Does TV change the way we think and act?
An article by Larissa Dubecki in The Age newspaper explores the extent to which torture in TV shows such as Fox’s “24” serves as a potential role model for military personnel serving in Iraq or Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Shows such as 24 are certainly watched by both the US army and people in US Administration. As Dubecki reports:
. . . series co-creator Joel Surnow [told] this week’s New Yorker, “The military love our show”, citing a US army regiment serving in Iraq whose collection of 24 DVDs were blown up by an enemy bomb. “People in the Administration love the series, too,” he said. “It’s a patriotic show. They should love it.”
In 24, the moral justification for torture
. . . rests on the spectre of necessity, whether real or imagined. Bauer and his comrades are regularly forced to make the grim call to cross the line from interrogation to torture to elicit information that will guarantee the freedom of US citizens who are blissfully unaware that they are a matter of hours from annihilation.
Dubecki notes the extent to which ‘the bad guys’ in the TV series are now painted to look like ‘the bad guys’ in the ‘war on terror’ – that is, to look like terrorists. In 24:
The enemies are now almost uniformly Middle Eastern and anyone with moral objections to vilification and torture is shown to be fatally wrong. The nice, middle-class, Middle Eastern family targeted by LA lawkeepers turns out to be, surprise, surprise, terrorists.
The complexity and shades of grey in the real world are replaced by simple, bold themes and a clear discourse of an unequivocal right and unequivocal wrong.
Dubecki points out that:
The US organisation Human Rights First, which is pressing President George Bush to reveal the fate of prisoners under the CIA’s use of secret rendition prisons, has pointed out that before the September 11 attacks there were fewer than four acts of torture depicted on prime-time US TV screens annually. Now, with the help of 24, it’s more than 100.
Dubecki raises the point that soldiers are people too. They like to watch TV and see a movie. To what extent then is the simplistic portrayal of and justification of torture on TV capable of shaping and legitimising actions by military decision makers and personnel? To what extent does the legitimation of torture (as a ‘necessity’) in shows such as 24 shape military decision makers’ and personnels’ views and actions, and recast torture as a necessity, or at least as something in the public good? To what extent does it provide both a role model and a moral compass for how ‘enemy combatants’ should or could be treated?
I find Dubecki’s argument fascinating. It is an example of what I called ‘ideational reflexivity‘ in my Ph.D thesis. In this example of reflexivity, the entertainment industry creates scenarios or ‘worlds’ that are based in the emotional hopes and desires of people, of the day to day and archetypal themes we deal with. However, at the same time and to a greater or lesser extent, the worlds explored in TV and the movies have the capacity to influence and shape our thinking and values, and provide a role model for how we might act in the future – for better or worse.
The relationship between TV and reality is ‘reflexive’ in that TV both draws from reality and our beliefs about it for legitimacy, but at the same time, through affecting our ideas and exposing role models and examples, potentially affects and shapes reality. This reflexivity is ‘ideational’ because TV and the movies affect us through the medium of ideas, through making us think, see and feel through the lens of the show.
Good movies and TV pick out particular themes because they are topical, they create interest, they can act as the vehicle for a story or a drama. Emotionally or intellectually, they can engage us. Like any powerful story however, while engaging us, they can also affect us.
TV’s treatment of torture is part of our collective discussion on the morality of torture. Indeed, it is perhaps the most far-reaching discussion of torture in society: it is perhaps more likely that the young soldiers on duty in Iraq have watched 24 than it is that they’ve read widely in moral philosophy, or followed closely debates in print media about the legal and moral issues surrounding torture. TV, after all, has a way of speaking directly and easily, in the comfort of one’s lounge, without the need for sustained effort.
The degree to which US military personnel in Abu Grhraib, Gauntanamo Bay, or CIA rendition centres around the world were morally influenced by TV shows such as 24, of course, is a matter for study and debate. It seems fairly clear, however, that TV holds up at least one role model that may be comfortable to hold onto for people in that situation, who want easy answers rather than shades of grey.
As Dubecki notes,
The image of military grunts in Iraq revelling in the show’s typical mise en scene of stark rooms furnished with the instruments of torture is worrying in the extreme.
Perhaps a good note to leave this discussion on is with Dubecki’s observation that now:
. . . Sutherland has told interviewers he’s becoming sick of acting out torture scenes.
When Jack Bauer has had enough of torture, perhaps it’s time that we call it quits too?