Amuse Yourself to Death

“But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”¹  -Neil Postman, 1984.

If you’re reading this, you were probably drawn by a title that interested you, or, ironically, amused you. Unfortunately, I am not writing to amuse but to inform. I am not a blogger; I am a thinker [who has a blog]. And the rest of what I have to say is, by its counter-cultural nature, offensive.

If you are offended, take notice: you are probably at fault.

I am a young adult, born at the end of the 80’s. I am quite aware of my generation and my culture, but somehow, thankfully, I have grown up somewhat disconnected from it. I am no genius, and I do not claim to be any more of an intellectual than the people I am writing about. I guess I just got caught up in a different realm while the majority of my age-group was getting swept off their feet by Apple. You could say now, that when I go to hang out with people, I feel like I’m the only one there without a significant other.

To give you an idea of my cultural disconnection, the last television series I even considered watching was re-runs of Boy Meets World. I’m familiar with maybe two commercials currently running. I couldn’t put actors’/actresses’ names with faces, or vice-versa, if my life depended on it. I hardly listen to the radio – except for NPR after 8 o’clock. In essence, I don’t click with my culture. And though culture is made up of a lot more than just media, I would argue that, because of its prevalence, current American culture is rooted in its media, and from it stems the manifestations of collective American intelligence. Hang with me.

I have noticed that the majority of group conversations no longer involve serious topics, but rather are dulled down to a trade of entertainment: one funny YouTube video for a new television series, a piece of celebrity gossip for a new song, etc.. Speaking of YouTube, I caught a glimpse of one of its semi-recent celebrities, who is a girl beating a cup on the table while singing popular songs that she has not written nor composed the music to. No offense to her personally, but are we really considering that talent?

“Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”²

Furthermore, what I have noticed is not just that my culture is consumed by entertainment, but that they are so engrossed by it that entertainment now dictates their life and their decisions. I watch people live and interact as if they’re in a comedy film. They push controversy aside for lighthearted jest and ignorant sarcasm. No longer will they make time for anything that does not amuse their short attention spans. When once sarcasm was used sparingly in order to impact another’s opinion, now sarcasm is reduced to nothing but a thoughtless style of mainstream speech without any agenda but to amuse ourselves and our hearer. Our culture fancies pop and techno. They crave music that creates for them an emotional experience rather than a learning one. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven are names they quickly bypass for fear they may have to be bored by them. Instead of televising a PhD to teach us about current issues, they look to celebrities and expect that their fame is grounds enough to validate their opinion. They ask talented vocalists for spiritual and political direction. They go to talk-show hosts to ask their life-questions.

“Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore — and this is the critical point — how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged. It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails.”³

A couple of months ago, I was sitting in a home where the television was not turned off for anything, as if it were necessary for comfort, like HVAC. Then that time of evening came, as I expect it does for most Americans, when everyone slowly quieted and turned towards the television to let their minds shut down. As I watched the program with them, I was asked why I was not laughing. Honestly, I had not taken the time to consider what I am writing now. I just was not laughing because there was nothing legitimately funny to laugh at, and I did not understand why they were laughing.

“For in the end, he was trying to tell us what afflicted the people in ‘Brave New World’ was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.”⁴

These days, if a person is not going to have fun at something, then it is not relevant to them. Or, if it is something they have to do, then they expect it to be made relevant. But since when does anything have to be relevant to every person in order for it to be important? Americans cater to themselves entertainment at the cost of learning. A nation whose culture is reduced to a strict diet of entertainment is, in my opinion, a nation doomed. I was recently reminded that the Roman empire, the United States of their time, was destroyed because of a culture of low standards and hyperconsumerism.

“When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”⁵

I do not blame Hollywood or Las Vegas for our problem; they are just striving towards the goal of every man – more money. Rather, I blame each person who has not disciplined themselves to guard against their own slow fade into ignorance or those who have not at least acknowledged that they have already done so.

“In saying this, I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?”⁶

I don’t hope for American culture to ever change, because to do so would mean that I would be hoping for the collapse of our country – the only thing, I think, that would potentially effect a difference.


Footnotes:

¹ Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Viking, 1985. Print.
² Ibid.
³ Ibid.
⁴ Ibid.
⁵ Ibid.
⁶ Ibid.

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