You Are What Goes Through Your Mind
by Donella Meadows
Scores on the Scholastic Achievement Tests -- the SATs that determine
which of our high-school seniors go to college -- have been going down
so steadily that the College Board has shifted the scale. Now you can
get a higher score with fewer right answers.
Only one out of five U.S. students can write a logical, well-developed
essay. "Mediocrity is the norm and quality is the exception," says
Those are just two recent reports about the decline of the American
mind. New ones come out every month or so. Every study shows a
direct correlation between poor intellectual performance and frequent
television-watching. No surprise.
There are roughly as many studies showing that television rots the
minds as there are studies showing that junk food rots the body or
that cigarette smoking rots the lungs -- as if we needed studies.
What could be more obvious than the fact that our lungs get coated
with whatever we draw through them? That our bodies are made of what
we eat? That our minds accumulate what we put into them? We hate
these inevitabilities, we try to forget them, cigarette executives
deny them, but every child knows them. The interesting question is
not whether they're true, but whether we act accordingly.
As a society, we're doing more and more to deglamorize and control
tobacco products. Enough of us are intent on healthy diets that even
junk makers are cutting back (a little) on fat, sugar, salt, and
chemicals. But so far we're doing no more than griping about inane
ads, violent movies, obscene pop songs, vitriolic talk shows, and
stupid sitcoms, though they degrade our minds, our families, and our
Why can't our children write? Have you ever looked at the script of a
TV show, even a news show, even a sober PBS documentary? There is no
logical flow. The words are there as commentary on the pictures. The
pictures are chosen not to build up a sequence of thought, but to
engage the emotions. Sustained intelligence is hard enough in a
visual medium -- even if that were the intent of the producers, which
it rarely is.
Why do families fall apart? We spend more time with the smart-talking
families on TV than with the real ones next door or even in our own
house. Media families are not known for their patience, compassion,
productivity, or thinking. How often do you see sitcom characters
working with a sense of commitment? Or reacting to an idea with
anything other than a wisecrack? How often do you catch them in an
act of civic responsibility?
Why are our politics venal and divisive? On the talk shows,
everything is black and white, our side and their side. Facts are
twisted to ridicule one side and make the other look good. How can a
child listening to these steady streams of distortion learn to be open
to ideas and to test them for truth?
Why does our nation lead the world in materialism, irresponsible sex,
and violence? Hundreds of times a day, the ads tell us how to solve
every problem by buying something. Between the ads the shows have one
purpose -- to hold our attention until t he next ad. The surest way
to do that is to grab us by the gonads, to trigger lust, fear, rage,
sorrow, envy, anything that makes us feel alive -- while in fact
deadening us so we go on sitting there, absorbing high-energy violence
and sexual imagery.
Media messages are repeated and repeated and repeated, to lodge them
in our minds. When I watch, listen to, or read junk media, I'm
horrified to find, days later, bits of idiotic slogan or image
resurfacing in my consciousness. I feel polluted, as if I had run
smoke through my lungs or pesticides though my liver.
Poisoning by media is even more harmful than poisoning by cigarettes
or saturated fats, because it destroys not just individuals, but
culture. Culture is shared consciousness, the common experience, the
small things we all know, the characters in our stories, the morals
these stories carry. Culture is what we absorb as we grow up, what we
see and hear so often that we call it reality. Out of culture comes
Our culture used to be derived from experience with land, tools,
materials, family, neighbors, nature. Now it is invented in the
fantasy shops of New York and California by people who only want to
keep us dazzled and watching. Visitors from abroad are shocked by the
brutality, stupidity, and artificiality of what we let these people
broadcast into our heads.
Suppose we decide to do something about this cultural assault. At
first glance, it isn't clear what to do, since our blasted minds have
lost the distinction between free political speech, which is essential
to democracy, and free commercial speech, which can undermine
democracy along with everything else worthwhile. If we keep the two
straight, we can come up with as many ways to restore our culture as
ways to protect our lungs. We can start with the disposition of our
multi-billion-dollar gift of the public airways to private profit
In the meantime, there's the "off" switch. It's hard to turn, I know,
because -- like tobacco and junk food -- junk culture is addictive.
It fills us with illusion to the point where we don't know how to lead
real lives. It sedates our kids so we don't have to spend time with
them. But, as with other addictions, the price of that cheap comfort
is way too high.
The government could help us stay clean by keeping pushers off the
streets and out of our living rooms. But ultimately, it's up to us to
decide what goes into our own and our children's lungs, mouths, eyes,
ears, and minds.
Donella H. Meadows, a systems analyst, author, and adjunct professor
of environmental studies at Dartmouth College, writes a syndicated
article each week to "present a global view, a connected view, a long-
term view, an environmental and compassionate view." Timeline readers
who feel that these articles deserve the widest possible distribution
are encouraged to contact their local newspaper editor and suggest the
paper carry them. Meadows can be reached at The Global Citizen, Box
58, Plainfield , NH 03781.
Reprinted from TIMELINE March/April 1996
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