A few years ago, I picked up a book written in 1978 that was a commentary on the way that television reflects society. The purpose of the book, however, was to propose that television is actually a way to reflect that way that society ought to be. Indeed, its authors are not newcomers to this idea. Literature itself has always proposed scenarios about how love stories "ought" to end. Romeo and Juliette, for example, is a story about families allowing their own hatred and ambition ignore the upbringing of their children. Their children, in turn, have nor moral compass to guide them through what they impetuously perceive as love. This scenario, is compounded by a foolish priest who suggests to them that they heal their families through a secret marriage. We all know the end of the story, but the real conclusion is the life lessons that can be learned through this tragedy. Don't ignore your children, don't trust the judgment of a 16 year old, and don't trust men who compare you to the moon. Shakespeare's success relies upon the fact that this scenario is timeless, and his stories are relevant to every age and culture.
Rather than using television then, to represent either what is, or what was, producers went another direction and proposed what they think ought to be without any moral compass, like Romeo and Juliette. But rather than what "ought to be" in a world where high ideals exist and the nobility of the human spirit reigns supreme, the media decided to represent "what's cool". What's cool, as William Faulkner explains is "not of the heart, but of the glands."
Others disagreed with this turn. Vice President Quayle chided Murphy Brown for glorifying single motherhood. People called him "behind the times" and others lauded Candace Bergman for representing what women "can attain" meaning a beautiful harmony involving a successful careers and joyful motherhood. While pundits plauded the show and the message it portrayed, the storyline itself is not sustainable. I cannot think of any popular sitcom at the moment that portrays a single working mom where there is no man in the picture. Not only does it not work in reality, it can't even work in the fictional world of television. Without realizing it, this experiment to show people what "ought to be" in this utopian world of high definition television is failing. It can't continue its own storyline.
However, that doesn't mean that the storyline is not being continued off the screen in the lives of hundreds of fans around the world. There is some collateral damage to this sort of experiment. A mother of an 8 year old girl told me that her daughter has started saying that she's "fat". The mother doesn't know where she gets it from because she watches very little television. The mother's instinct is key here - because this mom knows what messages her daughter will get if she does watch television. What the mom doesn't realize, is that she gets it from her friends at school who do watch television. She also gets it from the clothes stores that make clothes smaller and smaller for growing girls.
Seamus Heaney is an Irish poet from Derry, in northern Ireland. He grew up in a world of violence where the pronunciation of your name, Seamus or James, dictated whether or not you would get housing, food stamps, a job at the local factory or harrassed at the local checkpoint on main street. He left the north of Ireland amidst much criticism for abandoning his country. There was a lot of pressure for him to use his talent and his art to tell the story of what was happening. Yet, he went to the south of Ireland and purchased a small cottage where he could reflect on what ought to be, not what was. In his nobel prize acceptance speech, he quotes Wallace Stevens who says that "the nobility of poetry is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without." In other words, the struggles of life which can be fought through wars and violence, can be wrestled within the imagination, mitigating the violence that can occur in the world.
There are a large number of writers in recent years who have emerged from the violence of their own childhoods. Toni Morrison writes about slavery. Czeslaw Milosz survived in Warsaw during World War II and defected from the Soviet Union years later. These writers, if true to their craft, will use their writing to point to a world that ought to be. This world will include virtues such as perseverence, modesty, fortitude, bravery, kychekw`love, sacrifice and honor among others. For the poet to write about these "old verities" as William Faulkner explains in should be one of the "props, pillars to help [man] endure and prevail."
Television and other forms of media, like poetry, needs to come to terms with its responsibility in the world and its effects on those who view it. The Holy Father recently enjoined the media to consider developing a kind of info-ethics, akin to bio-ethics for the scientific community. Until all forms of media are willing to accept that words, images, pictures, and music actually mean something, third grade teacher ought to start packing heat.