Entertaining Ourselves to Death

By | April 2, 2015 | 0 Comments

Electronic entertainments are fun. Often they excite the emotions rather than stimulate the intellect. Video games, TV, and movies try to attract and hold our attention in order to get more viewers and make more money. That is as it should be. Dramas are meant to be…well, dramatic.
Real life, on the other hand, is often boring. In fact, when life becomes exciting, it is often frightening and dangerous. Terrorist attacks, sudden illnesses, stock-market crashes, and car-jackings are thrills we can easily do without. We prefer daily life to be a bit dull, and then we spice it up with exciting entertainments.
The problem is that we are spending so much time with contrived entertainments that we tend to become addicted to exciting electronic images. Worse, we become addicted to excitement itself, and we have difficulty distinguishing artificial images from reality.
When I was a kid, I looked out the car window when my family went for a drive. The view of small towns and farms wasn’t exciting. But there was nothing else to do, so I got used to not being excited all the time. I learned about the lives of ordinary people.
I learned to see the farmer in bib overalls working on his old truck as an interesting and valuable citizen. I learned not to be an elitist. So when I went to college, I didn’t see myself as better, just better educated. I knew that I was learning facts, but not acquiring wisdom. I knew that wisdom comes from religion and life experience. I knew that my uncles, who never finished high school, were wiser than many of my professors.
Unlike President Obama, I didn’t presume that I was entitled to decide for everyone what was best for them. My upbringing didn’t allow me to become that arrogant and egotistical. I didn’t develop into a self-righteous narcissist. When I got my diploma, I knew I was attending a graduation, not a coronation.
If nothing was happening when I was a kid, I read, played – or whistled. When did you last hear anyone whistle? But instead of learning to reproduce tunes they hear, now kids listen passively to earphones.
Today’s kids are glued to their video games and smart phones. If they’re not playing games, they’re texting. They rarely look out the window. And when they walk across the street, they often don’t look up for oncoming cars. They spend less time in the real world, and more time in a fantasy world − one fabricated by people who want to sell something, whether it is a new gizmo, a new snack food, or a new candidate.
Rather than judging alternatives on a rational basis, we now tend to choose the most visually exciting ones − which are often not the best ones. The more time we spend immersed in exciting electronic amusements, the more we try to make life resemble them. Consider:
● We thrill to high-speed chases and SWAT-team shootouts in movies, video games, and − worse yet − on TV news. We overlook the long hours of routine police work that solve cases without such dramatic and dangerous conclusions. As a result, we encourage more high-speed chases and no-knock raids, and we hasten the decay of police into paramilitary units.
● We idolize the flashy surgeon who rushes to the hospital and saves us from some late-night emergency. We overlook the quiet internist whose careful exam discovers the problem before it becomes an emergency. As a result, insurers reward dramatic interventions with higher fees, and thus make them more common − and thoughtful analysis less common. This contributes to the escalation of health-care costs.
● We eagerly await the latest iPhone, iPad, iPod, iWatch, or whatever, not to mention all the “apps” that may (or may not) function with them. We buy the largest flat-screen TV we can (or can’t) afford. We overlook the skilled technicians who repair both new and old devices and keep them running. As a result, we discourage people from entering this vital field.
● We value stealth bombers and advanced radars that make our military second to none. We overlook those who patrol in the hot sun or cold rain in faraway places to keep us safe at home. We make movies depicting our troops as unstable losers. As a result, we discourage enlistment in the armed services. And without enough dedicated personnel, all the high-tech equipment in the world won’t save us.
● We allow kids to watch sexually provocative performances such as MTV. As a result, seventh-graders do “freak dancing,” “pole dancing, and “twerking”” at school dances, while we pretend that premature sexualization of children isn’t a form of abuse.
● We applaud the actor whose florid style steals the scene. We overlook the real expert whose acting doesn’t seem like acting. As a result, we encourage overacting.
● We cheer loudly for the showy outfielder whose diving catch barely snags the ball. We applaud quietly for the more skillful player, who always seems to be standing under the ball. As a result, we encourage “showboating” and discourage professionalism.
● We admire the pretentious politician who grabs the microphone to declare that the crisis has ended. We overlook the patient statesman whose behind-the-scenes work averts a crisis in the first place. As a result, we encourage politicians to be even more flamboyant and self-serving than they are already − which isn’t easy.
● We are stimulated by the grandiose demagogue whose wild promises mesmerize us. We yawn at the workmanlike public servant who gets things done without hogging the spotlight. As a result, we discourage sincere people from entering politics.
Baseball fans used to be thrilled by a home run; now fireworks must be added. Professional wrestling used to entertain with weird antics; now sound-and-light shows are required. A characteristic of addiction is tolerance − increasing doses are needed to produce the same effect. But what happens when flashy special effects and increasing violence no longer thrill movie or sports fans? Will gladiatorial combats be reinstated?
Another characteristic of addiction is withdrawal. If you doubt this, watch what happens when a person, especially a young person, is deprived of a cell phone, a computer, a TV, and video games for even one day.
Much has been said about how violent video games, TV, and movies induce violent behavior. This may or may not be true, but fortunately only a small number of people become violent. More common effects are shortening of the attention span and habituation to five-second sound bites and brief, eye-catching snippets of video. But the worst effect of electronic entertainments may be an addiction to excitement itself.
A large number of people addicted to excitement may be more dangerous for society than a small number addicted to violence. If we are clever and lucky, we may be able to control a violent few. But who will restrain a majority habituated to quick, thoughtless action?

Even a cursory look at the 20th century reveals that crowd-electrifying, egomaniacal leaders killed many more innocent people than all the boring, ordinary criminals combined. Going back further in history, we come to the Roman emperors, who seized all power for themselves while diverting the masses with violent, vulgar shows in the Coliseum.
Video games, TV, and movies are amusing and can be educational. But an overdose of exciting entertainment inures us to grossness and violence, makes us unused to interacting with people, and − worst of all − makes us expect life to imitate art. As a result, we become bored with real life – and try to make it more exciting. Often this leads to destructive actions:
● If we become bored with our marriage, we have affairs and destroy it.
● If we become bored with our job, we find an excuse to quit, or cause trouble and get fired.
● If we become bored with our life, we drink to excess, take drugs, drive dangerously, or resort to criminal behavior.
● If we become bored with our homeland, we elect a politician who promises to “fundamentally transform” it. Into what? He didn’t say.
Real life isn’t a video game. If we expect it to be, we encourage non-human behavior and mindless violence. Real life isn’t a TV show. If we expect it to be, we are likely to act like hormone-drenched teenagers, not responsible adults. Real life isn’t a movie. If we expect it to be, we are likely to wind up not with a comedy or a drama, but with a tragic farce.
The more time we spend on exciting entertainments, the less time we have to notice what those in power are doing to our freedoms. If we’re not careful, we may succeed in entertaining our civilization to death. But we won’t die laughing.

Contact: dstol@prodigy.net. You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.
www.stolinsky.com

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