Television, images and thinking

What is wrong with television? It is not primarily that it shortens attention spans, though it certainly does that. Nor is it chiefly that television glorifies violence and hypes immorality, though it does that too. The chief problem with television is that, for those who watch it consistently, it undermines and eventually destroys the ability to think. This is because it communicates primarily by images, not by words, and words are necessary if we are to perceive logical connections and make judgments as to what is right and what is wrong. An image cannot be true or false. Images just are. Although images can tell a story or establish a mood, they cannot make an argument.

Kenneth A. Myers, founder and editor of the Mars Hill Audio Tapes, has written a book titled All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes in which he demonstrates the limits and failures of television by showing how the medium is unable to communicate even the simplest propositional sentences. He suggests these seven sentences as a test:

1. The cat is on the mat.
2. The cat is not on the mat.
3. The cat was on the mat.
4. The cat likes to be on the mat.
5. The cat should not be on the mat.
6. Get off the mat, cat!
7. If the cat doesn’t get off the mat, I shall kick it.

There is nothing complex about these sentences. They progress from…

1. a plain factual statement, to
2. a parallel negative statement,
3. a statement about the past,
4. a statement of desire,
5. a statement of right verses wrong,
6. an imperative,
7. and a final statement projecting a future hypothetical condition.

We use statements such as these all the time. But as Myers points out, only the first could be presented visually, and even then with uncertainty. We might show a picture of a cat on a mat, but depending on how interesting the cat was, we might react to the cat alone and not notice the mat or the fact that the cat is “on” it at all. Indeed, as Myers says, even the simple verb “is” would probably be missing in any description we might give. We would not tend to say that the cat “is” anything.

And it gets harder after that. How would you “image” the negative statement (statement 2)? Would a cat next to a mat do it? Or a picture of a cat on a mat followed by a picture of a cat next to a mat? We might react to pictures like those by saying, “The cat moved off the mat”, since images, especially in television or in movies, suggest motion. But the simple negative- “the cat is not on the mat”- would probably escape us.

It is even more impossible to convey desire (”the cat likes to be on the mat”) or a condition that should not be (”the cat should not be on the mat”) or an imperative (”get off the mat, cat!”) or a future hypothetical condition (”if the cat doesn’t get off the mat, I shall kick it”). Myers says, “Television discourages reflection, tells us what we already know, relies on instant accessibility, reminds us of something else, and reflects the desires of the self.” But it does not develop great minds. Instead it is forming people who are incapable of any meaningful thought about anything, especially the claims of Christianity…

When we read something that requires us to think, there is distance between ourselves and the printed page. We are not necessarily swept along by the words. We can analyze, ponder, weigh, compare, contrast, and disagree. We can reread a paragraph if we do not understand the argument. We may look up vocabulary we do not know. We may challenge the conclusions. Because there is a distance between ourselves and the written words, we do not cheer a well-written sentence or applaud a powerful paragraph, though we may appreciate how well the work is done. Written words promote thinking. Moreover, the better people read and the more they read, the better and longer they can think…

What does television give us? It gives us entertainment, amusement, or diversion. We should remember that “amuse” is composed of two words: “a”, meaning “not” (the negative), and “muse”, meaning “to think.” In other words, television is not only mindless; it is teaching us to be mindless too.

James Mongomery Boice, Whatever happened to the Gospel of Grace?, p 52-54.