By David South
Id Magazine (Canada), November 28-December 11, 1996
Television programmers are under attack once again. Thanks to Guelph activist Patricia Herdman’s Coalition for Responsible Televsion (CORT), two violent television shows – Poltergeist (CTV) and Millennium (Fox/Global) – have lost several advertisers in recent weeks due to pressure from CORT. It’s just another wave in a new assault on the immorality of television.
Positive Entertainment Alternatives for Children Everywhere (PEACE), a Montreal group founded after the murder of 14 young women in that city in 1989, staged a press conference last week, complete with sweet-faced children, to announce its “Toxic TV” list. Who is toxic? Old favourites like Bugs Bunny, Batman and Robin and The Simpsons. PEACE also produced a list of “Positive” TV shows. It included a wrist-slashing selection of insipid programming, such as Barney and Friends, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Kratt’s Creature.
But critics of television overlook the strong and often simplistic moral messages that infuse most programming. Some even argue the mostly Judeo-Christian morality comes at the expense of atheistic and agnostic perspectives.
University of Guelph philosophy professor Jay Newman argues that religious moralists are making television the scapegoat for all of society’s ills.
He argues television, rather than being a moral vacuum, is heavily influenced by Judeo-Christain values – often in shows many people don’t suspect.
Newman sharply criticizes religious moralists, who he says, neglect to observe the same contradictions in their own beliefs that they see in television.
In Newman’s view, religion shares many sins with television. Religion promotes passivity (“The meek shall inherit the earth”), disrupts family life (who needs to talk to that “immoral” gay brother/sister?), does a questionable job of moral education, invents celebrities (the saints), sacrifices spiritual wisdom for meaningless ritual and entertainment (the Mass), and promotes violent behaviour (who can forget the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition?).
Leaning back in his chair at his University of Guelph office, the irascible New York-born Newman enthusiastically defends television.
“When we assess TV as bad,” he says, “I’m not convinced religion is the only moral teacher, and it has not been the best moral teacher. Religion has been a very important force of hatred, whereas Star Trek teaches us to respect other cultures.
“TV has been of great value in promoting pluralism and an increase in tolerance.”
Newman isn’t talking about gore-soaked TV like Poltergeist and Millennium, shows he says speak more about their producers than about the medium of television. “Wanton slaughter can’t be blamed on TV. But I do agree with psychologists that some television inures us to violence.”
He sees Star Trek as a moral force for both pluralism and tolerance, strong values that are essential to democracies with many ethnic, cultural and racial groups. “This show promotes tolerance towards people who appear different. It shows aliens have aspirations and desires just like us.”
Newman does take offence to one race of aliens on the popular series: the Ferengi. While the Ferengi are supposed to be the equivalent of used car dealers in Star Trek’s universe, they draw criticism from Newman for their anti-semitic undertones. But even here, says Newman, TV can’t beat the pantheon of Christain anti-semites.
As for the bumbling antics of Bart Simpson and his dad Homer, Newman says The Simpsons also contain positive morals. “The Simpsons teaches us to accept the foibles of others and empathize. It does it in a gentle way without passing a very austere judgement.”
Newman even sees hope in the dreamy world of daytime soap operas. They teach people to develop empathy. They also use negative role models to show that hatred and contempt backfire on people; that promiscuity and adultry don’t come without a cost.”
As for Seinfeld, a sitcom about a group of friends who seem to never do anything, Newman says, “I’m a New Yorker and I can’t sit through it.”
Newman, an expert on religious fanaticism and hypocrisy, has responded to religious critics of television in his new book, appropriately titled Religion vs. Television. Newman sees religious critics of television as at best hypocrites, at worst specious claimants to higher moral ground.
“[Religious leaders] make judgements to show the usefulness of their institutions in an attempt to restore the lustre of religious authority.”
Newman believes the debate surrounding violence on TV is misguided. He believes the root causes of violence should be dealt with first.
“Television is a convenient scapegoat. Its criticism parallels religious bigotry. They don’t focus on the individual, just the medium. And this is accepted by people who call themselves liberal!”
But critics of TV say any decent moral messages that slip through are undermined by television’s subservience to a higher God: consumerism. For Rose Anne Dyson of Canadians Concerned About Violence in Television (C-CAVE), this corrupted morality can’t be ignored. “There is only one over-riding religion today: consumerism. Its main purveyor is TV.
“Television is a major socializer today. Parents and teachers are key to modifying that influence. But most if television is very bad and just teaches consumer-driven values. There isn’t a single children’s programme that isn’t infused with commercial values.”
Dyson believes the negative effects aren’t just psychological. “Watching too much TV is bad – it causes obesity and hyperactivity.”
Dyson’s claims were recently backed by a new study showing unhealthy minds may lead to unhealthy bodies. A study conducted by Columbia University claimed the more that children watched TV, the fatter they got. Researcher Dr Barbara Dennison found children who watched 14 hours of television a week had diets with 35 per cent of their calories from fat. The study blamed the high representation of junk food in television ads and the fact they promoted couch potato dining. Canadian children on average watch 18 hours a week of television.
Dyson does agree with Newman’s criticism of organized religions’ spurious claims to higher ground. “Judeo-Christian religions have gotten us into a lot of trouble!”
To control this morally wayward TV, Dyson looks forward to more entertainment conglomerates self-regulating their programming. “The cornerstone of democracy is to obey rules.
“A lot of cultural studies people tend to underestimate the impact of TV – there is too much of a value-free approach.”