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Tyranny from Apathy

In: English and Literature

Submitted By laserwolf65
Words 1644
Pages 7
Does Entertainment Cause Tyranny?
Anonymous
FdEng 201, Section 24
15 October 2012

It is unlikely that one will understand a text without analyzing it. A cursory glance is not enough to internalize the important messages that the author wants to convey. Perhaps the most important texts to analyze are those written to persuade their audiences to believe something. Failing look closely keeps audiences from understanding the text's true strengths and weaknesses. By carefully examining the ethos, pathos, and logos of an argument, the reader is able to determine whether or not an author makes an effective argument. An analysis of this sort will show that Neil Postman's speech “Amusing Ourselves to Death” is lacking in all three areas to be effective.
Summary
Neil Postman, department chair of Culture and Communications at NYU, gave his speech “Amusing Ourselves to Death” at a book fair in Germany whose theme was “Orwell in the year 2000.” It was written to demonstrate that an “Orwellian dictatorship” was not necessary to deprive people or their rights. Instead, he asserts, the west is like that of Huxley's “Brave New World”; it is a society that has no need to be violently controlled because we are ever distracted by frivolities. The most potent distraction, he says, is the television. He begins by citing a few key statistics: eighty percent of all homes in the United States have a television, and the average American child watches 5000 hours of television before he or she even starts school (p. 449). Television, he says, is full of“junk.” The serious issue at hand is not just that there's a lot of junk, but, rather, that serious topics such as politics are being turned into “junk” (p. 449) because they have had an element of entertainment attached to them. Other subjects like religion and education have been put on the TV with an added element of entertainment to them. This focus on entertainment also has consequences in a real-world context. Classrooms, for instance, have begun to utilize visual entertainment to teach students (p. 451). He ends saying that by turning serious topics into mere entertainment, the television is causing the American populace to no longer care about that which is important and thought-provoking (p. 452).
Pathos
Postman's strategy for building pathos is centered around continually referencing the theme of the conference. He uses language and imagery from Orwell and Huxley to demonstrate his points. They permeate the document from beginning to end. This is emotionally effective because, given the Orwellian theme, his audience is most likely already working under the assumption that civilization could devolve into tyranny and ignorance. Before a single argument against television is brought up, Postman spends five paragraphs comparing and contrasting Orwell and Huxley (pp 448-49). He reminds his audience of “Big Brother” and the “Ministry of Truth” (p. 448). Further gripping the audience, he labels 1984 and Animal Farm as “the machinery of thought control” (p. 448). Such language and imagery stir the feelings of unease already present in the audience. Once this emotional bridge has been built, Postman discusses the “controlling” (p.449) forces present Huxley's Brave New World. He has uses the audience's Orwellian familiarity to transition into Huxley. Once the transition has been made, tyrannical images and language continue to be used to reinforce the audience's pre-existing worries. He says that we will “dance ourselves” into “oblivion” (p. 449). He wastes no time comparing television to the “soma” of Brave New World p. 449). As he references the effects of television, he remarks that it makes people view anything that is not entertainment as “odious” (p. 451). He ends the speech playing on the audience's fear of global dystopia by claiming that the rest of the world is following the United States because it is watching our television programs (p. 452). While Postman understands what effects this particular audience, he makes one fatal flaw that potentially keeps an entire group from becoming emotionally involved: libertarians. His second paragraph is devoted entirely to dismissing them. He speaks their “false sense of security and accomplishment,” and then berates them in the next sentence for “sing[ing] songs of praise” to themselves (p. 448) for not living in a totalitarian state. This condescending language does not invite libertarians in the audience to listen to the speaker's message. Thus, Postman's speech is not as emotionally effective as it could be.
Ethos
Postman's use of language is his most prominent way of building ethos. He uses carefully selected phrases to demonstrate his knowledge the audience and his education in general. As explored in the previous segment, Postman demonstrates a good understanding of Orwell and Huxley. In addition to the aforementioned examples, he equates Orwell's vision of the future as a “prison,” while Huxley's is that of a “burlesque” (p. 452). Postman's language stays eloquent throughout the piece. Near the beginning, he introduces the subject of television by calling attention the the United State's “symbolic ecology” (p. 449). A few paragraphs later, he references the “marketplace of ideas” (p. 450). He also ends his speech quoting Shakespeare's “all the world's a stage” (p. 450). While certainly eloquent, there is a startling vagueness in some of his language. The most obvious example is when he refers to “junk” (p. 449) found on television. At no point is this term defined. The audience is left to try and understand what he means. This is a crucial mistake because his entire argument revolves around the idea that television turns “serious public business” (a term also undefined) into “junk” (p. 449) Framing television as “junk” is problematic for more than just the vagueness of the term. Since everything that television offers is “junk,” Postman denies any possibility that TV may have some benefit to society. He decries its effects on politics (p. 450), education (p. 450), and religion (p. 451), but he makes no reference to any positive aspect of the medium. He criticizes politicians for appearing on television (p. 451), but sees no problem with them using the radio (p. 450). Postman lets his bias against the television prevent him from seeing anything negative about other mediums of expressions. This hurts his ethos because it is difficult to seriously consider a greatly biased argument. Postman also severely damages his ethos by not citing any authorities other than himself. He cites various statistics dealing with TV usage, but never says where the statistics came from (p. 449). He asserts later says that news anchors are commonly called “talking hair-dos” (p. 450). Who exactly calls them this, and how he knows this is not explained. He later asserts that Americans prefer watching religious TV programs rather than going to church. Once again, there is no evidence given other than his own assertion that this is true. This refusal to cite sources and verify his claims undermines the aura of authority that his eloquent language tries to build.
Logos
Of the three elements of an argument, Postman's logos is the worst. It is riddled with logical flaws and fallacies that inform his bias. Very few claims are reasonable or logically sound. He begins his negative remarks about television by saying that “all discourse on television must take the form of entertainment” (p. 450). This is a case of dicto simpliciter. The statement is too general and absolute, and thus it cannot be possibly be completely true. His next claim begins well even though it is unsubstantiated. He calls attention to the fact that a “fat man” cannot be elected to high office in the USA (p. 450). While it is true that there are generally fatter individuals in Congress, his claim is not altogether unreasonable. Televised debaters have to look good on camera, and that has nothing to do with the job they are lobbying for. This is probably why Postman cites the Lincoln-Douglas debates as a good example of what debate used to be (p.450) This good argument is undermined just a few sentences later, though. Postman asserts that because of this dynamic it is possible that a “Hollywood actor” can be elected as President (p. 450). The context makes it clear that this is supposed to be a bad thing. The problem is that being an actor has no more to do with one's qualifications as being overweight. He says that televison makes it possible to discriminate against a candidate based on weight, but Postman simultaneously states that it's ok discriminate based on profession. Postman argues against “Sesame Street” because it combines education with entertainment (p. 451). He says that both the creators and audience cannot distinguish between entertainment and education (p. 451). This is quite the hasty generalization. He does not know the intent of the creators. He doesn't know if they are unable to distinguish between the education and entertainment, or whether they simply believe that one can combine the two and achieve good results. He also criticizes the show's impact in the classroom setting. He maintains that because of “Sesame Street,” teachers in Philadelphia now teach their curriculum to the tunes of popular music (p. 452). This is a hasty generalization because he has no evidence to support his claim that “Sesame Street” informed this policy decision. In addition, he disregards the benefits that auditory learners would gain by learning in such a fashion. He shows no evidence that this would actually be harmful in any way, but he presents it as fact. Postman's command of language and understanding of his audience's perspectives are his argument's strongest characteristics. Unfortunately, exclusionary language, heavy bias, lack of evidence, and logical fallacies severely hurt his case. Overall his speech weak and unpersuasive.
Postman, N. (2012). Amusing Ourselves to Death. In R. Seamons (Ed.), The Way of Wisdom (pp. 448-53). Rexburg, ID: BYU-Idaho. Retrieved from http://ilearn.byui.edu…...

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