Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Dubious Boast

I’ve heard many a UU minister, educator and lay leader say it. I’ve heard my own minister say it. I had an ex-girlfriend who said it. And not only does it sound like they’re somehow bragging, not only has it become tiresome to hear, but I’ve seriously wondered about what value there is to it:

"I don’t watch television."

There are, of course, some mitigated variants to this boast: "I only watch PBS" comes to mind, as does "I only watch the news" and "I only watch public affairs television." I confess that I understand the motivation behind such a boast, as much of the medium has been reduced to drivel. But the anthropologist in me sees how dubious it is for members of a faith seeking to both enlarge their circle and change the world for the better to shun a primary source of knowledge and insight. And so, this post is devoted to why UUs, especially UU leaders, ought to stop bragging about their avoidance of TV, and how and why they should revise their viewing habits.

First, let’s start with a perception problem that Unitarian Universalists have been suffering for decades: We come across as elitist snobs. It’s one things to have two or three times the active vocabulary of the average American, to recite famous quotes or passages from memory, or to learn and use another language (which, tragically, too few Americans bother to do these days). But a good command of language also means an ability to get your point across clearly. Expanding one’s vocabulary doesn’t mean discarding simpler words and more commonly used phrases – it means adding to them and building upon them. Likewise, the medium of television provides us with a cultural vocabulary that is broadly used and understood. And if we want to both draw people in from that wider culture, and help them find ways to change and influence it, then we need to draw on the same symbols, tropes and memes that permeate and influence their lives.

That leads me to my second point: Avoiding things doesn’t necessarily change them. The genres of science fiction and Westerns, for example, did not improve because people stayed away. They improved because more people became engaged in insisting upon and even recommending changes for the better. From my vantage point, Unitarian Universalists are very good at coming up with grand visions of a better world, and then ranting about how reality falls short – but we ourselves often fall short of finding and implementing practical steps between the two, including and especially in our own congregations and movement. I believe that the manner in which so many UUs have disengaged themselves from popular culture is a big reason for this. Whether it’s to personally purify themselves, or as a form of protest, I don’t see it working. If you want to change the world, you have to get involved in it, if nothing else but to learn how things work so you’re able to tweak them in the right direction.

Lastly, and the biggest reason I find this boast so dubious: Our core values demand that we engage instead of avoid. Our twin traditions were founded on the fearless pursuit of the truth. It’s led us to evolve into a broad and progressive movement devoted to love and justice. How does avoiding a major element for the culture we seek to change honor that essential element of our heritage? I think of my own conundrum addressing the issues surrounding pornography – as a civil libertarian, I oppose censorship of any material simply because it has sexually explicit content, yet my aesthetic and political sensibilities find it hard to defend the vast majority of images and practices connected to the porn industry. But I must also ask myself how I might offer any insightful critique, or otherwise help to make positive changes, unless I do the responsible truthseeking needed to understand and engage.

So please don’t tell me whether you watch television, or what you limit yourself to watching. That tells me very little. Speak to me instead of how you watch television, and what you do with what you see.


  1. A few years ago at the ordination of our minister, another minister in our district was doing the sermon for this ordination.

    He used an allusion to the PBS TV series "Antiques Roadshow" when describing the valuable qualities in our minister that we haven't encountered yet and would later encounter in our journey together.

    My son whispered to me that one would have used "Pawn Stars" if one were talking to a mainstream group.

  2. I don't know if you've seen this:

    #28 Not Having a TV

  3. Thanks! I have engaged in the same rant, but you did it better. Sometimes we have awfully high horses to climb down from and awfully long noses to see to the end of.

  4. In general, it annoys me when people take pride in relatively harmless things they don't do. I'd much rather hear about about the important things they do do.

    So, sure, a lot of TV is a waste of time. If you don't watch any, you must have lots of free time to save the world and stuff. Tell me about that.