TV AND VIOLENCE: A PERFECT MARRIAGE
Valdemar W. Setzer
(Version 2.2 - Aug. 11, 2007 - original written in Aug. 19, 2000)
The forces that are behind technology are infinitely intelligent, but they lack something fundamental: common sense. Thus, they always end up exaggerating, so many people start noticing through their own experience that the improper and indiscriminate use of machines harms the human being. This is the case of pollution and of TV. In particular, there is nowadays a big reaction against the excess of violence (in quantity and quality) on TV. In this paper, I will show that unfortunately it is not possible to end violence on TV, because it is a consequence of the apparatus’ own nature.
Jerry Mander, in his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (New York: Morrow, 1978), makes a nice assertion: TV doesn't transmit violence due to viewers' preferences but because it is the contents that is better adapted to the nature of the apparatus and to the viewer's state of consciousness. Let’s understand why this is so.
The first nature of a TV set which matters here is the fact that its image is unreal and very coarse. Its unreality, or 'virtuality', makes people underestimate the influence of the apparatus. In fact, probably every parent protects his/her children, so that the latter do not experience emotionally strong situations (for instance, a relative's death, the vision of a bloodstained injured person laying on the street, etc.). Having in mind protecting their children in the best possible form, in big cities they usually lock the house door, raise high walls around it, move to guarded apartment buildings or condominiums, etc. However, turning on their TV set they allow the invasion, into the home, of all types of images of violence (besides other images and words inconvenient to children). Several years ago there were some news that in the USA half of the children and young people had a TV set in their bedroom, that is, in general without absolutely any control on what they watch. On the contrary, the distorted educational mentality prevalent nowadays makes parents think that they should not restraint anything, because any control could create traumas. They don't notice that children need to be guided and controlled (with love), and that the lack of it generates serious psychological problems.
The coarseness of the image can be verified observing TV images and programs. On soap operas, in general only the actors' face is focused, because if the whole body were focused, the facial expression would not be noticed; the eyes, nose and mouth would become small stains. With that, the emotions that the actors should transmit would not be noticed. If a whole tree is transmitted one doesn't distinguish its leaves. Compare with our fantastic visual sharpness, which allows us to see with clearness all those effects in the real world, amid a vision field of almost 180 degrees (just open up the arms, look straight ahead, move your hands and see up to what point you can still see your hands). Speaking about the real world, if we want to see an object with more sharpness we just approach it. In the case of a TV set, getting closer to it doesn't help, on the contrary, it just harms the vision, because one starts to see, in the case of colored TV, the mask dots of red, green and blue colors. The combination of these colors is what gives us the impression of the several ghostly colors that compose the images. In the case of black and white TV, one could see each one of the lines formed by the scanning of the electron beam that, hitting the phosphorized screen, made it to emit light. Thus I may already mention one of the pernicious effects of TVs: it influences the sense of vision, because one gets used not to seek greater sharpness, for example approaching oneself more to the object which one wants to examine. For adults this is bad, but for children, who are exactly developing their senses, it is highly harmful.
The scanning of the beam produces an atomistic image made out of dots, composing 30 complete pictures each second: 60 with the odd lines, scanned firstly, and 60 with the even lines, scanned after the odd ones. This alternation is made in order to decrease the effect of image blinking. Our retina retains images for about 1/10 of a second, so that with a smaller period we have an impression of continuity, for example of a person's movement. But if one looks at the screen with the side of the eyes, blinking is clearly noticed. Our brain detects blinking, even if not consciously perceived. This is a third factor of the nature of the apparatus, which will be very important in the following considerations.
From the viewer's point of view, it can be verified that of the inner activities thinking, feeling and willing (volition that leads to actions, from concentration of thinking on certain chosen subjects up to limb movement), only the second is really in activity. In fact, physical immobility prevents the viewer from exercising any action. Since TV normally induces a semi-hypnotic state, there is not even the action of concentrating thinking. This effect, which is easily noticed when observing a person watching TV (the face looks like a fool's one; this is more apparent with children, who have more malleable faces), was scientifically verified unfortunately by just a few researches on neurophysiologic effects of TV watching. H.E.Krugman ('Brain Wave Measurements of Media Involvement', Journal of Advertising Research, 11:1, Feb. 1971, pp. 3-9), analyzing eye movements and encephalograms, showed that TV watching rapidly (it takes about ½ minute) induces a semi-hypnotic, sleepiness or inattentive state of mind. Suppose one describes to a psychologist the viewer's situation, without mentioning that he/she is attending TV, that is, statically seated, staring at a fixed light which blinks 30 times per second, hearing a sound coming from a fixed point, and the dim atmosphere. The psychologist immediately recognizes a session of hypnotism.
Let us compare with reading. When a person reads, she is forced to pay attention to what she is reading, otherwise she loses the thread. With a romance, it is necessary to imagine the characters, the environment, etc.; with philosophical or scientific writings, it is necessary to constantly associate concepts. In both cases, thinking is very active. But when watching TV, images are received ready from the outside and are not innerly created. On the other hand, it is impossible to consciously follow them, thinking on what they mean, associating ideas or memories to them, etc., because, as I will justify later, they necessarily succeed with a high speed. With that, it is not possible to pay attention for a reasonable period of time, nor to calmly criticize what is being transmitted, comparing what we see and hear with our previous knowledge as permitted by a book – in each reader's individual speed. When the first socialist government took on in France, it tried to turn TV into an educational vehicle – to begin with, by ending with ‘canned’ American programs. The reaction was violent: viewers classified the transmissions as ‘annoying’ and some said that TV was not a vehicle for transmitting culture – there were better vehicles for that. Thus, if some station tries to transmit a program that demands mental concentration and reasoning, the viewers in their great majority will switch to another channel.
In lectures covering the problems of TV, I recommend the participants: "If you wish to develop your thinking, do reading. If you wish to impair your thinking, dampening it more and more, watch TV." The famous psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote ('Parents vs. Television', Redbook, Nov. 1963): "TV traps the fantasy, it doesn't free it. A good book motivates thinking and simultaneously frees it" (my translation from a citation in German). Jane Healy, in her book against TV Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don't Think (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), mentions damages done to neurons when being improperly excited by the deluge of images transmitted by TV.
It is easy to personally verify that in general viewers don't follow consciously what is being transmitted. Just repeat an experiment told by F. Emery and M. Emery in their book The Choice of Futures - to Enlighten or to Inform? (Leiden: H.E.Stenfert Kroese, 1976), in which people in San Francisco were telephoned and asked what news they had just watched on the national news program. Half of the people didn't remember one single piece of news! I suggest repeating that experiment, naturally without telling your subjects in advance that they will be tested. In particular, the inattention state leads to the conclusion that TV has almost no informational effect, and much less educational. Marie Winn dedicated her book The Plug-in Drug (New York: Viking, 1979) to prove those points, exposing the myth for example that the program Sesame Street had educational effects. The lack of educational effects is also commented by M.A.Erausquin et alli, in their book Los Teleniños (Barcelona: Editorial LAIA, 1980), where they state that "It seems more and more proven that television in itself is unable to teach practically anything." It is not difficult to understand the reasons for that: the acquisition of information should be an individual, slow and conscious process. On the other hand, education requests, besides slowness, also interaction and non-passivity, nonexistent in TV watching. Furthermore, it has to be necessarily highly contextual in relation to the person being educated or self-educated. In fact, in general parents carefully select the books they buy for their children, verifying if they are appropriate to the their age, maturity, education, etc. A teacher gives a class taking into account what she taught in the previous one, what was given the week, month or year before, what is the situation of the particular real students that she has in front of her, etc. Nothing of this sort happens with TV (and nor with teaching with computers or with the Internet!), a vehicle of mass communication, therefore presenting nothing individually and contextually. That’s why TV educational programs never produced the expected results: does anybody know some statistics on how many people learned what with Brazilian educational TV programs, which have cost hundreds of millions? If a normal class with a real teacher follows an educational transmission, revising and deepening what was just watched, obviously the effect will be of that class, and not of what was observed on TV. I believe that from an educational point of view TV only makes sense as a video reproducer, in brief illustrations (some minutes), perhaps after grade 6 – as long as the teacher discusses right afterwards what was watched, repeat the video, discuss it again, etc.
Perhaps it is interesting to mention here another perfect marriage with TV. As Jerry Mander called the attention in his book, never has so much been spent in advertising as after the appearance of TV. In 1999, there was a total spending of 11 billion dollars for advertising in Brazil. Half of it went to TV. It is here that great companies invest more in advertising, in the well succeeded attempt of forcing people to buy their brand, what is not needed or what is more expensive. If advertising on TV didn't have good success, would anybody think those big companies would spend hundreds of million of dollars in that activity? This success is exactly due to the viewers being usually in a semi-hypnotic state, recording the whole advertising in their subconscious. Later, in a supermarket, which is exactly organized so that everybody may see and touch every product, the buyer often grabs something, without noticing that it was precisely what had been recorded in her subconscious. There we have TV’s real effect: it is not of informing or of educating, but of conditioning.
Inactive actions – will – and damped thinking: just feelings remain. Yes, those are activated, and how! They are the only weapons that TV stations have in order to attract the viewer's attention. Worse, the only weapon that may avoid him passing from the state of sleepiness to deep sleep, which would be a disaster in terms of audiences. As B.S.Centerwall wrote ('Television and Violence – the Scale of the Problem and Where to Go From Here', Journal of the American Medical Association, June 10, 1992, 267:22, pp. 3059-3063), "Cable aside, the television industry is not in the business of selling programs to audiences. It is in the business of selling audiences to advertisers." Non-commercial TV stations end up falling into the same pattern of attracting viewers, because if they would have no audience they would lose the justification for their existence and their employees would be dismissed. Therefore, if feelings are what is activated, let’s transmit to them! Now it may be understood why I stated before that in general soap operas just transmit the actors' faces: to well transmit their feelings, their facial expression should be clearly seen. If their whole body were transmitted their faces would appear very small, and the coarseness of the image would make them lose that expression. Soap operas have the purpose of catching the viewer's attention exactly through TV’s excellence, the feelings, in this case stemming from the portrayal of personal conflicts or ridicule situations. Therefore one cannot stop transmitting the emotions faked by actors, expressed mainly through their words, voice intonation, and faces. On radio only the first two are present – the hearer has at least to figure out every character, thus exercising her imagination,.
Another way to catch the viewer's attention is through excess of sounds, of movements and of colors. Neil Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death - Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1985; I consider it his masterpiece) that TV had transformed everything into a show: education, politics, religion, etc. In educational terms, see for instance the example of the series 'Beeckman's World', where very interesting and simple experiments of Physics were transmitted in a festival of grimaces, shouting, with a man wearing a costume of a big mouse, throwing pies, etc. That is, excellent demonstrations had to be adapted to the show language. This is precisely characterized by excess of movements, exaggerated and exciting sounds, and flashy colors. It is one additional way of reaching the viewer's feelings and preventing her from getting asleep. Observe how the transmission of a concert of classical music is transformed into a show: the camera doesn't stop, focusing some times the maestro's baton, other times the movements of a violinist's bow, the audience, etc. – instead of simply transmitting the sound, which is what matters. In relation to sounds, notice how many speakers don’t talk, they scream: they are aware that, ideally, nothing can be calm on TV, and with their shouting they contribute to maintain the viewer's attention, preventing her from passing form the state of sleepiness to deep sleep.
Part of the tricks used by image directors to avoid the viewer's drowsiness is to make the image change constantly. Jerry Mander, in the aforementioned book, tells in 1978 that in the USA the images were changed on the average 8 to 10 times per minute in commercial programs. For this they employ, besides total changes of image, changes of background (that’s what happens when a speaker turns, without apparent reason, changing the camera), zoom effects, etc. On Sunday, Jan 9, 2000 at 11:40 a.m. I made a counting of 10 minutes of an auditorium program of the big SBT Brazilian station and obtained an average of 11,3 image changes per minute. Soon thereafter, on the biggest Brazilian TV station, ‘Globo’, during an interval for commercials I counted an average of 16,3 (!) changes per minute. The final exaggerations on the attempt of waking up the viewer are 'video-clips', true 'hystery shows'.
Emphasizing: if a program transmits something delicate, subtle, calm, it will be taken as being extremely boring; the viewer will feel a lot of sleep, and will change the channel. The impossibility of transmitting that kind of subject results from the characteristics of the apparatus itself, and the consciousness state that it induces on the viewer, and not from the particular program being transmitted.
Let us now join the coarseness of the image to the shouting sounds and to the excess of movements. The result is… violence! Violence is what TV transmits better! (This was already pointed out by Jerry Mander in the mentioned book.) Observe how highly violent sports such as American Football, or those full of movement such as Basketball are appreciated. And observe as tennis games are boring on TV, in spite of cameramen and image directors efforts. I believe that the great attraction of transmission of car races such as Formula 1 is the expectation of a big accident – the more serious, the better. The ideal is when cars smash, parts and tires fly high; an explosion is the maximum that viewers want to appreciate. Notice what happens after one of those accidents. The station starts to repeat consecutively the images of the accident – after all, it is on this occasion that TV reaches the maximum of the adaptation of the subject being transmitted to the characteristics of the apparatus and to the viewer's state of consciousness. On the contrary, imagine how boring it would be to watch on TV a chess or Go game!
Is it possible that TV stations will change by themselves the contents and form of their programs? Unfortunately, not. Centerwall stated in the aforementioned paper that, as TV stations are in the business of selling viewers to advertisers, they will never control their programs if these attract audience. I believe that the only way of changing their programs would be a viewers’ boycott. Unfortunately the possibility of making the masses conscious, when they are stupefied exactly for watching TV instead of doing something that develops the capacity of thinking, consciousness, sensitivity and action, is practically null. I need to emphasize that, even if stations change their programming to contain less violence, TV would continue being highly harmful, mainly for children, because it chokes consciousness and thinking, distorts feelings and annihilates the will. Last year (1999) a student wrote me that, after hearing my arguments and being convinced of TV’s bad effects, he arrived at home and tried not to switch the TV set on, but he didn’t succeed! In this sense, the title of Marie Winn's mentioned book, comparing TV to a drug which causes dependence is absolutely appropriate.
What is the problem with watching violence or other inconvenient images and sounds on TV? Besides the effects on consciousness, thinking, etc., the problem is that humans record, mostly in their subconscious, everything that they experience. For example, if a person meets an acquaintance and doesn’t consciously notice the color of the latter’s shoes, he won't remember them. But if, in the following day, he is hypnotized, he will perfectly remember that color. (By the way, to me the effect of recording everything we experience with our senses is an indication that humans have an infinite memory, and therefore they are not machines.) Thus, all the millions of watched violent images are also recorded forever, in their almost totality in the subconscious. In a situation of stress, of emergency or of unconscious action, they may influence the attitude, actions, thinking and feelings. This is the reason why advertising on TV works better than on any other medium. When seeing boxes of different powdered soaps in the supermarket, everyone of the same size, perhaps of the same price, practically having the same contents (what changes is perhaps the scent of added perfume) which one will the buyer choose? Unintentionally, that brand that was recorded in his subconscious. In the same way, in a special situation, mainly of unconsciousness (due to tension, drugs, emergency, etc.) a person can act or react following the violent acts that he watched on TV or on movies. (There are small differences between movies and TV, but I am not going to expand on this aspect.) Perhaps this explains the recent tragic event in São Paulo, of a young senior medicine student, who shot spectators in a theater, exactly during a film with a gun similar to that used in the violent film – which he had previously watched. Perhaps this way it is possible to understand why young people shoot their school mates, for seemingly futile reasons. (After having written this paper I read John Naisbitt’s High Tech, High Touch, London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 1999. In its impressive chapter "The Military-Nintendo Complex" he demonstrates that some of those shootings were mainly due to the use of violent video games by the young perpetrators. I think the main difference between TV and video games is that the former makes the user just record in his subconscious images and words watched and heard. On the other hand, with video games the user is training violent actions, so besides recording images and sound, there is a recording of his own actions. This recording is also done in the subconscious, because in typical violent video games there is no time to be spent on conscious thinking, which is relatively slow and has to be switched off by the user - otherwise he loses game points.)
A long time ago, results of researches have shown that children, soon after watching violent programs, react more aggressively than others who didn't watch them. R.M.Liebert et alli, in The Early Window - Effects of Television on Children and Youth (New York: Pergamon, 1982) published a survey of researches on effects of violence on TV. The almost totality of the results show the short-range effect of violence on TV. But it was the already mentioned Centerwall that showed for the first time, statististically, that there was a high correlation between the increase in the number of TV sets installed in countries or areas that didn't have TV, and the increase, about 15 years later, of the number of homicides. This was the first scientific demonstration of long term effects of violence on TV. Maybe it takes about 15 years after watching violent programs on TV, for children to reach an age in which they may have the access and enough energy to use weapons that kill. Maybe it takes 15 years of accumulation of violent images or of their work on the subconscious for reaching the point of influencing people's behavior. The situation is more dangerous with youths – a 20-year old has on the average already watched at least 20.000 hours of TV, 20.000 hours of garbage engraved in the subconscious! Young people have not yet developed their moral conscience to the point of controlling their actions as adults should be capable of doing. Animals are not self-conscious, that is, they don't reflect before taking some action. They are simply driven by their instincts or by conditioning. Only the human being, this non-animal, is able to think about the consequences of his/her acts before doing them, using for that his/her moral, which animals obviously don't possess. But for that s/he has to be in full conscience and, if acting unconsciously, be dominated by good instincts, acquired with an education for the good and social action – an antithesis to what is shown in violent programs. Thus, it can be said that the TV 'animalizes' the human being.
What should be done? To begin with, one should study, observe and reflect on what TV is and the consciousness state that it imposes on the viewers. If one arrives to conclusions similar to mine, the simplest action is not to have TV. If there is a TV set at home, mainly if it is of easy access, there will be a constant fight for not switching it on or turning it off. This fight is condemned to failure if there are children at home, because they cannot understand the evil that TV does. That’s why we didn't have TV at home until our youngest daughter became an adult. As we didn’t have it, it was not part of the home environment, and the children didn't feel its absence: they were accustomed to improvise new plays, to read a lot, to play musical instruments, have an intense family life, etc. Marie Winn, in the mentioned book, tells the case of a newspaper in Denver, Colorado, which summoned families to turn off the TV for 1 month. 100 registered, and 25 pursued the experiment up to the end. All of them told later that the beginning was very difficult, but at the end of the period everybody involved was enthusiastic, having developed or found several useful activities to do. However – observe the extraordinary power of this apparatus – all those 25 ended up going back to the TV after having finished the experience! If there is a very special reason for having a TV at home, it should be stored in a place of difficult access, perhaps shut up in a closet. It should be removed only when somebody consciously decides to watch a certain program, although I doubt that there is any real need for watching anything on TV. (My wife and I simply don’t watch it, in spite of still having one at home, and we don't feel any urge for watching it – that is, we don’t have to exercise any self-control.) After having watched the chosen program, the TV set should be placed again in the locked place. The TV set should not be part of the home, because it destroys the family life or, if the person lives alone, it doesn't allow her to have an inner life of calm and reflection.
Some parents may criticize me saying that I am being somewhat radical. No, this is not true: I am being totally radical, but this is the attitude that one should take in education in relation to something that is recognized as being bad for children and young people. Parents are not considered radical if they don’t allow their small children to drive a car (yes, there some aberrations in that area), to take alcohol or drugs, or to play with real weapons (in fact, can anybody find some good reason for children to play with toy weapons, to play killing others)? It is the parents' obligation to guide their children, to orient them and not to give them total freedom, thinking that if they don't do it they will create traumas, a reasoning typical of modern 'psychologism.' Children and young people know unconsciously that they don't have enough life experience and need to be guided. The first thing to do is eliminating from the home that which is harmful from an educational point of view. I hope I have made it clear that TV is harmful, independently of the program being transmitted and much worse in the case of violent programs – perhaps the great majority of them. A part of this majority, generally directed to children, are cartoons, this caricatured aberration of the world, perhaps suited to an adult when they transmit social criticisms – origin of the newspaper cartoons. But never suited for children who should receive a real image of the world, which they should respect, and not a caricature at which one can only laugh. Recall that everything viewed by children on TV is kept in their subconscious memory – and much deeper than with adults, because the latter have a developed consciousness which isolate them somewhat from their environment.
TV, and in particular its violent programs, make children stop being childish, as Neil Postman called the attention in The Disappearance of Childhood (New York: Vintage Books, 1994). This may have tremendous deleterious effects later in life.
Unfortunately, it is almost impossible, due to the nature of the apparatus, to break the perfect marriage between TV and violence. We are the ones that should change, becoming aware of the damages caused by TV, and disconnect ourselves from it. Any small benefit that it may bring is by far much smaller than the enormous damages that it causes, in particular to our children and young people. Unfortunately the latter cannot react by themselves – we adults should take the only possible attitude: preventing their access to that truly diabolical apparatus. Have courage and initiative of trying and you will see fantastic positive results in your children and in yourself!