The January issue of Harper’s Magazine, which has been out several weeks, has just made it to the top of my magazine pile. The delightful Harper’s Index, which routinely shows about 40 factoids that reflect in various ways our current culture, is, for this issue nearly trebled in size. (Harper’s is worth the subscription for the Index alone, fwiw.)
In this Index, two statistics jumped out at me about the “number of incidents of torture on prime-time network TV shows”:
From 1995 to 2002: 110
From 2002 to 2007: 897
These are the Bush Doctrine formative years, with Donald Rumsfeld at the Department of Defense (01-06) (and Paul Wolfowitz as his Deputy (01-05)), and the rise of Extraordinary Rendition and Guantanamo detainees and U.S. use of torture and U.S. citizens willing to give up rights to perceive some semblance of safety.
Of course, then, US policy affects how we treat each other as human beings.
Not necessarily because people are imitating what they see on TV, but because people come to feel that violence is a permissible response, because people come to feel that they cannot and should not trust each other, because people come to feel that we are not all working for the collective good, but for the good of ‘our people’. But how does one define ‘our people’? US citizens? Republicans? Men? White people?
So then: does TV cause us to be violent, or is it part of that big cultural biofeedback loop where US policy affects cultural views which affect TV portrayals which affect cultural views which affect US policy?
We must be mindful of these forces when we teach civics and history, as well as how we talk about interpersonal relationships. Our politicians are certainly aware of how to harness these forces to change public perception as a fore-runner to changing policy. But it is dangerous to teach students that policy changes happen in a vacuum, just as it is dangerous to allow students to assume that just because they see it on TV, that is how people interact with each other. One of the most important things we can teach students is critical thinking and the ability to question information and form their own opinions, right along with being respectful of others and trying to be aware of what others’ experiences are.