Shocking Revelations, Radical Changes and Dramatic Events

Thursday January 8, 2009


I do not have a television, and I haven’t had one for years. That it is possible to live without this particular bit of equipment is something that the television licensing people (because you need a licence in the UK to own a television) find hard to believe, and so every few years they send me a polite letter asking me to pay for a license, I send a polite reply saying I don’t need to as I don’t have anything to license, they send me a less polite letter reminding me to pay, I send a reply to tell them that they should refer to my earlier letter, they send a heavy-handed threat telling me that owning a television without a license is a Very Bad Thing and promising court action, I send yet another letter in which I give way to the terrible temptation to lampoon the whole situation, and they then fall silent for a few years… before the whole thing starts again.

Anyway, the result of all this is that I do not often see television news, something that I think my life is none the worse for. Indeed, when I see television news these days, I find myself increasingly uneasy with the whole business of news reporting in the media. When I had the chance to watch the TV news whilst staying in Paris last week, it was a decidedly queasy spectacle, particularly on the 24-hour news channels: news items mixed with commentary, personal opinion, individual “testimonies” and vox-pops of those strolling down the street (the news machine loves canvassing the views of outraged members of the public), a tendency towards moral simplification, and the use of hip editing techniques, special effects, background music, spiffy computer graphics and the like seem together to conspire towards the creation of a package which is more seductive than it is informative. And what it seduces us into, I think, is something far from helpful: a tendency to get excited by, and tangled up in, drama. I’d prefer my news much less dramatic. Give me back short news broadcasts given by people with clipped accents dressed in ballgowns and dinner jackets.

This love of drama is something that I think is all-pervasive, and not just in the news media. It is there in politicians speeches, in academic writing, in the dullest of policy documents. Change is not just change, but it is “radical” change or “unprecedented” change; events are not just events, but they are “dramatic events” (or, once again, “unprecedented”); new pieces of information are not just new pieces of information, but “shocking revelations”.

Our love of drama is something that has strong ethical implications. I am increasingly convinced our tendency to get caught up in particular dramas (or, as I said in the last post, quoting Bruner, our tendency to get caught up in the “tyranny of a single tale”), particularly dramas in which ethics itself is at issue, is one of the most destructive of human tendencies. It is not that, when thinking about ethics, we should “put all emotion to one side” as certain dried-up judges like to counsel their juries. We need to stop thinking in terms of reason and/or emotion, as if this is the main issue when it comes to making decisions. The judge’s advice doesn’t work, because it is becoming increasingly clear that emotion has an important part to play in decision making. If we truly could put emotion to one side, I suspect (and the research of the likes of António Damásio tends to support this view) that we would not find that we became the ideal decision maker, but that we would find ourselves either paralysed and incapable of deciding anything, or making decisions in an entirely arbitrary fashion. It is more a case of asking what kinds of emotional and cognitive states (because the two go together) are necessary to make the kinds of decisions that will actually lead to the kinds of ends that we claim we are seeking.

How many lives could be saved, and how much misery could be avoided, if new information was simply treated as new information, and not as “shocking revelations”, if changes were just allowed to be changes, without thinking of them as “radical” or “unprecedented”, if events were just allowed to be events, without the additional drama?

Image: Scene from a Play by Molière: Daumier – Wikimedia Commons

# · Jayarava

I share your unease over media news. Seems like the obvious agenda is to provoke strong emotions, mostly in the range of anger, horror, anxiety etc. Occasionally humour. Information is a poor second at best.

About 15 years ago I attended a seminar on marketing by one of the most successful marketing men in NZ. We studied the 4Ps and all that stuff, but what stayed in my mind was this. He said – “people don’t make rational decisions. They make emotional decisions, and then they rationalise them. Advertising plays on emotions and then gives reasons to support the desire”. Advertisers, unlike theoretical scientists, have their livelihoods directly on the line, so their incentive to understand the process is more immediate. And they seem to be thriving.

More recently I have noted that cinema ads no longer give any information about the product, they only supply an image. We no longer, apparently, buy cars for the engine size, or the LSD, or fuel efficiency even – we buy it because it makes us feel good, or because we will look good driving it.


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