Monday 5 November 2012

Watching Television from a Mountaintop

By John D. O'Brien, S.J.

My mother grew up in the last town in North America to get television. It was nestled in a remote valley in the Rocky Mountains and this quirk of geography had kept it television-free nearly two decades after the rest of the world had embraced the blue box. She recalls life in McBride: the sense of community and fellowship, sporting activities, fairs and festivals, children playing all over town in safety. It can sound rather idyllic, like it was Bedford Falls or a Norman Rockwell painting. Obviously sin was as present then as it is today. Her father was the town constable, after all, and regularly had to lock transgressors up in jail, which was located on the ground floor of their family home (the prisoner, if he was sober, sometimes got an invitation from grandma to join the family for dinner).

In the early 1970s, the town successfully petitioned the government to build special transmitters to relay television to the valley, and when researchers at the University of British Columbia got wind of it, they sent twelve faculty and students to observe. They did extensive surveys both before and then two years after the arrival of television, with control studies in nearby towns. It was a social scientist’s dream case.

The results were eventually released in a 1986 book entitled The Impact of Television. McBride may not have been Mayberry, but this is what was found two years after television: sporting and athletic activities had dropped by half; participation of people over 55 years of age in public events had dropped dramatically; child cognition had fallen by forty percent, and reading literacy, which had been higher in McBride than in other towns in Canada, had fallen to the same rate. What is more, levels of aggression in the schoolyard had doubled. The researchers were troubled by these findings, but they seemed to match similar studies, and it was considered a model investigation. The results appeared to illustrate Marshall McLuhan’s observation that “we make our tools and then our tools make us.”

It also underlines Plato’s famous line that we become what we contemplate.

One cannot, needless to say, roll back the clock—except for daylight savings time—and un-invent certain technologies, nor should we. But becoming critical thinkers and consumers of media has never been more important. This week (Nov. 5–9), is Media Literacy Week and the teaching world, increasingly aware of the effects of media, for good or for ill upon the individual and society, has begun integrating media literacy into its curricula.

What can we do to be more media literate? The best thing is to acquire, as much as possible, a liberal arts education, with a strong foundation in philosophy, history, grammar, logic and rhetoric. It also helps to have a prayer life and foster the habit of silent meditation. The eyes of the spirit, when trained to look deeply, see more easily and accurately the truth of things (and the presence of falsity). There are concrete tools at our disposal as well, that teach us key principles of understanding media. But the most important thing is to do what McLuhan urged: to pay attention. What message—and there is always a message—is being conveyed by every movie, sit-com, and commercial advertisement I consume? What standard of truth, goodness or beauty is my measure for what I see, or is what I see slowly becoming my measure?

Christians have a special calling to resist willy-nilly the modes of thought and fashions of the zeitgeist, because our standard is something other than the world’s emblems and vogues. The Gospel of Christ is a standard that transcends all times and places. The cross that we adore will always be a “scandal” and a “folly” (1 Cor 1:23), but it is also power and strength, a pathway to God and the key to all wisdom. Christ promised to draw all things to himself, and has given this commissioning to his followers. While media has great potential to further this mission, it is a potent formula; we must understand its subtleties to use it and disabuse it. I recommend regular media fasting, because a bit of perspective can go a long way. Being able to decode the message behind the laugh-track, the assumed world-view we are asked to take for granted, is both the prerogative and the glorious freedom of the children of God.


  1. Nice little post, John. It reminded me of an essay written by Fr. Martin Royackers, S.J. about his neighbours in Jamaica waiting for electricity to arrive. I've just done a search and found his piece, which is worth reading:

  2. Compelling piece by Royackers. I remember the key lines being quoted in that documentary on his life.

  3. Excellent post John. I've been thinking about a media fast for a while now - and I think I'll get a move on it. Thanks!