Saturday, January 24, 2009


George Gerbner was a Communication professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and later at Temple University. He's known in my field for Cultivation Theory, which says that the contained reality inside a television engraves itself on its viewers' beliefs. People who watch a lot of television wind up with very skewed ideas about how dangerous the world is, how often people are victims of violent attack, what percentage of the population is female and/or nonwhite, and other distortions. Gerbner's team backed these claims up with a good deal of evidence, whereas what I'm writing today is pure speculation. Zero evidence backs it up, but it's a study just begging to be done. Won't be by me, but if it ever does get done, I'll hang on every word of the reported results.

TV shows have in common with movies and books the trait that they're made up of characters and plot, and characters and plot are coherent. They have a logic to them. If the dramatis personae on a show do something that's "out of character," then that becomes a complaint, a sore spot, a moment that a typical viewer might not enjoy. The exceptions, of course, are out of character acts that advance the plot, by dropping clues as to what will happen next, so even when the viewer can spot deviance, it's still of a sort that will be recombined into the larger logic of the story, just as any dissonant phrase in popular music is very likely to be resolved into the theme. And when people consume a steady diet, evening after evening, afternoon after afternoon, weekend after weekend, year after year, of coherent characters and structured plots, it really seems to me that they get the wrong idea about how life works. At the very least, they have a track of expectations hidden somewhere in the confused tangle of the mind that becomes a stumbling block to reasonable deliberation.

This is my perennial grumble, but I think I'm on to something here: my students fall into a very weird form of denial when it comes to getting their work done. They dig themselves into deeper and deeper holes, joking all the time about how awful their procrastination is, and then put themselves through unbelievable torment to try to recoup. And one of the most striking things is how utterly dumbfounded they are on those occasions when the catch-up effort fails. When I grade work and it doesn't pass, or when someone submits an assignment after the deadline and I won't accept it, I don't often see anger or anguish or other "ang" words as the first reaction. Many times I see them as a delayed, second reaction, but the first reaction is almost always puzzlement, incomprehension, utter unpreparedness for the state of affairs. It's not that they see what's happened and they're upset; it's as though they never considered this possibility in the first place, as though water were dry and gravity repelled instead of attracting.

And I'm starting to think it has something to do with overexposure to TV plots.

In TV plots, there are complications, and those build enjoyable tension and curiosity, and then there's a resolution. There's always a resolution. It might not happen this week: it might be strung out over an entire season, but good writing includes a tying up of loose ends. Something swoops in and writes an easily understood ending to the story. And if Gerbner's right that what we see about danger, and about the distribution of demographic groups among the population, primes us to expect the same patterns in real life, then it wouldn't surprise me at all if people expect their problems and challenges to follow the same trajectory: to descend, as though attracted by a strange teleological gravity, toward a solution all by themselves, even in the absence of anyone's deliberation or planning.

And, of course, life isn't life that.

The other thing is, people aren't characters. People do not have a logic that holds them together. People have, at all times, the potential to behave "out of character," and the problem is not with the people, but with the phrase "out of character." That's an attempt to rationalize our incomplete and sloppy pigeonholing of people, our forceful insistence that our perceptions are not only accurate but normative. You should behave the way I expect in all matters, large and small. That, of course, is both impossible and silly, since you can't ever fully understand my expectations and I can't ever fully grasp your motivations, but we do follow that cycle of error over and over again. We especially do it in interpreting people's nonverbals, which is something I'm attuned to right now since I'm teaching the class, but we repeat it in just about all areas.

I have one Communication major, one of my very favorites, who drops by and has lengthy talks with me, and much of them consist of variations on one theme: "I'm not like other people. I'm very complex." The second half of that theme is true: she is quite complex. But where she goes astray is with the first half: assuming that other people are not. We have a label for this: the illusion of asymmetric insight. That's the assumption that other people are easily understood, but that none of them truly and completely understands us. She puts it neatly, but she's not the only one who falls prey to it. I'm aware of it as an idea, a phrase that I can invoke to diagnose a particular tangle of thinking, but I stumble over it all the time.

The thing is, life does have an Author and a plot, but our silliness is in trying to compare the plot of life to a plot authored by a human. I know I'm a broken record, but His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. My Sunday School class is currently in Genesis, and we're coming back every week to the difference between Cain's descendants and Seth's descendants: Cain's descendants were movers and shakers who made names for themselves by their accomplishments, and Seth's descendants called upon the name of the Lord and waited patiently for the seed of the woman who would overturn the serpent's victory. So it's become a slogan for us: are you making a name for yourself, or are you calling on the name of the Lord? It's got to be one or the other, because doing both isn't an option. And that idea pops up again right here. If I know that I'm an infinitely complex character, participating in an infinitely complex plot, and the Architect of its logic has no need to round the plot off and shape it into an easily chewed and digested bite of narrative that I can fully grasp, then I have far less reason to be complacent, far less reason to trust in my own perceptions and my own judgment, and far more reason to stretch myself and at the same time fall back on my dependence on God.

Put in fewer words, if I can't figure out the story of my life, then my only other option is to walk by faith.

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