The nature of television and the apparent neutrality of words

The nature of television and the apparent neutrality of words

Raise your hand if, at least once, at home with the family you have still experienced a deep sense of loneliness in finding everyone apart from each other.

This so-called ‘domestic’ scene has become a recurring theme, where the home – as suggested by the bitter irony of the Faro vignette on the front cover – has a father who, desolate and dejected, mourns the ‘old times’, in which at least the whole family gathered around the same screen.

With today’s technological advances and new forms of communication and entertainment, we are participating in a true break down of a listening audience and good familial communication. This breakdown is now also apparent at the table, during the traditional family gathering for mealtimes. The man of the house, in our vignette, is there to point out that all is not well.

Of the same opinion is Professor Carlos Cachán, who teaches Journalism and Public Communications at the University of Nebrija in Madrid and author of an evocative article on the nature of television communication and its effect on the fields of education and schools, titled La naturaleza de la televisión dificulta la comunicación de calidad (“The nature of television makes quality communication hard”). For the readers of Family And Media, we have taken some of the key words from this book, chosen by the author, and will follow them with a discussion. After all, it is from words that everything started, and it is from there that everything must, necessarily, restart. In the beginning was the Word, said someone who knew what he was talking about.

The nature of television – content – time – receptor – truthfulness – quality of communication

Out of these six phrases, I will deal with two – television and communication – before introducing another three, which I consider to be ‘key’ in Professor Cachan’s argument: idea, video, education .

We know well what ‘a’ television is, and just as well what ‘the’ television is; but have we ever wondered about the meaning of the word television itself? Literally one would say ‘seeing from afar’ or ‘remote viewing’; in fact we can find tele in many words, from telescope to telephone and telegram, all of which evoke an idea of distance. To watch television, therefore, is an experience that inevitably carries our gaze far away, to another place. It is exactly this that the father is lamenting in the Faro vignette, to which, in order to remedy the disintegration of the conversation during dinner, it might be useful to try out some tips to help family communication.

To turn back now to ‘see’. In Spanish, a colloquial way to express agreement with someone else’s idea is to say lo veo, I see it. Just so, because when an idea is first thought of, it is literally ‘seen’. This actually originates in Indo-European antiquity as idêin, literally meaning ‘to see’, before establishing itself in Greek with the meaning that we know today. Even more fascinating, in my opinion, is the semantic continuity between the words idea and video, since the latter is simply the first person singular of the present form of the verb videre, ‘to see’.

At this point one must ask oneself: what happens to our ideas, where do they end up, when we watch television? Try to imagine asking someone what she is thinking while she is absorbed in a movie or a reality show. Except for more critical and active viewers, the obvious answer we expect is ‘I’m not thinking about anything’, or ‘I’m thinking about what I'm seeing’. Thus, the viewer’s present ideas tend either to be suspended or to be aligned with those of the onscreen discourse (logos).

In the beginning was the Word , someone said one day. Much more recently, and not accidentally, someone else, who knew what he was talking about, defined mass communication as the ‘ideological equipment of the state". Maybe they're both right. The wise need few words …

… Few words, but precious ones, then, – television, idea, video – , whose semantic relationship is, as it were, the hard core around which the thoughts of Professor Cachán turn. He informs us, with sound logic and a rich supporting bibliography, how “the current predominance and influence of the television and it’s nature … make quality advancements in communication difficult with regards to the education system”.

Professor Cachán provides us with numerous cues for reflection on the means of communication and on television in particular, besides offering valid citations of studies and works of different disciplines (from psychology to pedagogy, from the science of communication to literature). In addition, the author offers us comparative statistical data about the consumption of television by children between 6 and 12 years’ old, paying particular attention to the effects that it has on the learning process, as well as on the quality of communication in the scholastic context.

But what does Cachán mean by ‘the quality of communication’? Citing Alberto Gil, he explains it as the type of communication that is characterised by rigorous discussion, respect for others, by an interest to help, by the refusal of vanity and flattery, and by a pragmatism that ruthlessly looks exclusively for its own interest above everything else and at any cost. “Quality education in an academic setting”, continues Cachán, “demands that the speech of the professor is so effective that it can move its pupils and motivate them into action”.

Although I agree wholeheartedly with Cachán up till now, I disagree with his next argument that communication between teacher and pupil must disregard emotive language (which is more usual in television communication), and that the teacher must always make use of persuasive speech based on reasoning and on seeking hard evidence. There are examples and data that back up the debate, and below I will explain the reasons for my dissent.

If we pause for a moment on the etymology of the words marked in italics, we discover that ‘to motivate’ and ‘to excite’ have the same Latin root: both, in fact, refer to mòtus, past participle of the verb mòvere, ‘to move’. But more specifically, ‘to excite’ is derived from emovère, where the prefix e- insists on the direction of this movement from the inside out. Therefore, ‘to excite (to be excited)’ literally means ‘to move (oneself) outside’. Thus, the emotions are fully realised in the moment in which they are expressed, because they move from the inside out, while they are intended to generate frustration when, on the contrary, we choose to keep them inside, to repress them.

Finally, to conclude this line of reasoning, we compare the significance of these two words – to motivate and to be excited – with our final keyword, ‘to educate’. It comes from the Latin ex-ducere meaning ‘to bring from inside’ or ‘to carry outside’, and it is this, contrary to what we usually think and to what parents and teachers do, that should be the principal mission of every good educator.

Indeed, he who understand this idea “already lies half asleep in the dawn of knowledge”, according to the Prophet Khalil Gibran. A good teacher is one who knows how to excite his students and who can bring their emotional apprehensions to the surface. To reiterate a Spanish writer, Miguel de Unamuno, “a true school teacher is one who, by reading, knows how to cry, laugh, feel, imagine, and think about his little children”. This leads us to believe truly that to be motivational, aneducation should be exciting in itself and able to excite.

This last consideration does not, however, detract from the overall validity of the aforementioned article in which the author has admirably expressed all the complexities of the subject’s themes in a simple and completely practical way. It is an excellent contribution to understanding the phenomenon of the media. Furthermore, it serves as a useful compendium for any parent or teacher who wants a strategy to refocus his or her work as an educator and to communicate better with children and students. On this topic I also suggest our article, Television, family and children: the TV is not a ‘babysitter’.

It really is worth dedicating a little of our time … to turn on some lights … and to turn off too many other ‘lights’.