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Reports & Essays: Science - Social

"AND""OR"


Marty Pelletier
Channels of Identification When we see stories on the news of children murdering each other, what must we think in terms of responsibility and which influences contributed to the decisions which left four children and a teacher dead? Who is responsible? How do we as individuals make decisions? What in our culture influences our behavior and impacts our value systems? More specifically, what exactly does it mean to be influenced? I have chosen television as my focus because I feel it is the most successful media in terms of sculpting social values and, therefore, social relations. The examination of the television industry, with an emphasis on communication (through perception and subsequent identification), yields answers to these questions that are so essential to understanding core sociological themes. I will first discuss how the process of acculturation produces the human need to create a personal identity every second, and the inherent implications of the role of communication toward this goal of self-identification. I will examine why television fits this human need so perfectly, as it presents an incredibly safe place to identify without being judged in return. Television is notorious for its ability to create and alter our concept of reality, but how did it become such a powerful influence? Which human cultural need produced such a demand for a medium that can be passively consulted for clues to our personal identities? What is the nature of the interaction that people have with television? The act of watching television highlights a number of phenomena that explain the culture of television. The key players are the programs on TV and the viewers, the latter creating a need for the former. After all, television would have no place in a world with no viewers. Television is a profound clue in to the inter-workings of the larger culture, as well as to the nature of human behavior, in that it reflects our weaknesses and goals, and the extremely exploitive nature of power. ^ÓCommunication is a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed^Ô. This process is enabled by the fact that communication is necessary for human survival. The very nature of humans as a social animal accounts for such a need to communicate. The media^Òs ability to influence the individual and serve as a cultural resource is the result of the individual^Òs incessant search for identity, which established a permanent niche for television in society. In other words, it was our need to be influenced, to have a resource of clues as to our identity, which made television an authority in values and ideas about reality. TV is important because we as humans need to identify ourselves everyday and it is an easy and safe way to reinforce what you want to see. It is a basis for interpreting and defining our environment, about which we are constantly having to learn and adjust. I will argue that inherent to human social relations is the need to identify oneself in the moment in order to know how to respond. All living organisms have a fundamental need to interpret their environment in order to survive, and to do so as efficiently as possible. This raises the issue of why humans have such a need to find identity in sources outside of the self. The answer lies in the fact that humans do not have instincts, meaning that we do not have the luxury of having access to predetermined responses to stimuli within the environment. As such, we have to scan and consult our environment (culture) to learn a system of responses that appeals to us individually. Orchestrated by the ^Óself^Ô, our perceptual data from our five senses is filtered and interpreted based on how we need to see the world. Every second we are efficiently interpreting only the necessary stimuli that must be responded to according to our self-created investments. This is the reason you have not felt your feet in your shoes until just now, there was no reason to. In a very real sense, we are controlled by our investments in that it is in our investments that we make or break our identities. Where we look then, what we listen to is almost chosen for us (and yet somehow by us) as we are driven to create an identity every moment based on the brain^Òs incredible need to efficiently respond to its perceptions. We take clues from family, educators, role models, peers, and the media, among others. Television was designed in such a way that it is easy for us to consult it for quick answers about who we want to be, what appropriate behavior is, how we want our society to view us, how we want to spend our time. This is a critical aspect to TV^Òs ability to impact us. It takes very little energy for us to turn on the TV, it allows us to forget about the stress in our own life, it does not require that we speak with anyone or have to defend our ideals, it is optimistic in that it convinces us that we can always be prettier, richer, better, and always more accepted by others, only with the help of their products of course. My intention in purposing this thesis of self-identification as the basis of all communication is to show where the relationship between perceiver and perceived truly lies, as this will show where responsibility rests. I will demonstrate why TV is so appealing to our impressionable nature, and why it is so potentially dangerous. I say potentially because I will simultaneously argue that it is the perceiver that ultimately must react to the message, and that although accountable for her reaction, she is not necessarily in control. This idea that humans are accountable for their perceptions while not being in control of them may seem awkward or even conflicting, yet it is evidenced in this theory of self. This theory is instrumental in illustrating the process of perceiving, and thus the formation of values, because it reflects how and why humans allow their mass media to affect them. It is in the way in which we perceive an event, a commercial, or a conversation that determines what we think about it, and therefore whether to invest energy in it. The real question is what determines how we perceive, how much influence is taken, how much is forced? Television is an authority in social values because we invest so heavily in its messages. In other words, people have assigned to television the role of educator, informant, and mentor through our reliance upon it for clues. Commercials serve to tell us what products, attitudes, and behaviors we need to be socially acceptable, and characters model the lives that we ought to lead. Through these means television sculpts our ideas of success, health, beauty, happiness, love, and morality, of which these productions avow to be an authority. However, it must be acknowledged that viewers are those that truly make TV an authority in social relations and ideals. The producers simply live up to such responsibility. The initial step in television^Òs ability to influence us is its capacity to hold our attention in the first place, long enough to impact us and leave a lasting impression. Television has long been a greater source of entertainment than books or lasting conversations about life. We turn to it and dedicate more time to watching than we do to any other leisure activities. It is from these large proportions of invested time that television derives its power as a primary influence. Furthermore, the viewing of television is a ^Ósafe^Ô activity because we are not judged as we view, no one knows what reaction we have to what we see is in the privacy of our own mind; whereas with speaking we have to risk having our ideas refuted. The second step in television^Òs success in influencing us is through its array of programs, messages, and realities, which ensures that everyone will find something that speaks to them and provides some sort of desirable feedback. Television is a powerful invention in that it allows channels to human identity. Satellite TV, (soon DHTV) and comprehensive cable programs present hundreds of channels with individual programming that have the power to captivate anyone, regardless of background or belief. This makes it easy to identify. Producers are able, furthermore, to determine in which ways we identify with the messages through Nielson ratings and product sales, and continually reinforce whatever values or messages that sells. This selling of attention makes billionaires of certain CEOs and immediately raises questions of responsibility, morality, and where exactly free-will lies in a society so structured in conformity. Producers of programs and advertising are well aware of the competition they have with other sources for clues as to identity. Being the quickest, easiest, and least expensive product through which values and answers are communicated is an asset that makes it so influential. This is why millions of dollars are offered per episode to a comedian living in New York City for playing the part of a comedian living in NYC. Conglomerates of businesses, thousands of jobs, all rest on product sales. Americans have become so addicted to finding our personal identity in consumerism that Jerry Seinfeld has become extremely influential to our economy. Is it too late? Are we already so conditioned to need to be influenced by the same messages that we can^Òt see it? Are corporations already so invested in their own growth that to take their ^Ócustomers^Ô well being in to account would be bankruptcy? A perfect example is the Tobacco Industry. They are so incredibly invested in their worldwide distribution of nicotine that they knowingly target children, heighten nicotine levels, and then lie about its addictive nature and ability to kill if used properly. They were not born evil, I believe they have just learned to identify themselves by not looking at the consequences of their actions. This would be pretty easy with billions of dollars to spend and a true belief that one is simply offering a product for sale, as a public service almost. Smoking cigarettes is another perfect example of how the ^Óself^Ô needs to find identity. The act of inhaling cigarette smoke is incredibly dangerous to one^Òs body and yet I feel that is exactly why kids do it. They know its not healthy, they smoke because it^Òs not healthy. Smoking started out as a social activity but as it became a ^Ódirty habit^Ô, suddenly it was attractive to anyone who wanted to rebel or make a statement, namely teenagers. They smoke because it^Òs cool and important to claim your independence as a teenager. What better way than to show that they can successfully ingest one of the most harmful substances known to man. The recent uproar and court cases over tobacco, I believe, only gives kids more reason to smoke as they see how easy it is to find identity in what others believe is bad. That is why they snuck that first cigarette in the first place. What are the implications of all individuals needing to find their own identity and a society so attached to its products? Are we growing in our consumerist need to find our^Ôselves^Ô or will this trend result in an intense rebellion when the cards are finally laid on the table and everyone sees the true relationship of a commidified culture to it^Òs need to identify? To what extent does conformity promote a stable society and at what point does it limit its possibilities? What responsibility do corporations have in sending messages that could easily harm social relations, such as the beauty myth, or the problem of drinking and driving? What freedoms are granted by our Amendments and further reinforced by our government^Òs subsidizations? What is my responsibility? I hope to attack these questions, based on the above assumptions, in my next paper.

 



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