Monday, June 12, 2006

How to Consume Media

Today Mike Nichols had an interesting column in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Although he included some mandatory equivocation, his thesis was ultimately more dogmatic than the type of whimsical meanderings I'm used to from non-political newspaper columns (on a side note, it is fascinating to me how newspaper columns dealing with a specific political issue tend to be dogmatic while those dealing with more hazy abstractions often straddle the metaphorical fence). It also reeked of what I call the "nowadays fallacy," which is the belief that morals or values have been corrupted over time and "nowadays things ain't what they used to be". (Even Plato complained about kids "nowadays" not having the same moral fortitude as their elders).

That said, I re-iterate that it was an interesting and insightful column. He gave his take on the Holy Hill vandalism, which you know all about if you are in southern Wisconsin and if not can learn about through google. He ultimately made the conclusion that the vandals are in many respects the product of a junk culture, the same junk culture that would produce a movie like "The Omen" rather than create more religious shrines.

At its core, of course, this is a return to the on-going debate about how influential the media, specifically the entertainment media, influences impressionable youngsters. I've yet to meet anyone who has explicity stated that they participate in a specific behavior (e.g. smoking) because they saw the behavior repeatedly perpetuated on a pixellated screen. I've long been a skeptic about the supposed power of the media.

On the other hand, Chuck Klosterman argues compellingly that if the media had no influence, billions of dollars in advertising wouldn't be spent. I also recently ran across a quote from Romantic poet William Blake that we "become what we behold." Like many of Blake's aphorisms, this one is hard to argue with. And though they are an aberration, there have clearly been a number of copycat incidents involving dangerous and idiotic behaviors portrayed in movies and television (though off hand I can't think of any involving books).

So how can we protect our children from falling prey to evil? Is it simply a matter of not allowing them to behold evil? Heck, why stop with kids? Should we institute legislation to stop anyone from beholding evil? To invoke Plato again, he argued that art should be banned from the ideal republic in part because it encouraged immorality.

I have a better solution. We should all be critical consumers of media. By that I mean that people should do more than evaluate whether messages are good or bad-- kindergartners can do that. I propose that we all move beyond that and try to consider the "why?" behind portrayals in media-- why are men and women portrayed a certain way? Why are people of different races or cultures portrayed a certain way? What does a movie or show say about power, about class, about human motivations? What archetypes resonate with our culture and why?

Of course, you may argue that such an approach defeats the purpose of entertainment and removes us from the escapism it is intended for. I argue in response that we can have our cake and eat it to. Yesterday I had the joy of watching a Lifetime movie ("Engaged to Kill"). Anyone who says they don't like Lifetime movies have either never seen them or are lying. Of course, most people also recognize them as relatively valueless trash. I certainly enjoyed "Engaged to Kill" as the valueless trash it was, but after watching the movie I ruminated on the message that it sent about class. There was an interesting reverse-Horation Alger aspect of the story, with a rich family momentarily losing everything before regaining it in the end. I tink the film reflected the lack of control that many people in a capitalist system have about their assets, and also captured some of the guilt that comes with being a "have" in a world of have-nots (a doctor was portrayed as failing to save a dying criminal). Rather than destroy my enjoyment of the movie, I think my critical evaluation added to the overall experience.

I also think if more people would find entertainment in critically evaluating media they would be less likely to seek out destructive forms of entertainment, such as violating religious shrines.


Blogger kevin said...

i think you hit the nail on the head when you say that people dont usually critically evaluate their entertainment to evoid erroding the escapism of it. i agree that more people should do it though. i do it myself. thats why it usually takes me longer to like a lot of the popular songs. i evaluate the lyrics to see if it is something that i can get behind, but eventually i cave and convince myself that it sounds good and i should enjoy the sound instead of the message.

12:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i like pie

11:37 AM  
Blogger kevin said...

yeah, pecan. mmmmmm piiieeee.

8:47 AM  

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