Muslims and the social impact of television

Developing Just Leadership

Yusuf Al-Khabbaz

Rabi' al-Awwal 11, 1425 2004-05-01

Features

by Yusuf Al-Khabbaz (Features, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 3, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1425)

Television has now become the primary mode of entertainment and information for millions of people worldwide. YUSUF AL-KHABBAZ discusses whether it is an appropriate mode of entertainment and information for Muslim families and societies.

As the primary mode of entertainment for millions of people worldwide, television deserves special attention. Television is a modern invention, like many others such as the automobile, telephone, refrigerator and computer, all of which have affected societies in largely unpredicted ways. But there may be specific effects of television on human development and relationships as well as its general effects as a modern invention.

Although television is in many ways just another modern invention, it is interesting to compare how much more people talk about its impact, compared with that of other modern inventions. A systematic comparison would probably show that far more people are concerned, for some reason or other, with the impact of television on society than they are about other things, such as cars and phones. This might say something about the ambivalent role of television in people’s lives, compared with our unquestioning acceptance of other inventions; maybe it is that television seems optional, whereas people feel they really "need" cars and telephones. But that avoids the question of whether or not something is needed or desired, and that of what impact it is having. So it is important not only to look at television to evaluate the impact of a modern invention on people’s lives, and that a broader perspective is necessary, which places television in a context with other forms of media.

There are some aspects of television that it does not share with other inventions, except possibly for the computer. While television has much in common with its earlier cousin, the radio, it seems that television straddles the fence between the one-dimensional blind world of radio and the hyperactive multimedia world of the internet. Imagery is the key to understanding television, and there are several angles one could address in order to evaluate the impact of this imagery on human lives. We could look at the physiological impacts of TV, or at the cultural and social impacts, or even the political and economic impacts. Physiologically, one would have to examine what it means to stare for hours on end at a small area in space, that is emanating a complex array of colorful and ever-changing beams of light; we could also ponder the impact on human eyesight of staring at a light, any light, for hours on end. Also in the realm of physiology, one could also implicate television in problems such as obesity, which has been done in a number of recent health-studies. Beyond that research, it makes sense because television requires its watchers to sit motionless, while many of the commercial come-ons on television are for junk food. So add the two up – eating junk food and sitting around a lot – and one can easily end up obese. Television also has a flat, two-dimensional moving image, which is something unprecedented in human history. Yes, people looked at cave etchings and oil paintings, and more recently photographs, but probably not for the many hours a day that surveys tell us people today (especially Americans) stare at the television. So there are many useful places to begin a study of the effects of TV, some of which have been tentatively explored in the classic book on the subject: Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander, though such works need some updating. In any case, this does not even get one into the realm of culture and society, which is where people consume images and try to process them or make sense of them.

Because television is laden with imagery, and because it favors the eye, one can link it to self-image, that the people one sees on TV are somehow suggesting ways of living and looking that others may feel attracted to, consciously or unconsciously. Just look at the fads in language, dress and gesticulation that come out of American situation-comedies such as Friends, and one can find a source of many fads in dress and behavior. Television images model or suggest ways of life for people, but at the same time those ways of life are for the most part unreal and unattainable for most human beings; they are part of a fantasyland or dreamworld. This is not to say that other fantasies and dreams do not impact reality – they do – but it is important to remember that much of television programming promotes a sort of fantastic dream.

One could turn this over and look at another angle: the impact of television as a medium of storytelling. Human beings love stories; we love to tell them and we love to listen to them: all this is perfectly natural and normal. But the innovation of television is that the stories are being told by a much smaller group of people: those who have access to the medium and its techniques of production and dissemination. Giving over this important element of our shared collective life to some distant profit-driven corporation seems likely to have profound implications for our human relationships. To sit and listen to your grandmother telling a story is quite different from sitting and watching strangers on television telling a story, and we ought to consider that difference deeply. What does it mean to shut up grandma and flip on the television, and turn that age-old family-based activity over to some distant and impersonal institution?

Some may wonder whether the impact of television is universal for all societies, or if there is a different impact for each society. Some of what might be called the impact of television does seem to be universal: the physiological consumption of imagery, for instance; while other parts might be more culture-specific, such as the way people make meaning out of images. In its early days, programmers were not that sophisticated and what was shown reflected the whims of the producers and corporate sponsors. And production, besides being in black and white, was limited to what could be filmed live with two cameras, so most programmes resembled stage shows, with minimal editing and effects. People watched television at first because it was a new fad. But as the novelty value of the new machine wore off, advertisers and producers became more sophisticated and began to direct their wares to specifically defined, and very carefully researched, audiences. Audiences can be researched and targeted within a culture, to which the rigid age-segregation of American television- programming attests, or it can be across cultures, as in customized advertisements to suit local tastes. More recently, producers have begun to clone American television programmes with a local twist, either by presenting programmes and commercial advertisements in local languages, or by trying to co-opt various local traditions of dress and behavior into the television-dreamworld.

Upon closer examination we find that television has some potentially universal impact and some potentially culture-specific impact. Let us look a little more at its culture-specific impact. As we know, there are different norms of behavior in different societies, and in the past these were more or less negotiated by the people living in that society, who worked out responses to new cultural innovations and trends from outside in ways that made sense in their own context. In the media age, an entirely distinct factor is emerging: that of the compression of both space and time. Today, it is very easy for most people to access images from vastly different cultures and societies in an instant, and to update, rotate and alternate that access and consumption continuously. Perhaps people have always been susceptible to new fads and trends, but the innovation of television is the changeability and ephemerality of these fads and trends. On this count, advertisers and producers are way ahead of consumers, and they are already thinking up ways to sell next year’s products and programmes before people have had time to make sense of this year’s. It sounds paranoid when put in this way, and perhaps it is, but it is also largely true.

From a more sinister angle, media like television (and its off-shoots, video and DVDs) have become essential tools for mind-control. Think of how pervasive "the news" has become, and how newsagencies and their corporate and government sponsors (which are getting more and more difficult to keep separate) are competing for the hearts and minds of the audiences they target. Take al-Jazeera satellite television as a case in point. The Americans attacked it openly during their invasion and occupation of Iraq, because they were uncomfortable about the availability of images that were controlled by someone else, and by the threat to total mind-control that this new player in the media game posed. This is about the politics of mind-control, and it is heavily contested, as is \seen in demands by the Americans to remove al-Jazeera journalists from Iraq so that (for example) they can massacre the Iraqis without witnesses being able to tell tales afterwards. But at the same time, and alongside its competition with channels like CNN as far as interpretation goes al-Jazeera is virtually identical in style and format to CNN and other American channels. Its advertising and programming, whatever the opinions voiced might be, are operating within a well-established and very narrow set of norms that have been laid down by full-time news-producers that were on the scene long before al-Jazeera was thought of. And the advertisements, despite the occasional man in dishdasha or woman in hijab, are virtually identical in style and message to their American analogues. In the end, the message is that the watcher must be a consumer, both of information and lifestyle. In that the two superficially very diverse channels are more or less one.

Apart from concerns about consuming things like news and entertainment, people often ask how Muslims can better utilize the new information and communication technologies (ICT). Part of the answer is that we must realistically evaluate ICT in terms of what it can and cannot do. Like all tools, ICT is limited in the scope and content it can handle. For example, anything that cannot be digitized and sent along networks as packets of data is useless on the internet or digital satellite networks. Besides being limited by what can be captured and digitized at any given moment, this general bias toward digitization excludes a tremendous amount of knowledge, experience and insight that can only be transmitted in face-to-face human interaction. Love and empathy cannot be digitized, while facts – skewed and misinterpreted or not – lend themselves well to the new modes of ICT transmission. When evaluating ICT, it is important to remember that culture at its best has always involved face-to-face interaction between real people living real lives. That cannot be digitized, and so Muslims are limited to talking about their cultures or posting digital images of various artefacts, but words and things exchanged via the digital media are not culture. The most important point is that ICT, like all technologies, is limited in what it can do, and apart from showing superficial two-dimensional images, Muslims ought not to fool themselves into thinking that it can somehow create or transmit culture in the traditional sense.

Another common problem facing those who wish to use ICT media is the paranoia of state power and the greed of corporate entities, both of which collude to slow down the internet and satellite transmission of information, so that at times it feels as if one were rambling along an old country road in a donkey cart, rather than navigating a high-speed information "superhighway." The internet is particularly susceptible to this, especially in the case of government monopolies on internet-service provision, as found, for example, in the Arab oil-sheikdoms, where internet access is only from behind a tight system of firewalls and proxy servers. While they have always blocked websites critical of the local headmen, more recently internet users in the region have found that even some websites critical of US president Bush have been blocked, probably in response to US demands. By trying to shut down satellite channels, such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, and by blocking internet access to a variety of sites, such regimes are herding their peoples to the West.

While at present there are comparatively few representative voices from the Muslim world in the Western media, there are vibrant forms of media, involving both news and entertainment, coming out of the Muslim world. These are not accessible to Westerners, mostly because of language barriers, but if one really looks some good examples can still be found. Various American, European and Japanese film festivals, for instance, have been featuring Iranian cinema in translation, and the Western news media often look to al-Jazeera for images, when their own reporters have no access beyond the tightly-controlled press pools.

On the other hand, if one is asking why Muslims aren’t on CNN more often, such a question requires a look into the politics of the media. The absence of such voices is not only due to racism against Arabs or Islamophobia, though these are factors. More importantly, if one studies the Western media, and the American media in particular, it will be found that virtually everyone is excluded, except for a tiny elite cleared by the financial investment community.

Even in the so-called "free media" of the West one is hard pressed to find voices of anyone but those who are approved by the very narrow corporate class that controls both the politics and economy of the Western states. The American corporate media, despite pretensions of freedom, have become lapdogs of state power, which is not difficult to fathom, since most media commentators are in the same privileged classes. Just look at the salaries of CNN and NBC reporters and you will see that it is a rich men’s club; those within the club jealously and carefully protect their membership by avoiding anything that will irk their sponsors and political benefactors, engaging in various forms of self-censorship. It is in many ways fruitless to try to join that club and play those games, because the sacrifices and expenditures required even to get in through the door are immense, while the benefits and advantages accruing will be slight at best. It may be more sensible for Muslims to develop their own media voices on their own terms, which will require a high level of financial and technical commitment. While there are some important exceptions, such as al-Manar television, run by Hizbullah in Lebanon, at the moment these resources are largely contingent upon the whims of the paranoid American-sponsored ruling elite in many Muslim states, or the greedy and profit-driven motives of global corporate sponsors.

This is not to say that the project of developing Muslim forms of media is unimportant. As long as people continue to live in a media-saturated world, it will continue to be necessary to evaluate that world, which for the most part is driven by the Western media powers, and to develop more local forms of media.

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