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Where We Learn Values Now 

As the family, formal educational institutions, and religion have decreased in importance as a teacher of any kinds of values, they have been replaced by popular culture as propagated by the media, which thanks to technological developments now have immediate and worldwide reach. While there has been endless debate over the effects of mass media, and the kinds of values taught by modern mass media, for our purposes it might be summarized as follows:

  • The ascendancy of youth, newness, and novelty.In the modern media world, old is not wise, but merely tired and unattractive. While Jesus Christ was a young man, generally religious figures, teachers, and father figures were old and wise. But age and wisdom do not translate well into the visual imagery that is the heart of TV, movies, and other modern media. Once educated people read long books and poetry, and even the masses listened to long speeches and sermons, all of which could convey complex messages with embedded if not explicit values. One of the most important values conveyed was the importance of patience, and of working hard for a long time to achieve what you wanted, in the right way. Modern media delivers a message of speed, instant success and instant gratification, focusing not on the old and wise, but the young and famous: rock stars, actors, Internet moguls, or star athletes. One visible symptom of this change can be seen in the art world, novelty and sensationalism has replaced craftsmanship; the victory of newness over hard, careful, diligent labor.
  • The turn away from text, and abstract, complex discussion and thought, towards constantly changing images and sound bites.People don’t read, they watch. If they read, what they read is much shorter and less complex. It was far harder to produce a good book without word processors and a modernized printing process. Yet Victorian England produced the work of Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, Gaskell, and many others. These classic novels are essentially morality tales, full of vivid depictions of right and wrong, and elaborate character and story development. Such tales are still told, the novels of Ayn Rand and James Clavell come to mind, and even on TV there are complex dramas such as The Wire. But they are few and far between, despite having far better tools of production.
  • The ascendancy of casualness over formality.This can be seen in dress, language, family life, the fall of ritual, etiquette, the flattening of hierarchies in business and society generally. Young people listening to rap music and watching performers in person and on TV greatly accelerated the tendency to emulate a certain style of dress; sloppy, loose, extremely casual clothing, backwards baseball caps. As American, and world, culture, became obsessed with celebrities, the way they dressed and acted – their narcissism, self-entitlement, and vanity – quickly spread through the rest of society. The values of the entertainment world became the values of the larger society.
  • The rate of stimulation.Because endless stimulation is available at very low prices through TV, the Internet, radio, smartphones, etc. people are constantly plugged in, which has led to a decrease in the ability and/or willingness for careful, quiet thought and contemplation, and almost an addiction to constant stimulation. This in turn has led to a short term focus; short term profits in business, get rich quick schemes, diets that produce very fast, but not lasting, results. Despite the fact that life expectancies have dramatically expanded, which should lead to more of an emphasis on long term thinking, the opposite has occurred. Generally people are drowning in short term stimulus and trivia; men are no longer men but overgrown children in need of constant stimulation to prevent boredom. As such, they aren’t capable of the disciplined thought and action leading to a life based on values. They may talk the talk, but, like fad dieters who will always relapse, they don’t walk the walk.

 

Another influence of mass media has been the degree to which the general populace has been overtaken with fantasy; both through media content and advertising. The mass media message is that you can have another life; the life of someone you see on TV, in movies, or in advertising. The barrage of this message is so constant and overwhelming as to become almost inseparable from modern life. The whole message of reality TV is that people with no particular talent that have ordinary lives can instantly become celebrities. Shelter magazines feed the fantasy of gourmet entertaining and beautiful houses; travel magazines feed the fantasy of travel to exotic lands. Credit cards ads encourage borrowing to fulfill these fantasies. Video games allow users to live in a world of violence, but without any of the actual danger. The Internet has provided almost infinite variations of pornographic fantasy. Lotteries and legalized gambling feed the get rich quick fantasy.

People living a value-based life may have big dreams, but they are anchored in reality. But even big dreams aren’t critical to creating value. It’s hard for most people to understand, but for most of human history people’s lives did not change dramatically, and, just as importantly, most people did not want or seek dramatic change. Some dabbled in the occult, and belief in mysticism and magic was common, but mostly people lived their lives according to pretty set patterns and expected to be rewarded, or punished, in the afterlife. A farmer pretty much expected to be a farmer for the rest of his life, and his sons, and their sons, would probably be farmers. This sort of static life is not necessarily a good thing, and the upward mobility of modern times has much to recommend it, but making long term value judgments, and living by them, is so much easier when your world is not in flux, and you are not constantly being teased and tempted by a million media and advertising images telling you how you can instantly and dramatically change your life. If your life changes, should your values change as well?

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