In his work Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that the advent and ultimate rise of television gave birth to a new epistemology in Western discourse (he wrote this in the 1980s). This claim is more than simply “the medium is the message,” as we have often heard. It is deeper than that — rather than television simply being our new mode of communication and forming the kinds of things that we discuss, television (that is, the combination of images and sound that makes up what we know as television) forms the very basis of what we can know and how we know as a society. Television (and, it could be argued, later iterations of it, including the internet, social media, YouTube, music streaming, etc.), with its focus on fantastic images that stimulate the brain bends our societal discourse towards entertainment.
In such a society, where television and its iterations are entirely inseparable from social fabric, every other sphere of human discourse will ultimately be viewed and understood through the lens of entertainment. Our news, our politics, our religion, our economic choices — all of them will eventually be filtered through the lens of visual and audible stimulation. As various programs and content compete with each other for attention, those which are most visually stimulating will naturally shape what we know and how we know, because our brains are essentially lazy, and impulsively value stimulation over difficult mental labor.
The even bigger challenges now are that our modes of discourse have shrunk in meaning and quality in the last decade. A YouTube video that is longer than five minutes is probably not worth our time. A blog post over 500 words is difficult to follow. Twitter, with its (now) 280 character limit, seems to set our natural attention span.
I wondered about this last week during the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings. For ten hours, our nation sat and watched — first Dr. Fords testimony of her experience, and then Kavanaugh’s attempted rebuttal. But what did our comments about that hearing focus on? Kavanaugh’s angry, partisan responses when questioned heavily. Dr. Ford’s harrowing recounting of her experience that night. Lindsey Graham’s outrage at the alleged mistreatment of an upstanding civil servant. What was not clear was that this trial was truly about discovering the truth about what happened that night. Sure, that was the veneer of the hearing, the “why” this hearing was happening. Just under the surface, however, our desire for a partisan battle over the soul of our country roiled. The entire hearing came across like a courtroom scene in a movie — the anticipation of seeing Dr. Ford walk in the room, the emotional buildup to her story, the recesses and breaks that functioned like commercial breaks to build anticipation for the next scene, the righteously angry Judge Kavanaugh, the side-room deals being made between Flake and other senators, and on and on and on.
Television and its iterations have made such hearings nothing more than another form of entertainment, no different than ancient gladiatorial fights, wherein we can, without fear of recrimination, satisfy our thirst for blood and battle and the thrill of the fight. And after this week is over, and Kavanaugh is or isn’t confirmed as the next SCOTUS nominee, we’ll be itching for another.