Television as social index?

There is a cheesy pick up line about eyes being the window to the soul. I wonder what TV is for society. I know that a lot on this topic has been written already, but I would not even have a clue how to start searching for it. This post is just a chance for me to have a rant about something that is probably of too little interest to anybody else for me to be able to engage in a sustained conversation about the topic.

I remember hearing a comment about the villains in James Bond movies as an indication of current American security concerns (or obsessions). It is certainly my observation that shows emphasising natural justice over procedural justice seemed to multiply overnight at a very similar time that I was writing essays about the Bush Doctrine. Perhaps what we watch on television does not really matter. In a Paul Jennings short story (I cannot remember which collection it came from) there is a story about a mad father who uses his own daughter to prove that television is not educational. He brings her up with a back-to-front version of English but lets her watch television. The father believes that she does not realise she is speaking English incorrectly and that his experiment has proven that television is not educational. However, even if television is not educational a lot of money goes into making the decision of what to produce and so we can expect some connection between what is aired and what the television watching public accepts.

As you may have already heard, the other month I watched a lot of Law and Order SVU (like nearly all the episodes). They are up to their 11th season in the US of this program about detectives investigating ‘crimes of a sexual nature’. I did not take notes while watching the episodes, but the impression that watching them left with me is the difficulty that people have with moral ambiguity and how I want to forgive all faults when I feel I have some relationship with the person.

Moral ambiguity was most clearly evoked in crimes where the perpetrators were children who were not seeking revenge but are explained as being wired that way. In one episode one such child is shot outside the court room. You know that the shooting was wrong and not justice, but there is also a sense in which the shooter (who was the father of this child’s victim) can be seen as the one who made the ultimate sacrifice, he gave up his freedom not just for revenge but to remove the perpetrator before he has time to ruin more lives.

The significance of a relationship when it comes to deciding on the level of guilt is demonstrated both within the series and by my own reactions to the actions of the main characters. Overall I judge myself to be a cold and calculating audience member, I get angry when the hero, in a quest to right wrongs and preserve his or her own life, leaves behind a trail or entire cities of dead innocents. In SVU I found the unjust actions of the two lead detectives, Benson and Stabler, enraging at times. They lie, break from procedure and act on their own prejudices over the facts. However, through a combination of the lengths the show goes to in demonstrating that acting unjustly is not (always) justified by outcomes and the understanding your develop of the characters’ history and motivations, you never want them to be completely punished for their misdeeds.

My favourite SVU character is the always ethical Dr Warner. Yet there is the slight suggestion that she can be so ethical because she deals with the corpses not with the living victims. Life is messy and perhaps that is one of the appeals of zoning out in front of the television where ethical dilemmas can be dismissed as entertainment.

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3 Responses to “Television as social index?”

  1. C Dogg Phan Says:

    Oh my God, best blog ever! Mi scusi, hehee.. I think I might just read your blog all the time.

  2. Jason Says:

    This reminded me of an Enterprise episode where one of the main characters breaks the rules and teaches a member of an alien repressed minority to read and learn about equality. He was warned against doing it because it could threaten diplomatic relations. However, he was teaching someone something empowering so it had to be right! In the end the newly empowered individual decided the best way to make their point about being oppressed was to commit suicide.

    The episode concluded with a very awkward realization of how even following heartless rules might be more right than doing right. The alien race decided to stop diplomatic relations over the incident citing humans as being too arrogant and aggressive.

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