Saturday, September 20, 2008

Death to television

Friday was a day when a figurative bucket of cold water was thrown over my occasionally overheated good intentions. I work for a charity, and part of my job entails home visits. Oh boy. Some of the homes I visited on Friday made me thoughtful. If ever anyone asks me for a definition of squalor, I think I can understand. Not that I mind you understand, it goes with the territory.

On the up side, most Canadians I have contact with are polite, unfailingly positive, and honest. Almost stereotypically so, but this is not a bad thing. For the most part I love the people over here, they give you hope in humanity. On the down side of the equation there are a few who, for one reason or another, are the authors of their own undoing.

I know no one is going to read this if my reading figures are anything to go by, but I have to get it out of my system. There is poverty here in Canada, real, hardly any clothes on your back poverty. Even here in one of the most carefully wealthy nations on Earth. Not that this is the fault of any political system. Most of it (But this is only my opinion, for what little that is worth) is to do with what I would call 'poor life choices'.

Visit 1: Person living in a rented apartment. Condition; 'grubby', a fine patina of greyish brown over everything that seemed to permeate the very air. Tidy, but poor quality furnishing that would look more at home in a landfill. Persons condition; prematurely aged by a mixture of alcohol and / or drugs. Physical age was probably early forties, but physical appearance was more like someone of sixty plus. We met parents who actually looked slightly younger than Visit 1. The self neglect / abuse was palpable. The biggest and newest item of furniture was the TV, and even that looked like it was from a thrift store. The TV was left on all the time I was there.

Visit 2: Single parent of teenager living with elderly newly bedridden parent in rented apartment. Kitchen was full of unwashed dishes with weeks old food ingrained into the preparation services. All the rooms were piled with unwashed bedding and junk. No real attempt had been made to clean or make the apartment presentable. Curtains were drawn, giving an extra gloomy air to the apartment, and the TV, a modern 32 inch plasma screen, was on all the time.

Visit 3: 1960's built apartment block. Occupant elderly with careworker present. Most charitable description of the apartment and occupant would be 'threadbare'. Frayed bedding, likewise furniture. As in the other two visits, the word 'dilapidation' was uppermost in my thoughts. Elderly TV was on all the time throughout our visit. Like in the other two apartments, the occupants paid more attention to the TV than to us newcomers.

In all three cases, the occupants kept the television on all the time, it beckoned even my attention (And I personally think most of what is on TV is pap at best) like some consciousness sucking black hole, or audio visual wallpaper over the gaps in people's lives. Possibly a little of both. It verged on the hypnotic.

When I lived in the UK I used to be an avid reader of Policeman's weblogs (Coppersblog, PCBloggs, Inspector Gadget), and all three detailed (and still do) how much of their work took them to places similar to those I have described. The common denominator in all their writings is the TV.

We have a modest 24 inch television set in our apartment, but I refuse to have either a cable or satellite subscription, and it sits unused for all but an hour or two each day when it is used as a DVD player for a movie or old TV series we want to see again. In my family, the television and its output was referred to many ways and most of them disparaging; 'One eyed monster', 'goggle box' etc. We used it sparingly. Not like many, who leave it on all day. The news we get off the Internet, and even then sparingly. Life is too short to just sit in front of a screen all the time just watching or reading. A man (or woman) needs time in his / her own head, with his / her own feelings, and this is something having the TV on constantly denies us. It takes the place of thinking. It promises us an unattainable world yet gives nothing back. It is a one way distorting mirror where we can observe but not partake of life.

My friends who have TV services often complain that they have 'two hundred channels, but nothing worth watching'. One friend has a sixty inch screen in his living room. He switches it on for one hour a night, and then complains that the news coverage makes him "Angry", especially the BBC news he gets via his satellite connection.

Now the TV is not wholly at fault. It is partially at fault because it forces passivity upon us, and humans are not necessarily passive. It is an excuse for procrastination, for not dealing with your inner self because that requires mental work. It also acts as an excuse for not performing those physical taks like cleaning that can make our quality of life better with only a little effort.

Even standing quite still in the middle of the woods, ears straining, listening to the far off blare of someone playing music across the Narrows, Dog crashing through the brush, the cawing of crows, and the high pitched cries of Bald Eagles, the rustle of leaves, the cool autumnal air like chilled satin across your exposed skin, requires thought. That kind of active watching is what humans evolved to do. We are a predator species, originally reliant upon our senses for survival, and just sitting in the warm staring at a screen and consuming is probably not really all that good for you. You need to get out and do, or even just 'be'.

By comparison, watching Television is a passive process which requires little mental input from the observer. It requires amongst other things willing suspension of belief and inaction. Yet I have the overwhelming suspicion that if there were no television, the 'social problems' of which it is symptomatic would not disappear. It is a symptom, not the disease. The poverty I often see in my working life will not cease if the TV does. That is within some of the people themselves.

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