There are a few behaviors that lower a person in my self-esteem almost irreparably. There are the big ones, like drug dealing, participation in genocide, and doing anything ironically (more on this one at a later date. Oh my, there is more on this one.)
These are people I simply don’t need in my life. Along with the drug dealers, genociders, and hipsters, there’s another subset of the human race – closely related to the hipsters, as a matter of fact.
They are the people who don’t watch television.
I should clarify. The absence of a television in one’s life does not make one a member of this group. This is a different situation, one that is all too common in the brilliant world of academia. In casual conversation, these are the people who wait until after you confess that your Friday night ritual involves a self-pedicure, a frozen pizza, and two straight hours of Say Yes to the Dress to inform you, rather smugly, that they don’t watch television. Cue awkward pause.
Because we Humanities students are taught to read between the lines, we recognize what these people are implying:
“While you’re filling your mind with the overprocessed product of the mainstream media, I spend my evenings reading Kafka and listening to my lifepartner play his sitar while we recline in the yurt we built in our backyard last year after our last spiritual retreat in Kazakhstan. It’s so wonderful to be liberated from the stream of misinformation and mental clutter. It makes me a better person.”
Better than what, exactly?
I’m not saying that everything on television is great. Heck, I’m not saying that most of what’s on television is great. However, I will say that TV is not the correct focus for the frustrations of the educated elite. Instead, it is a vital part of our culture, and can be a unifying force.
I have a confession: I love television. I love it. During the regular season, I follow a half-dozen shows more or less religiously. I grew up with television characters. My parents never “let the TV raise their children,” as the saying goes, but we all used to tune in together and enjoy our favorite programs. We still do. And I have to say, we all turned out all right. Even me.
Yes, much of what we find on television is unhealthy. Certainly the rash of crime procedurals feeds our constant sense of mistrust in others (how many serial killers can there be in the city of New York, guys? Really? Because you all find one every three weeks). The number of “reality” shows following the daily movements of “celebrities” is possibly harmful to young people’s sense of self (what exactly is a Kardashian? Can anyone tell me?).
That being said, there’s a lot of good happening on both our network and cable TV stations. How many young people have been helped by the inspirational messages preached by Glee? I’ve been out of high school for years and I still feel uplifted by the show’s dedication to the joy of figuring out who you are (through song and dance). Once Upon a Time is a delightful exploration of the myths that have defined Western culture – who can’t relate to a fairy tale? When I watch Revenge, I know I’m for a lively discussion of the ethics of justice and vengeance (accompanied by ninja fights, dramatic pauses, and truly great hair extensions). Shows like Supernatural have broken the 4th wall, asking questions about the meaning of fiction and reality, the role of the audience member, and the suspension of disbelief necessary to sustain a life of the imagination (any series where the characters fall into an alternate universe where they must pretend to be the actors playing themselves in a televised version of their lives is going to get my attention).
Do you see where I’m going here? We have this assumption that there is “high culture” and “low culture.” Curiously enough, what was once mainstream (i.e. Shakespeare) so often becomes “elite” over time. Who is to say that the Twilight Zone won’t survive another 500 years of “readership?” Or that humanities classes in 2061 won’t be watching episodes of LOST?
I’m not saying that we need to replace our literature with television. What I’m saying is that we don’t need to put ourselves above the “mass media.” Let’s be real about this: even those people who don’t watch television secretly watch Teen Wolf on hulu when nobody’s watching. Don’t lie to me.
We should rejoice in a mass media that does provide so many options for engaging in narratives, for asking questions about the universe, for uniting with our neighbors over a shared concern regarding The Good Wife’s romantic future (she really does deserve better, after all). Maybe it’s time to stop our diatribes against the evils of mass media (which usually sound like “blah blah blah corporate power blah blah blah must liberate from the dominant paradigm blah blah blah” to normal people who don’t read Marx and who don’t find their lives diminished by that lack).
Maybe it’s time to embrace our shared cultural treasure. Yes, television has a great potential for evil. It can desensitize us to violence. It can make us feel that we don’t matter. It can isolate us. But let’s be honest: so can interacting with the wrong people who have the wrong priorities. Television also has a great potential for the truth, and if we treat it as a part of who we are, rather than as an artifact of the unenlightened masses, then maybe it will live up to that potential.
Edward R. Murrow once said, “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.”
So what’s wrong with a little escapism if it brings forth truth?