marriage* to Southern stations that routinely preempted shows in the 1950s and '60s because they portrayed blacks and whites interacting. Is this how we want to teach "critical viewing"? Will it improve the viewing experience? Does it provide us with more varied, well-rounded programming? Or is it simply another form of censorship? It has the potential for mischief written all over it—anyone besides me comparing this to how schools teaching about nutrition has led to governments trying to ban supersized soft drinks?

*Proving once again that HGTV will never have a show entitled "Interior Design for Heterosexual Males."

Now, perhaps I'm not the right person to be talking about this, given that I'm a great fan of, for example, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., but while I'm all for better programming on television, I do have a problem with the idea of labeling shows as ones a viewer "shouldn't watch" simply because they're not "good" for you, for whatever reason. To me, it sounds a whole lot more like taking medicine than watching television, and while I appreciate what medicine can do for me when I'm not feeling well, that's not why I usually watch TV. I once read an article about how book discussion clubs aren't necessarily a good thing because they can force you to focus more on your reaction to a book than what the book actually says, and consequently you become more self-aware, becoming the focal point yourself rather than the book you're ostensibly reading for pleasure or enlightenment.

t  t  t

I confess I don't have a ready answer for any of this, and I'm not sure I would even if I weren't working under a deadline to get this piece up. It's clear that the libertarian answer, inviting though it may be, has flaws when it's applied to the real world. It's equally clear that whenever an outside authority gets involved, be it school or bureaucracy, there's an inevitable level of bias involved that tends to taint the experience.

The best I can offer, and it's hardly an original thought, is that we expose people to different types of experiences throughout their lives, not pushing them toward preferring one over the other, but simply allowing them to witness the variety. One popular idea making the rounds is that the graying of classical music audiences can be related to the lack of music appreciation being taught in schools today. Putting aside the question of who bears the responsibility for this failure (schools, administrators, classical music organizations, taxpayers, all of the above), there's no doubt that in my case, being exposed to classical music at an early age made an impression that continues to pay dividends. I'd suggest that exposing people to theater, drama, comedy, and other art forms without forcing them down their throats would be one way of educating potential viewers to become more discerning, or at least more varied, in their television tastes. If that means developing a palate like mine*, running the gamut from Hogans Heroes to The Grand Tour to The Prisoner to Doctor Who to MST3K, and including things like Masterpiece Theatre, Live from Lincoln Center, Great Performances and other shows that might be considered highbrow, then at least we'd have a varied programming schedule out there, instead of the pablum we're generally served.

*I'm not advocating that, by the way.  My tastes could easily give you an upset stomach.  

However, the fact remains that in a market-based economy, the market will determine what's on television—and it won't include high culture. Unless and until networks (both commercial and cable) and advertisers decide otherwise, shows with niche audiences and low ratings will be consigned to the trash heap, and most of our programs will simply be pallid clones of what's already gone before. Extend this to other forms of entertainment—books, movies, music—and what we're left with isn't a pretty picture. And that's why we should care.  TV  

No comments

Post a Comment

Thanks for writing! Drive safely!