— Professor Neil Postman
If there are two spectacles that are almost guaranteed to render Americans passive viewers, incapable of doing little more than cheering on their respective teams, it’s football and politics—specifically, the Super Bowl and the quadrennial presidential election.
Both football and politics encourage zealous devotion among their followers, both create manufactured divisions that alienate one group of devotees from another, and both result in a strange sort of tunnel vision that leaves the viewer oblivious to anything else going on around them apart from the “big game.”
Both football and politics are televised, big-money, advertising-driven exercises in how to cultivate a nation of armchair enthusiasts who are content to sit, watch and be entertained, all the while convincing themselves that they are active contributors to the outcome. Even the season schedules are similar in football and politics: the weekly playoffs, the blow-by-blow recaps, the betting pools and speculation, the conferences, and then the final big championship game.
In the same way, both championship events are costly entertainment extravaganzas that feed the nation’s appetite for competition, consumerism and carnivalesque stunts.
Don’t get me wrong.
I’m not suggesting that there is anything wrong with enjoying the entertainment that is football or politics. However, where we go wrong as a society is when we become armchair quarterbacks, so completely immersed in the Big Game or the Big Campaign that we are easily controlled by the powers-that-be—the megacorporations who run both shows—and oblivious to what is really going on around us.
For instance, while mainstream America has been fixated on the contenders for the Vince Lombardi Trophy and the White House, the militarized, warring surveillance state has been moving steadily forward. Armed drones, increased government surveillance and spying, SWAT team raids, police shootings of unarmed citizens, and the like continue to plague the country. None of these dangers have dissipated. They have merely disappeared from our televised news streams.
In this way, television is a “dream come true” for an authoritarian society.
As clinical psychologist Bruce Levine notes, viewing television puts one in a brain state that makes it difficult to think critically, and it quiets and subdues a population. And spending one’s free time isolated and watching TV interferes with our ability to translate our outrage over governmental injustice into activism, and thus makes it easier to accept an authority’s version of society and life.
Not surprisingly, the United States is one of the highest TV-viewing nations in the world.
Indeed, a Nielsen study reports that American screen viewing is at an all-time high. For example, the average American watches approximately 151 hours of television per month. That does not include the larger demographic of screen-watchers who watch their entertainment via their laptops, personal computers, cell phones, tablets and so on.
Historically, television has been used by those in authority to quiet citizen unrest and pacify disruptive people. In fact, television-viewing has also been a proven tactic for ensuring compliance in prisons. In other words, television and other screen viewing not only helps to subdue people but, as Levine concludes, it also zombifies and pacifies us and subverts democracy.
Television viewing, no matter what we’re collectively watching—whether it’s American Idol, the presidential debates or the Super Bowl—is a group activity that immobilizes us and mesmerizes us with collective programming. In fact, research also shows that regardless of the programming, viewers’ brain waves slow down, thus transforming them into a more passive, nonresistant state.
As such, television watching today results in passive group compliance in much the same way that marching was used by past regimes to create group indoctrination. Political advisor Bertram Gross documents how Adolf Hitler employed marching as a technique to mobilize people in groups by immobilizing them. Hitler and his regime leaders discovered that when people gather in groups and do the same thing—such as marching or cheering at an entertainment or sporting event—they became passive, non-thinking non-individuals.
By replacing “marching” with electronic screen devices, we have the equivalent of Hitler’s method of population control. Gross writes:
As a technique of immobilizing people, marching requires organization and, apart from the outlay costs involved, organized groups are a potential danger. They might march to a different drum or in the wrong direction….TV is more effective. It captures many more people than would ever fill the streets by marching—and without interfering with automobile traffic.
Equally disturbing is a university study which indicates that we become less aware of our individual selves and moral identity in a group. The study’s findings strongly suggest that when we act in groups, we tend to consider our moral behavior less while moving in lockstep with the group. Thus, what the group believes or does, be it violence or inhumanity, does not seem to lessen the need to be a part of a group, whether it be a mob or political gathering.
So what does this have to do with the Super Bowl and the upcoming presidential election?
If fear-based TV programming—or programming that encourages rivalries and factions—makes people more afraid and distrustful of one another, then our current television lineup is exactly what is needed by an authoritarian society that depends on a “divide and conquer” strategy.
Moreover, according to Levine, authoritarian-based programming is more technically interesting to viewers than democracy-based programming. What this means is that Super Bowl matches and presidential contests are merely more palatable, less bloody, manifestations of war suitable for television viewing audiences.
This also explains why television has become the medium of choice for charismatic politicians with a strong screen presence. They are essentially television performers—actors, if you will. Indeed, any successful candidate for political office—especially the President—must come off well on TV. Television has the lure of involvement. The effective president, then, is essentially a television performer.
If what we see and what we are told through the entertainment industrial complex—which includes so-called “news” shows—is what those in power deem to be in their best interests, then endless screen viewing is not a great thing for a citizenry who believe they possess choice and freedom.
Unfortunately for us, the direction of the future, then, may be towards a Brave New World scenario where the populace is constantly distracted by entertainment, hooked on prescription drugs and controlled by a technological elite.
If we’re watching, we’re not doing.