Kill your attitude

    I was recently at a media-related workshop at which a member of the audience asked one of the speakers if he had seen something on television. It might have been a commercial, or a bit of news coverage. While it seemed pertinent and appropriate at the time, this bit of information was driven out of my mind by the speaker’s response.

    ”I don’t have a TV.”

    This simple declarative sentence was not spoken with the kind of neutral, matter-of-fact tone that one might use when saying “I don’t have a lawnmower” or “I don’t have any change on me.” It was spoken with what struck me as coldly venomous disdain. The closest comparison that comes to mind is the way someone might say “I don’t drink (or smoke, or do drugs),” but I rarely hear people make those statements with such a condescending tone. People whose sobriety stems from their religion usually try to act a little nicer, and recovering alcoholics I have met usually respond with the kind of calm humility that 12-step programs promote. This was not the tone of someone stating a fact, or making it known that such-and-such a vice was not his or her personal poison. This tone was the verbal equivalent of spitting in the face of someone you disagree with.

    Television inspires a unique brand of smug superiority among its detractors, as if you are not only disrespecting them with the suggestion that they might choose to rot their brains with such corporate drivel, but also showing your own base ignorance in not knowing your place in the cultural hierarchy. Just as a staff sergeant with years of military experience will always rank below a freshly minted lieutenant just out of officer training, those who allow the boob tube into their homes -nay, their very consciousness, stunted though it is - will always rank below the teeveetotallers.

    Okay, I admit to a bit of hyperbole – a word I can’t recall hearing on television, outside of an episode of “Daria” – but I overreact this way because this one response seemed emblematic of a whole school of thought, if one can apply the term to a way of thinking that, despite the lip service it pays to free thought, entails little if any critical discernment.

    First, the answer would have been entirely appropriate, had the question been “do you have a television?” But it wasn’t. The question was whether the speaker had seen a given bit of televised content, which was entirely possible whether or not the speaker owned such a thing. Perhaps the speaker lives a rigorously pure life, and would not even visit the home of a TV watcher. Perhaps he has such finely tuned powers of controlled cognition that he is able to block televised images from his consciousness, even when he makes the mistake of visiting Grandma during her soaps, or stepping into a bar while “the game” is on. I don’t currently own a TV either, but my life is not so cloistered that I might not have seen a given commercial. I don’t imagine that the speaker owns a zoo or a brewery, but I suspect that he may have seen elephants and beer.

    I agree that a lot of TV programming just isn’t very good. I could even say that most of it sucks. The same is true of all media. One doesn’t throw out Quentin Tarantino because of Steven Seagal, or ignore the Economist because it’s roughly the size and shape of Lucky: the Magazine about Shopping. (For that matter, if you like nothing better than curling up in front of the fire with a cup of tea, the latest issue of Lucky and Under Siege on DVD, there’s no reason to reject these pleasures because you find Pulp Fiction too bloody and The Economist too bloodless.)

    Last night, as I was brainstorming for this article, my girlfriend and I curled up to watch a bit of Grey’s Anatomy on DVD. I said I didn’t own a television, not that I abstained from all forms of television programming. Home Improvement box sets notwithstanding, the burgeoning market for TV programs on DVD actually encourages networks to support programming that people will choose to pay for and own rather than ephemeral tripe that people only watch because it’s what appears when they press the magic button.

    As I watched the two-part “Code Black” episode, I was, in many ways, the stereotypical TV viewer. I was entertained. I was titillated by imagery of sexual wish-fulfillment. I took time that could have been spent reading Noam Chomsky and distracted myself from real-life problems by investing my emotions in the imaginary lives and problems of beautiful people with high-paying jobs and a level of material comfort that made my own student apartment seem even drearier.

    I also thought about medical ethics; revisited the emotional factors that led to my divorce; pondered utilitarian, egoistic, and altruistic approaches to the value of human life; questioned myself as to how I would behave in a true crisis; emotionally rehearsed for a few of life’s challenges; studied narrative techniques that will that will help me in my education and writing career; and studied the play of light and shadow on faces, improving my knowledge of human anatomy and my ability to draw realistic portraits. I purged fear and pity, as Aristotle would recommend. And I had a few laughs and got to ogle Christina Ricci, neither of which is a pleasure to be dismissed lightly.

    I know that I could have used that time, say, fighting for universal health care or volunteering in a homeless shelter. Then again, I could have been getting drunk in some faux-working-class bar, indulging in the hipster delusion that drinking Pabst is somehow sticking it to the man. Time spent indulging in television can be, and often is, time wasted. Time spent indulging in contempt and conceit usually is too.