Saturday, March 10, 2007

The End of Childhood: Visual Media and Manners

So far, I've connected visual media and the ideas of Neil Postman to capitalism, showing how the idea of thinking visually, with an instant emotional response is so much more beneficial for capitalism than the older way of thinking logically, in a manner more suitable for reading. And for Politics in the Television age, looks and short quips and attack ads are much more effective than talking about the issues (something Bush might want to consider).

Now I want to consider how visual media, and the cognitive states that go along with it, affect parenting and the overall issue of manners. Lynn Truss, who wrote the amazing book Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, which talks about punctuation in society. (As a side note, before I read the book, there was an article put out in the New York Post which showed the late Saddam Hussien in his underwear. Criticism was flying about the inappropriateness of showing a dictator in his undies. I was aggravated, but not because of that, but because they used an apostrophe in the headline when it wasn't needed.) Truss wrote another book, Talk to the Hand about manners. Her idea is that, from a very early age, we are taught that there is a private bubble around us that no one has the right to invade. Which is true, for the most part. However, because that bubble is there, people have begun to use it as an area that they can do anything in. Especially where excess sound is involved, this can get really annoying. The main gripe that Truss has (and I agree with her) is the usage of cell phones in public places. I've heard more things said to someone on a cell phone that should not have been said outside of a private place, but people seem to think that they can talk about anything, anywhere. Truss gave examples of people talking about love affairs they had, or schemes of counterfeit money that they were doing, and talking about them on the subway where everyone else could hear what they were saying.

This relates back to the example I gave of children playing with and destroying books in the kids area at Borders. As I've talked about in prior blogs, children see these objects, once they have a hold of them, as theirs, and they can do with it whatever they want. This is proved whenever a parent tries to take away a book that the kid has been playing with for a little bit. They yell and scream, "MINE!!," as if they really believe it is theirs. And in a since, to them, it is, because they've had it in their private bubble for long enough, they actually possess it.

Children have been taught this way because they are highly influenced by the ideas they see in commercials on television. Things on the shelves are meant to be taken, because, as the TV shows, the toy or grocery in question is automatically theirs. There is no scene in a commercial of the parent buying the item, or of the child buying the item. It magically appears at home, as the solution to some problem, or the ultimate toy having fallen out of the sky. And since commercials illicit an immediate, emotional response, "MINE!!!," it is that response they give when the parent realizes it costs $50 to buy and says "No." Of course, if the child had been taught self-discipline, this would not happen.

The idea of self discipline comes out of three distinct feelings. One, when the child is young, the knowledge that if an action is taken after "NO" by the parent, some sort of punishment (such as pain with a spanking, or whatever), will result. The appropriate action taken as a result of the punishment. Secondly, and most importantly, a sense of shame (Postman's idea) that if a wrong deed is done, that somehow it has made that child look bad in the microcosm of his or her world. This is most often used after bad language, supposed sexual immoralities, eating all the ice cream in the box...etc... Postman says that this idea of shame is one of the key definitions of childhood. As adults, certain knowledge (vocabulary, sex, violence...etc) is felt as not being good or appropriate for children to partake in. This is actually parabled in the Eden mythos. Adam and Eve, having taken from the fruit of Knowledge, felt ashamed and hid themselves in clothing. God found out and banished them from paradise. This is essentially the attitude we take with children. As children grow up, they live in a certain state of innocence, or so the Romantic philosophers would have us believe. To give them the knowledge of grown up existence, it would force them to see the world through cynical eyes, essentially, banishing them from the world of Eden and into one of the real world. This is the philosophies especially used by William Blake. That children grow up and pass through the state of innocence (Eden) to the real world, one where violence and injustice take place. But the positive note to this, one that occurs when a child grows up, is that by living in the real world, one has the ability to do something about it. One of the key ideas of Eden is that, while innocence is bliss, it is also impotent. A child has very little ability to do anything about the world in which they live. However, as an adult, there is responsibility, there is power. Adults that raise children generally want to give the realization of this power to children in a guided manner. Thus, education. In a controlled environment, children learn the knowledge that they need to exist in the world and slowly sink into the adult world (the image I see is one of going into the shallow end of the pool, and walking (as you mature) into the deep end, where the water slowly rises until you must swim or sink). In the past, when all knowledge about the world came through books, through the idea of literacy, children were generally unable to grasp more complex ideas until they were actually able to read about it. Take an ancient copy of the Karma Sutra, one with only words. A child could not come upon it and find out that it was about sex until they were actually able to read it. But now, with the world of visual, audible media pouring information into children currently, there is no reason why a child of a very young age couldn't find out about something as adult as sex. This has been currently shown during the Clinton impeachment trial with reports of young children asking their parents what oral sex was.

The third origin of self discipline is the understanding of morals and ethics and choosing right and wrong and standing on those principles. It is very likely that children are not at this stage until they are nearly grown, and indeed, some people never reach this stage. It is this that Postman mirrors in his book The End of Childhood, when he shows that not only is childhood disappearing, but adulthood as well. I used to have a saying, that the older they get, the more immature they act. And while I didn't have it completely accurate, what I was trying to get at was that for the most part, older teens and young adults don't seem to become more mature as they age, and so the gap between how they are acting and how they should act grows wider. Postman atests this change in adulthood behavior today back to the ideas I've already stated about Television and the need for instant response. With the growing need for an instant response, self-discipline goes out the window, and with it, the manners to talk quitely while on the cell phone, the patience to see if a coach and develop a team rather than firing him after one or two seasons, the repose not to skip to the last page or the last scene in a movie. And because self-discipline goes out the window, so do manners, which is where Truss' book comes in. While I can't directly blame the loss of manners in society today to Television, the underlying way in which society thinks is due to the change in the way society expresses itself, from literal, to visual thinking.

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