As I like to do on Sunday afternoons, I took a hike today in Wildcat Canyon Regional Park. I reached the highest point in the park at about 4 p.m. and was enjoying the beautiful 360-degree vistas of the Bay Area bathed in the late afternoon sun when my serenity was interrupted by a group of five or six adults boisterously impersonating characters from Family Guy. As they took a break at the peak, their conversation consisted entirely of chatter about the latest episodes of various television shows.
I could not help but be reminded of a scene from George Orwell’s 1984. Winston Smith is standing in the upstairs room he and Julia use as their rendezvous, and he observes a woman outside hanging her wash, singing the meaningless lyrics to the latest government-produced song. In Orwell’s universe, the government produces fatuous music and other trivialities, including a fake lottery, all for the purpose of diverting the masses to prevent them from rebelling. The lottery is one of the most frequent topics of conversation for the proles, and they get into impassioned arguments about the odds, the numbers, etc. Sure, Big Brother has the secret police, but they are hardly necessary when the masses are so easily entertained by the tritest things.
We don’t need Big Brother to produce mindless distractions for us. Instead, our demand for this stuff has spawned multi-billion-dollar industries that produce video games, music, television, movies, and other “art” that does little more than help us pass the time and hardly ever stimulates. Sure, I grant that not all of this entertainment is entirely mindless, but even the best of it is too often used as an escape from the world and too frequently becomes a topic of conversation that prevents us from asking life’s deeper questions.
My gripe is not that television or other forms of entertainment are inherently bad, but rather that we chronically misuse them for shallow entertainment and conversation filler. One of the most depressing statistics about American culture that I have ever come across is Robert Putnam’s finding that the average American in the late 1990s watched about four hours of television per day and that he rated television as only about as enjoyable as housework — and as less enjoyable than work itself!Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 222, 241. (I am sure that much of the time that was spent watching television in the 1990s is now devoted to the Internet.) If we are honest with ourselves, we do not even enjoy the time we spend watching television or similar diversions, yet we participate in them anyway because they are easy.
The decision to spend so much time on the unthinking consumption of witless entertainment comes at a cost: meaningful relationships and conversations. I think it is a crisis that our conversation most naturally tends towards twaddle about what is basically nonsense and that when we have “nothing better to do,” we turn on the television or surf the Internet.
As is often the case, I don’t think anyone has illustrated our problem better than Bill Watterson. One of my favorite Calvin & Hobbes strips is introduced in the first panel with Calvin asking Hobbes, “It says here that ‘religion is the opiate of the masses.’ What do you suppose that means?” In the next panel, the question is answered in a thought bubble above a television set: “…It means Karl Marx hadn’t seen anything yet…” The rest of the comic provides a humorous illustration of television’s enslaving power, which sucks us into hours spent in front of it — despite the fact that we even acknowledge that it is, in Calvin’s words, “garbage.”
Christians too often criticize television for its immorality while completely overlooking the effect that it has on our time and ability to love and serve our neighbors. In comparison to the latter concern, which I believe to be an invisible catastrophe, the first is hardly worth mentioning.