Mean World Syndrome

Friday, May 30th, 2014

George Gerbner fled Hungary in 1939, returned with the Allies in 1943, and certainly saw many terrible things, but he was much more concerned with what people ended up watching on television after the war and said it led to Mean World Syndrome:

People who spent a great deal of time watching television, he found, had an inaccurate picture of the world. They felt that violence, corruption, and danger were more widespread than they were in reality. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Television is modern-day religion:

It presents a coherent vision of the world. And this vision of the world, he says, is violent, mean, repressive, dangerous — and inaccurate. Television programming is the toxic by-product of market forces run amok. Television has the capacity to be a culturally enriching force, but, Gerbner warns, today it breeds what fear and resentment mixed with economic frustration can lead to — the undermining of democracy.


Whoever tells most of the stories to most of the people most of the time has effectively assumed the cultural role of parent and school,” Gerbner says, “… teaching us most of what we know in common about life and society.” In fact, by the time children reach school age, they will have spent more hours in front of the television than they will ever spend in college classrooms. Television, in short, has become a cultural force equaled in history only by organized religion. Only religion has had this power to transmit the same messages about reality to every social group, creating a common culture. Most people do not have to wait for, plan for, go out to, or seek out television, for the TV is on more than seven hours a day in the average American home. It comes to you directly. It has become a member of the family, telling its stories patiently, compellingly, untiringly. We choose to read The New York Times, or Dickens, or an entomology text. We choose to listen to Bach or Bartók, or at least to a classical station or a rock station or a jazz station. But we just watch TV — turn it on, see what’s on. And in Gerbner’s view it is an upper-middle-class conceit to say “Just turn off the television” — in most homes there is nothing as compelling as television at any time of the day or night.

It is significant that this viewing is nonselective. It’s why Gerbner believes that the Cultural Indicators project methodology — looking at television’s overall patterns rather than at the effects of specific shows — is the best approach. It is long-range exposure to television, rather than a specific violent act on a specific episode of a specific show, that cultivates fixed conceptions about life in viewers.

Nor is the so-called hard news, even when held distinct from infotainment shows like Hard Copy and A Current Affair, exempt from the disproportionate violence and misrepresentations on television in general. The old news saw “If it bleeds, it leads” usually prevails. Watch your local newscast tonight: it is not unlikely that the majority of news stories will be about crime or disaster — and it may well be that all six stories will be from outside your state, especially if you live far from any major metropolis. Fires and shootings are much cheaper and easier to cover than politics or community events. Violent news also generates higher ratings, and since the standards for television news are set by market researchers, what we get is lots of conformity, lots of violence. As the actor and director Edward James Olmos has pointedly observed, “For every half hour of TV news, you have twenty-three minutes of programming and seven minutes of commercials. And in that twenty-three minutes, if it weren’t for the weather and the sports, you would not have any positive news. As for putting in even six minutes of hope, of pride, of dignity — it doesn’t sell.” The author and radio personality Garrison Keillor puts it even more pointedly: “It’s as bloody as Shakespeare but without the intelligence and the poetry. If you watch television news you know less about the world than if you drank gin out of a bottle.”

The strength of television’s influence on our understanding of the world should not be underestimated. “Television’s Impact on Ethnic and Racial Images,” a study sponsored by the American Jewish Committee’s Institute for American Pluralism and other groups, found that ethnic and racial images on television powerfully shape the way adolescents perceive ethnicity and race in the real world. “In dealing with socially relevant topics like racial and ethnic relations,” the study said, “TV not only entertains, it conveys values and messages that people may absorb unwittingly — particularly young people.” Among viewers watching more than four hours each day, 25 percent said that television showed “what life is really like” and 40 percent said they learned a lot from television. African-Americans especially, the study showed, rely on television to learn about the world.

Television, in short, tells all the stories. Gerbner is fond of quoting the Scottish patriot Andrew Fletcher, who wrote to the Marquise of Montrose in 1704, “If I were permitted to write all the ballads I need not care who makes the laws of the nation.” Fletcher identified the governing power of, in Gerbner’s words, a “centralized system of ballads — the songs, legends, and stories that convey both information and what we call entertainment.” Television has become this centralized system; it is the cultural arm of the state that established religion once was. “Television satisfies many previously felt religious needs for participating in a common ritual and for sharing beliefs about the meaning of life and the modes of right conduct,” Gerbner has written. “It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to suggest that the licensing of television represents the modern functional equivalent of government establishment of religion.” A scary collapsing, in other words, of church into state.


  1. T. Greer says:

    This messages well with my objections to Game of Thrones, most recently articulated in a Razib Khan comment thread:

    Martin’s world feels just like the real one? Just how many people do you know who were raped by their brother next to a corpse in a cathedral?

    The lives of those who watch and read GoT bare no resemblance to the fictional lives of its characters. Indeed, it is most popular with the demographic whose lives are the least like the show. It does not correspond to any ‘reality’ they know about-except at a very abstract, intellectual level.

    Thus my question: why this thirst for a ‘reality’ that is utterly alien to the values, experiences, and world of the audience? Why do people want to lose themselves in barbarity?

    …GoT’s profligate sexuality is one of its hooks, of course, but that is only part of the voyeuristic impulse that drives the show. The allure of GoT is the allure of seeing the worst of humanity, viscerally depicted, without leaving the comfort of your living room. Much like the Saw films, GoT allows the viewer to revel in depravity from afar. GoT is not as gratuitous as Saw and the other Gorno flicks, but its perversion cuts deeper because the viewer has a stronger emotional connection with Martin’s characters. This is Martin’s central literary strategy: get the audience emotionally invested in the characters, then abuse them as graphically as possible.*

    We live in strange days. Violence is at global lows, prosperity at global highs. Yet modern upper-class Americans, living at the height of the richest, most productive civilization in history, have succumb to the idea that “real” can only be found in the gruesome, the lewd, and the heinous.

  2. Isegoria says:

    George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a response to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, replacing the heroic gloss with an emphasis on all the terrible things that happened in the real Middle Ages (and ancient world). While the hobbits live in Merrie Olde Englande, Martin’s characters live in the England of the War of the Roses and Shakespeare’s histories. Making things darker and edgier has become a bit of a cliché, but Martin was on the leading edge of the movement. His Wild Cards series did something similar with superheroes.

    In Martin’s case, part of this stems from his move away from unrealistic roleplaying games, like D&D, toward realism-focused games, like GURPS, where the guiding question is always, what would really happen?, rather than what’s fun?, or what’s easy?

  3. Zhai2Nan2 says:

    I find GURPS fascinating in theory, but it’s hard to find people who are mentally energetic enough to play it for extended periods. By contrast, D&D 4th edition requires minimal mental effort, but has none of the freedom of GURPS.

    I thank you for drawing Gerbner to my attention. I had previously known him as a Cultural Marxist. I had suspected him of subverting the USA. While I am not going to write a detailed biography, I retain my opinion that Gerbner was a subversive Cultural Marxist who intended nothing good for the Western world.

  4. Al Fin says:

    Under different US presidents, the media serves as a counter-influence to top-down political dominance. But under particular US presidents, the media (news, entertainment, documentary, informational etc.) serves as a full member of the team, to influence culture with full government approval.

    State control of culture in the Obama age is almost unlimited. Government agency, the agency of academia, and the agency of media of all sorts currently combine to reinforce state-approved morality and culture.

    The idea of state sanctioned television (and all media and recreation) as a replacement for religion is far more interesting and profound than any particular dark vision — such as Martin’s.

    Sometimes particular writers have personal grudges, along with the writing talent to shove them deeply into the public craw.

  5. Toddy Cat says:

    “I retain my opinion that Gerbner was a subversive Cultural Marxist who intended nothing good for the Western world”

    Considering that Gerbner started this “mean world” business back in the 1970s, when violence was spiralling out of control, I’d tend to agree with this. There has always been a “what are you going to believe, your liberal overlords or your lying eyes?” aspect to Gerbner. Just another Commie dupe.

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