This Mindless Age

Wednesday: An Attack on Thinking

Romans 12:2 In this week’s studies, we see that we must learn to be thinking Christians if we are to avoid being absorbed by the mindlessness of our culture.
An Attack on Thinking

A great deal of what Postman develops in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, is reinforcement for what I have been describing as mindlessness. And “the pattern of this age” today is certainly mindless. So let me review two specific areas of bad influence, as he sees it. 

There is a chapter in the book that deals with news on television, and it is entitled “Now…This.” That is because these are the words most used on television to link one brief televised news segment—the average news segment on network news programs is only 45 seconds long—to the next news segment or commercial. What the phrase means is that what one has just seen has no relevance to what one is about to see or, for that matter, to anything. Rational thought requires such connections. It depends on similarities, contradictions, deductions and the development of probable consequences. It requires time. It is what books and other serious print media give us. But this is precisely what television does not give. It does not give time for thought, and if it does not give time for thought or promote thought, what it essentially amounts to is “diversion.” 

Postman says that television gives us “news without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment.”1 In other words, it is not only mindless; it is teaching us to be mindless, to the point at which we even suppose that our ignorance is great knowledge. 

A second area of bad influence is politics. Postman calls this chapter “Reach Out and Elect Someone.” Ronald Reagan once said, “Politics is just like show business.”2 But if this is so, then the object of politics on television is not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty, or any other generally recognized virtue, but to appear as if you are. 

How do campaign managers get their candidates elected these days? It is not by discussing issues. That is a sure way to get defeated, because any position on any issue, unless it is utterly meaningless, is certain to offend somebody. The way to win elections is to present a pleasant television image, and to keep the candidate out of trouble for as long as possible. 

That is why Ronald Reagan won in 1980 and even more decisively in 1984. It was not his positions, though they were substantially different from those of his predecessors and were, in my opinion, generally right. He won because he had a long career in movies and was a master of the television medium. He projected an image of a strong, decent man we could trust. 

Do you remember the 1988 election in which George Bush defeated Michael Dukakis? That was an election involving issues about which every intelligent voter should have been carefully informed. Television is supposed to be the medium through which this is done. But a discussion of the issues is precisely what the voters did not get. Where did George Bush and Michael Dukakis differ in their politics in regard to domestic programs such as Social Security, child care, education, taxes, and abortion? It is only specialists in government who have any idea what the true answers to those questions are, not the voters, because these were not the issues of the campaign. 

What were the issues then? Actually, there was only one issue, and it was this: Is George Bush a wimp? Why was that raised? It was because he looked like a wimp on television; he is thin, seems to be frail, and held his head slightly to one side in a way that looked deferential. If the Dukakis camp could encourage voters to think of Bush that way, they would vote for Dukakis, because no one wants a wimp for president. On the other hand, Bush’s task was to convince the voters that he would actually be a strong president, and the strategy of his camp was therefore to wage a strong, aggressive (many said “unfair” and “nasty”) campaign against Dukakis. 

Marshall McLuhan was right when he said, “The medium is the message.” The campaign managers have learned that, which is why they organize the kinds of campaigns they do. 

I know someone will say, “But Reagan was a decent, strong man.” Or, “George Bush really is a wimp (or “is not a wimp”).” Or, “Bill Clinton was the stronger candidate.” But my point is that we do not actually know those things and cannot know them, at least from television, until events perhaps support or fail to support our perceptions. The most serious thing of all perhaps is not that we do not know, but that we think we do know because of television. 

1Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), 100. Original edition 1985. 

2Ibid., 125.

Study Questions
  1. How does television discourage thinking?
  2. How does TV news actually undermine our ability to think rationally?
  3. What does rational thought require? Why is rational thought so important?
  4. How does television promote this lack of critical thinking in politics?

Reflection: List ways that television and other forms of technology can be a stumbling block to the believer seeking to obey Romans 12:2.

For Further Study: Download for free and listen to James Boice’s message, “Developing a Christian Mind, Part 1.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)

For Further Study: To help us better learn how to think and act biblically, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is offering James Boice’s paperback book, Renewing Your Mind in a Mindless World, for 20% off the regular price.

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