Amusing Ourselves to Death

If you're listening to this broadcast, chances are you are not watching the O. J. Simpson trial on TV. And, sadly, that puts you in a distinct minority. Someday someone will tally up the hours of TV viewing, newsprint, book royalties, and lawyers' fees that this one trial has generated. Millions of trial watchers, millions in entertainment contracts, millions of dollars to the defense attorneys, and millions in tax dollars for the prosecution. Of these astonishing facts we can already be certain. Why? Why would so many people spend so much time following a drawn-out trial about two grisly murders? Well, we have a famous football star, a beautiful woman, a dead escort, and of course there's the fact that O. J. is black and his former wife, Nicole, was white. Along with all the Hollywood angles, this surely makes for an opera with buckets of soap. And soap opera is just what the O. J. trial is. Sure there are crucial issues of justice involved—evidence, cross-examination. Somebody murdered two people. Justice concerns the question: Is O.J. Simpson the murderer? But the fanfare isn't about justice; it's about entertainment. Curiously, a Canadian journalist has offered the most plausible explanation of Americans' obsession with this trial. George Bain says the O. J. craze is almost a chapter out of a book written by theater critic Neil Postman a decade ago. That book was Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman wrote that TV has turned everything in America into entertainment. All events, serious and trivial, are wired into our living rooms in living color. The sole object, of course, is to get people to watch. TV becomes packaged entertainment about any subject. Serious discourse about politics, science, education, or religion is rendered almost impossible. Result? We become incapable of distinguishing between fact and fiction, between what's important and what's not. Think of it: TV lets us eat our suppers in front of a tube flashing images of starvation in Rwanda, and we don't even miss a bite. As Postman predicted, "When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; cultur[al] death is a clear possibility." And that is precisely what is happening to us. The O. J. Simpson trial is a grotesque example of what Postman warned about. Can we do anything about this mess? Sure. We can hit the mute button when serious subjects like a murder trial are presented as entertainment. Or, better yet, like any addiction, we can break the habit altogether. We can cut the TV off, read a book, take a walk, relearn how to talk together as a family, visit the neighbors, or just relax and luxuriate in the quiet. And this wouldn't just ease our minds and enrich our souls. We might, just maybe, finally get the message across to the TV networks that we aren't about to be amused to spiritual and intellectual death.


Chuck Colson


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