Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Ideological Telegraph

We've all experienced it before.  A discussion is taking place one the topic of notable television shows.  Various programs are praised or scorned.  Then someone pipes up, "I don't watch television."  This is then followed by vague denunciations of modern culture, a pining for nature, or maybe porch swings.

Or the updated version: people are discussing cell phones - plans, apps, etc.  Someone comments, "I hate the things."  They invariably then hold up their own cell phone, highlighting in stark contrast its exquisite antiquity.

This sort of behavior has always seemed to be so tiresome.  But why?  For decades now, people have been bemoaning television.  Do they really think they are saying anything new when they decide to inform everyone present of their cultural fundamentalism?  What does a critique of overtechnologized society (if that's what the heck they're going on about) have to do with a group of people commenting on the ways in which they obviously enjoy the technology?

I think that what seems so annoying is the sense that they are less expressing genuine feelings, than telegraphing their ideological adherence to a particular issue.  Because, of course, people don't really dislike cell phones.  Or TVs.  We've all had the experience of having a TV-denialist over to our house when a TV happened to be on and seen them glued to it like rats on cocaine. 

A frequent trope of the denialist is that they simply "don't have time".  This, after they get finished telling you about this or that group, hobby, or other fancy of theirs.  They have the time, they just choose to spend it differently.  Yet in dishonestly saying they don't "have time" to watch television, they are able to get their dig in; they get to diminish it as a worthless activity - one you and others just happen to enjoy.  Not only have they now been dishonest in describing their daily schedule, they have been dishonest in making a value judgement of your interest without saying it clearly, by being passive aggressive. 

Of course, historically the road to ideological purity has always been littered with the wreckage of personal integrity.  One thinks of monks squirreling away candy bars.  Or pedophilic priests.  Or closeted gay homophobic politicians.  Ideological sacrifice is not easy.  Otherwise, perhaps it would not be called sacrifice.  However the sacrifice should not include honesty and personal integrity.

No, they like it.  But they don't want to like it.  And this is a principled enough position.  The Amish do great work here.  But they ought not pretend that they have somehow reached a higher plane of existence, after having rappelled the cliffs of self-sacrifice and, prostrate on the mountain-top of truth through the freezing rain, somehow having thus exercised that particular human demon - the one the rest of us apparently trod before like harnessed mules, otherwise known as enjoyment of television.

I understand that it must feel awkward to take the hard path of ideological sacrifice in the company of "outsiders".  But there comes a point when we must all accept the fact that we all have our own battles to fight, and we each choose which swords to fall upon.  I have known my share of non-TV watching vegans who were complete assholes.  Apparently carefully avoiding the siren of televised programming was more important to them than avoiding the siren of selfish arrogance.  Likewise, I've known perfectly wonderful and compassionate people who would consider barbeque ribs and an episode of CSI to be a night well spent.

This is not a call for relativism.   Too much television really is a bad thing.  Cell phones can become magnets of self-absorption.  But neither let us pretend that we can begin to judge others so harshly.  Maybe one man's vice to to watch a bit more television, or buy the latest cell phone, but only because his virtue lies elsewhere, in the way he kisses his children before he tucks them in at night, or the way he smiles at the bored cashier. 

These may be no less of sacrifices to him - when he could choose in such moments to give in to selfishness.  Yet does he get to speak of it, to lord it over others in conversation?  Maybe.  But likely he does not.  He merely goes about his day, in his humble way, making the world every bit as pleasant a place.

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