George Walford: Did You See?

Entertainment has played a big part in life for as far back as knowledge reaches. Although now mostly professional it still opens a never-never land of fantasy and imagination, offering more drama, and more fun, than daily experience provides. The onset of rationalism has done nothing to restrain it; rather the contrary. Science and techology have been pressed into the service of funny-face stand-up and fall-down comics, and material intended to encourage the discharge of emotions has taken over much of the social space nominally occupied by straightforward facts. Most of the ‘news’ on the screens and in the newspapers serves the function of entertainment rather than of coldly objective information. It wins its place less by virtue of having happened, or by the magnitude of the effects it is likely to have on our lives, than by its ability to distract us from our everyday cares. Even when the camera shows actual events they have been selected and edited with this purpose in view, one abused child receiving more publicity than a hundred victims of ordinary road-accidents.

Point this out, and you commonly get a cynical response: What else can you expect? They do it to stop people realising how miserable their lives are. But we have already shown [1] that the contents of the media are governed less by the preferences or interests of the producers than by those of the audience, and these are seeking, for the most part, reassurance rather than information. Hollywood knew it long ago: to get the public to turn up you have to give them what they want.

Reviewing the Oxford Companion to the Politics of the World, Everett C. Ladd notes that people in the advanced democracies find the life they directly experience or observe more satisfactory than that reported to them. They believe crime to be less of a problem, schools more successful and business more flourishing, where they live than in the nation generally. Linking this with the tendency (he says, the increasing tendency) for television, the main source of knowledge about other areas, to focus on stories of decline, distress, failure, crime and disaster, Everett comments that such a selection is bound to make people unhappy. [2]

That last sentence seems better calculated to raise our opinion of the speaker’s highmindedness than to draw attention to a facet of reality; people tend to suffer the misfortunes of others with remarkable equanimity. One survivor of the Clapham disaster (more outspoken than the others?) reported herself neither miserable nor ridden with guilt; just happy to be alive when others had died. Most of the books that people read for pleasure tell of crime, disaster, suffering and struggles against them. Comedies rely mostly on misadventures to raise their laughs, and a common German word, ‘schadenfreude,’ names the tendency to gloat over other people’s troubles. The idea that the numbers who make up the audience for television news all persist in watching, night after night and year after year, events that make them unhappy, lacks plausibility. Rather do we derive comfort from the knowledge that whatever troubles we may have this, at least, has not happened to us.

In matters of life or death and success or failure, self-interest comes as the primary impulse, concern for our fellow-humans as something we have to learn. Those who advance to the ideology of domination move beyond the primal focus of interest upon self and near kin, acquiring an awareness of themselves as members of a community that brings social awareness, even the Golden Rule. The original tendency persists underneath this imposition, and when seeking entertainment we relax, allowing ourselves to regress towards the primary satisfactions.

[1] Why it Sells, IC62
[2] TLS December 10.

from Ideological Commentary 64, June 1994.