Prone to Wander

Amusing Ourselves To Death: A Book Review and a Few Thoughts

Does anyone remember when the Jerry Springer Show became, you know, a thing? It was the mid-nineties. They were heady days. Parachute pants were in. George Bush Sr. was out.

SpringerOf course there were sensationalized talk shows on TV before Springer, but this one, for some reason, suddenly became very, very visible. The plot lines became more and more outrageous. The fistfights became more obscene, more unbelievable, more scandalous. Half of the country was outraged, disgusted, and outright shocked. But despite all this, a strange thing happened. The show’s ratings went through the roof.

Springer was, unfortunately, a cultural signpost for the future.

About ten years before Springer, in 1985, a man named Neil Postman wrote a book I just finished reading called Amusing Ourselves to Death. It’s a bit hard to believe that a book written in 1985 about media, technology and entertainment could still be relevant nearly three decades later. But it stays relevant because at its core, this is not a book about any of those things. It is a book about the human condition and the human heart. If you replace any mentions of the word “television” or “media” in the text with the words “the Internet,” “Facebook,” or “Twitter,” (or whatever up-to-date term you please), Postman remains startlingly prophetic.

I feel the need to offer a disclaimer here that the book is not about how technology and new forms of communication are evil or wrong. Postman is certainly no Luddite, and neither am I. But he does point out that the way we have shaped and oriented our minds to our media – especially in the areas of news, education and public discourse – leaves something to be desired.

When everything around us is oriented toward entertainment, it’s all about storytelling.  And the stories we like to hear are about heroes and villains and dramatic clashes of good and evil. The problem is, real life doesn’t actually have all that many real villains or heroes in it. Most of us real people live somewhere in between.

But man, we do love the simple concepts in a good villain and a hero story, don’t we? They are so clear and so easy to understand. There’s a good guy we should root for and a bad guy we should trash talk. We don’t really have to think about it a whole lot. We don’t have to wrestle with complex concepts or choices, or waste time thinking through annoying questions that inevitably would eat into our Xbox or Game of Thrones time. If we can quickly prop up a villain or hero to make sense of whatever is going on, it makes things a heck of a lot easier, not to mention much more exciting.

“There is nothing wrong with entertainment. As some psychiatrist once put it, we all build castles in the air. The problems come when we try to live in them.” – Neil Postman

So it’s no surprise that we don’t often see the in-between kinds of people showing up on our screens. We don’t see them in the stories on the Internet. We don’t see them on television. Stories about people who have balanced, thoughtful, rational points of view are hopelessly boring. Hey, it’s show biz, kid, and people like that just don’t get good ratings. (We won’t watch.) And they certainly don’t get enough clicks. (We won’t click.)

So, in order to cater to our desires, our providers will serve up the edgiest and shockingest content it can find. (Yes, I know that “shockingest” isn’t a word… I was just trying to shock you.) Still, Postman asserts that as long as we keep our heads on straight and call it what it is (entertainment), we’ll be okay. But he worries that our culture has come to believe that this content is real public discourse. And I can’t help but wonder if he’s right.

Postman believes that Huxley may have been on to something in his vision of the future in A Brave New World.  In the Huxlean prophecy, there is no need for a 1984-esque Orwellian oppressor that uses force and manipulation in order to ban books and cut people off from true knowledge, learning and creativity – because, as Huxley predicts, we have already cheerfully forgotten and dismissed those things on purpose.  The system around us isn’t an evil Big Brother with a sinister agenda – plot twist – it turns out that we are the ones telling the system what to say. If we demand exaggerated stories about villains and heroes, and we ignore thoughtful, rational debate, what do we think the “media” will deliver to us, right on cue? Our media is nothing but a servant and a mirror.

As we consume our favorite stories about the battles between dramatic, disparate views, I’ve observed that we seem to have started to become more volatile and polarized ourselves. Increasingly, we are choosing one of a few opposing camps from very limited choices (where a wider spectrum of thought seems to be missing) and then we hunker down into trenches in order to launch verbal grenades at the imaginary people on the other side.

What drives us to want to “choose a side” so quickly and put up walls against the “other side” in a way that discussion and openness is no longer possible? Human nature is certainly probably part of it. But perhaps current modes of communication are pushing us in that direction a little further. There is an ever-increasing “now-ness” and “know-ness” in our communication – we don’t have time to scratch our heads for very long. We certainly don’t want to be seen as idiots. Heaven forbid that anyone gets the impression that we are uninformed – we are supposed to have all the information in the world at our fingertips, after all.

So born out of our desire for speed and participation, we can quickly eliminate any pesky “neutral” states. All the better if there are only a few limited choices to choose from, because unless we can come up with an opinion and response within a few minutes, we will be left behind. Information is moving so quickly across our digital lives that we don’t have time to research and listen to thoughtful discourse or wrestle with questions. The game is all about staying relevant, and in order to do that we must make fast choices and decisions about the items that flash across our retinas. Do I like or dislike? Agree or disagree? Yes/no? Thumbs up/thumbs down?

It is no longer socially acceptable to slow down and say, “I don’t know.” Saying something like, “You know, I’d like to meditate about that/pray about that/read a few books about that – and then let’s meet and talk about it next week over coffee,” is not a very sexy thing to say in response to someone on Twitter. You might be ignored. You might be buried in the stream by more exciting opinions. Or depending on what the subject is, you might get publically attacked for not choosing a side.

Le Penseur, Auguste Rodin ~1904

Le Penseur, Auguste Rodin ~1904

As a result, we have come to fear, ignore or reject the enormous gray areas in life because we can’t quickly pass judgement on those things. The sooner we can dismiss something and move on to the next item demanding our attention in the stream, the better. But gray areas don’t let us do that, so we try to avoid them. We don’t want to be uncomfortable.  We don’t want to spend time wrestling with an idea.  We don’t want to admit we might not have enough information. We don’t want to admit that we have unanswered questions or unformulated opinions. We don’t want to admit that some things in life might not have answers, and that we are supposed to wrestle with them for a lifetime.

I’ll be the first to admit, I am not any better than anybody at being discerning. I get sucked into the feed in front of me, sucked into blathering commentary, sucked into reading flippant grenade-like tweets and shaking my head at the latest villains and heroes we’ve propped up. I may roll my eyes, but I’m not immune. Nobody’s immune. Because this is something we built. And we like it.

But perhaps the first step is examining ourselves and the way we participate in public discourse about things that should really matter. Let’s call time outs. Let’s tear down the digital construct around us every once in a while and “take it offline” and make it personal. Let’s truly seek to truly understand the people who exist and have real lives all around us. To do that, I must engage people that I may imagine I disagree with over coffee or a beer. I must bring up subjects that run a little deeper than the weather, the big game, or the movie I just watched. I must truly, deeply, madly try to love them.

The only way we will be able to solve problems is by making it personal, and finding that wonderful quiet moment to examine someone else’s eyes, to feel the silences and uncomfortable pauses, and to truly listen hard to what another human being is really trying to tell us. Because more than likely, the person we’ll find on the other side of the table is probably not a villain. There are very few real villains in this world, thank God. Most of the time, the person on the other side of the table will end up feeling strangely familiar. A person who is confused sometimes. A person who is broken and sad sometimes. A person who is hopeful and full of joy sometimes. A person who is just like me.

So let’s get more comfortable with exploring the gray areas. Let’s have brave, thoughtful in-person conversations and whisper awkward I love yous. Let’s all confess to each other that we are all full of questions, and that we may not always have answers. Let’s find a real connection in these in-between spaces where we all actually live.

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2 comments

  1. Sharon Summers

    Absolutely beautifully written – you are a marvel, thank you so much. I listen to many people (in work as a therapist) and I lament often the cultural push to formulate answers and interpretations in haste – whatever the arena of enquiry. So thank you for your patient, curiousity-informed insight. Wonderful.

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