More than 30 years ago, I read a book that managed to influence my entire life. Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (go ahead and click on it—it’s still available at amazon and a surprising number of reviews are from recent years) was a best-seller in its day and despite the reductionism of its undeniably catchy title it actually presented dozens of arguments for why TV watching wasn’t good for you.
Interestingly, the author, an ad executive named Jerry Mander, didn’t spend much time on actual program content. Even back then everyone else was worried about TV violence, TV dumbing us down, the “vast wasteland,” and so forth. Instead, Mander’s thesis focused on how TV affected our bodies and minds.
While the internet wouldn’t become widely available for decades, keep it in mind as you read the following list. The fact that 26 percent of Americans are online almost constantly pretty much tells the story of how blurred the lines have become between “TV” in the late-70s sense and our 24/7 access to screens today.
Mander’s four main points for the elimination of television…
–First, by watching TV, we allowed it to replace our own participation in activities. The talking heads on TV discussed politics, we didn’t. We watched, but didn’t play, golf, soccer, tennis, baseball. Even “good” TV, like Sesame Street, kept children from being children and us from interacting with them. Watching a ballet was not the same experience as attending one.
–Second, the complete passivity and immobility of TV viewing is unhealthy for mind and body alike. TV exerts significant mind control—just listen to how many people around you discuss what they watched the night before. Consider how many of us have become incapable of an original political thought. We spout little more than someone else’s sound bite, whether it emanates from TV’s talking heads or the internet’s.
In addition, regular TV watching is about as healthy as Marlboros: regular viewers gain weight, get flabby muscles, and have deteriorating heart function. Hidden cameras on families watching TV show them motionless, barely breathing, eyes fixed on the screen (and often eating junky food). Now, years later, we’re just as inactive as we spend hours on our phones or internet-enabled TV, shifting our bulk mainly from couch to desk chair.
–Third, with us in this totally passive state, TV emerges as the single most controlling entity in our lives. It guides our opinions, purchases, and lifestyle choices. It determines what makes us happy, sad, and fulfilled and establishes often destructive and nearly always limiting norms for the way men and women “should” appear, behave, and live their lives. We, the watchers, now experience life second-hand, through TV show characters. It is they who laugh, fall in love, have adventures, smell flowers, sing songs, travel to exotic places, and engage in animated conversational banter. Not us.
Book author Mander asks us to recognize that 100 years ago, everybody who was alive engaged in their lives as direct experience. Real people did the real seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, feeling, and understanding. There was no alternative. The very idea that life sensations could be processed for secondary consumption did not exist.
–Mander’s last argument, that TV had no democratic potential because its content was guided by economics rather than by audience participation, does still stand, I believe. True, there’s real political organizing power available via the internet, though there’s also its inevitable corollary, the hacked election. There are enlightening pieces of writing online, but the infrastructure is pretty much built to encourage consumption, a fact that’s exponentially magnified in these days of web trackers following your interests and barraging you with ads.
I quit and never returned
So, starting in 1978, after reading Four Arguments, I virtually stopped watching TV and never returned to it, to the extent that I’ve always been pretty much clueless about TV references in any conversation. Mash, Dallas, Hill Street Blues, SNL, The Sopranos, The Wire, The Office, Breaking Bad, Stephen Colbert—I’ve missed them all. (And yes, I do see clips online like everyone else.)
Of the four arguments, my own reason for quitting TV wasn’t complicated. There was no intellectual snobbery involved, no concern about my mind being controlled. I’d been beset by weight issues since childhood and when I learned watching TV could make you fat, I decided not to watch. That was the end of that.
Some years ago when visiting my now deceased elderly aunt in Florida, I was compelled to watch more TV than I had in years. And while the sheer number of channels was staggering (viewers in my age group remember when Chicago had a total of four), the content was pretty unimpressive. We both sat completely still, breathing and staring, the most active part of me my heart, pumping.
It was then that I became transfixed by the commercials for pharmaceutical drugs. Of the ten commercials I endured, eight were for drugs and virtually all of these targeted conditions related to unhealthy lifestyle choices: diabetes, arthritis, heartburn, tobacco addiction, constipation. All began with “Ask your doctor about…” and ended, after a rapid fire list of lethal-sounding side effects, “Call your doctor immediately if…”
“Do patients actually ask you about these drugs?” my aunt inquired.
“Not my patients, thank god.”
Most of our patients make lifestyle changes
One of the pleasing benefits of working in an integrative health center is that you, my patients, are sensibly phobic about most drugs, so the number of “Ask your doctor…” questions I receive is near zero. Our patients make lifestyle changes. Instead of popping an extra Nexium to ward off the late night ravioli or an extra Lipitor to cover the second plate of Buffalo wings, they actually avoid those foods.
This is more sensible than they probably realize. Lipitor (and all the statins) have been linked to both dementia and permanent muscle damage. Nexium (and all the PPIs) increases your risk of early death. Having patients who work to minimize drug exposure certainly makes my life easier while protecting theirs.
Since direct-to-consumer drug commercials are banned in virtually every country but the US and New Zealand, I imagine invaders from outer space would take one look at US TV and choose our country to attack first, figuring we must be the weakest and most chronically ill on the planet.
We’ve spent our lives staring at TV and other devices and now we’re gobbling pills to treat what we’ve done to ourselves. Here are a few ideas for turning that around:
–Shut down your social media accounts for a day/week/month and see how you feel.
–Plan and cook a dinner with friends.
–Make some art.
–Learn to play a new board game.
–Clear out all the extra stuff in your home and have a sidewalk sale. Serve snacks and enjoy meeting the people who stop by.
—Bookmark this Reader site listing free events in Chicago and try attending one each week without your phone.
–Get a library card and see how many books you can read in a month as you reduce your Netflix bingeing.
–Step away from your connection to TV, phone, and internet and go outside for a nice long walk (phoneless), stopping to read some poetry from the little book of poetry you got at the library.
If you have more ideas, please leave them in the comments section below.
Yes, you’ll need phone or internet to arrange some of these, but once you’ve done so just enjoy disconnecting for a while and…
David Edelberg, MD