We Are What We Watch

September 28, 1994|By DONELLA H. MEADOWS

HANOVER, NEW HAMPSHIRE — Hanover, New Hampshire.--New reports come out every month or so about the decline of the American mind. Every study shows a direct correlation between poor intellectual performance and frequent television watching. No surprise. There are roughly as many studies showing that television rots the mind as there are studies showing that junk food rots the body or that cigarette smoking rots the lungs -- as if we needed studies.

As a society, we do more to deglamorize and control tobacco products. Enough of us are intent on healthy diets that even the junk-makers are cutting back (a little) on fat, sugar, salt and chemicals. But we do no more than gripe about inane ads, violent movies, obscene songs, vitriolic talk shows, stupid sitcoms.

Why can't our children write? Have you ever looked at the script of a TV show, even a news show, even a sober PBS documentary? There is no logical flow. The words are there as commentary on the pictures. The pictures are chosen not to build up a sequence of thought, but to engage the emotions. Sustained intelligence is hard enough in a visual medium even if that were the intent of the producers, which it rarely is.

Why do families fall apart? We spend more time with the smart-talking families on television than with the real ones next door or even in our own house. Media families are not known for their patience, compassion, productivity or thinking. How often do you see sitcom characters working with a sense of commitment? Or reacting to an idea with anything other than a wisecrack? How often do you catch them in an act of civic responsibility?

Why are our politics venal and divisive? On talk shows everything is black and white, our side and their side. Facts are twisted to ridicule one side and make the other look good. How can a child listening to steady streams of distortion learn to be open to ideas and to test them for truth?

Why does our nation lead the world in materialism, irresponsible sex and violence? Hundreds of times a day, the ads tell us how to solve every problem by buying something. Between the ads, the shows have one purpose -- to hold our attention until the next ad.

Poisoning by media is even more harmful than poisoning by cigarettes or saturated fats, because it destroys not just individuals, but culture. Culture is shared consciousness, the common experience, the small things we all know, the characters in our stories, the morals those stories carry. Culture is what we absorb as we grow up, what we see and hear so often that we call it reality. Out of culture comes behavior.

Our culture used to be derived from experience with land, tools, materials, family, neighbors, nature. Now it is invented in the fantasy shops of New York and California by people who only want to keep us dazzled and watching. Visitors from abroad are shocked by the brutality, stupidity and artificiality of what we allow to be broadcast into our heads.

Suppose we decide to do something about this cultural assault. At first, it isn't clear what to do. Our blasted minds have lost the distinction between free political speech, which is essential to democracy, and free commercial speech, which can undermine democracy and everything else worthwhile. If we keep the two straight, we can come up with as many ways to restore our culture as to protect our lungs -- starting with the disposition of our multibillion-dollar gift of the public airways to private profit-makers.

In the meantime, there's the ''off'' switch. It's hard to turn, I know, because, like tobacco and junk food, junk culture is addictive. It fills us with illusion to the point where we don't know how to lead real lives. It sedates our kids so we don't have to spend time with them. But, as with other addictions, the price of that cheap comfort is way too high.

The government could help us stay clean, by keeping pushers off the streets and out of our living rooms. But ultimately, it's up to us to decide what goes into our own and our children's lungs, mouths, eyes, ears and minds.

Donella Meadows teaches environmental studies at Dartmouth College. She wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times

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