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A Society Worthy of Our Televisions

by Theodore Dalrymple

The best way to avoid disappointment is to have low expectations—they can almost always be met. In that sense, the Clinton-Trump debates did not disappoint. No one really expected them to be an intellectual feast. Their interest, such as it was, could be said to be more in the realm of psychology, or even of pathology, than that of ideas.

But could they have been much better than they were? The late cultural critic Neil Postman wrote that television was an inherently trivializing medium (and Postman’s work was usefully outlined for the readers of Law and Liberty by Brian Murray). Although I could never quite grasp why in theory this should be so, in practice it seems almost always to be so.

There are few more frustrating experiences than trying to discuss a serious subject on television. Discussion programs are actually soundbite programs, from which that person emerges triumphant who says something striking in the very few seconds allocated to him. The content of what he says is unimportant: it is the form and feeling-tone that count.

Einstein said that a theory should be as simple as possible, but not simpler than possible. So it is with argument. There are many erroneous statements whose erroneousness cannot be exposed in a single sentence, however brilliantly compressed. Concision is a virtue unless it should come at the expense of truth, whereupon it is not only a vice, but a public danger.

I am sometimes invited to take part in television discussions; rather than refuse outright, I generally find (or make up) a polite excuse not to accept. Only very occasionally do I turn down invitations for the real reason: that I believe television to be a terrible social evil. But when I do I tell the person from a television company this, he rarely objects very strongly. Though I am unsure whether it is because he agrees with me or thinks that I am mad.

Not long ago I was reminded of just how pointless appearing on television is if disseminating reason is your goal.

For some reason (it certainly cannot have been the money), I recently went on a program to discuss several public questions. The panel had three other people on it besides me, and there was a presenter, a glamorous and intelligent woman who, whatever her private opinions, was not obviously unfair to anyone. What was inherently trivializing was the format, which seemed to be predicated on the assumption that no viewer could keep his mind fixed on a single subject for longer than a minute—this, on a program reputed to be at the more intellectual end of the television spectrum.

One of the topics was the value, positive or negative, of imprisonment as a punishment for crime. We had between the four of us about 10 minutes to discuss this complex subject. (It would have been 15, but time had to be allotted to the comments sent in electronically by viewers.)

One of the panellists, whose approach to the matter was very different from mine, said that 60 per cent of prisoners had psychiatric conditions known as personality disorders. The intended implications of this statement were at least two: that criminals are ill, and therefore not to be morally condemned; and that they need treatment rather than punishment.

Once my fellow panellist had delivered himself of this supposed fact, the presenter turned to me and asked me a question completely unrelated to it. I was faced with a dilemma: If I answered her question, the alleged fact would float by unchallenged; but if I disregarded her question and returned to what my fellow panellist had said, I would appear rude and evasive. Besides, I had 30 seconds at most in which to speak. Hogging the microphone for more time than that would have been counter-productive, because it would have led to a row which would have overshadowed completely the substantive matter we were trying to address.

So I let his statement stand, which might have given the impression that I accepted it as truth. The viewers, too, may well have assimilated it as truth.

The very concept of a personality disorder is contentious. At the very least, one does not have one in the same sense as one has a cold or a broken leg. There are, moreover, social fashions in its diagnosis. That most ludicrous of modern documents, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM, gives credence to a prevalence of multiple personality disorder (as in the movie The Three Faces of Eve) of one in 66 adults. As the Duke of Wellington said to the man who greeted him as “Mr. Jones, I believe,” if you believe that, you can believe anything.

If it is alleged that the relationship between crime and personality disorder is a causative one; if as a matter empirical fact a personality disorder is “incurable”; and if one takes a purely utilitarian view of punishment (which I do not), then it would follow that someone with a personality disorder who committed a crime should be given a longer sentence, not a shorter one. If such a person is led inexorably to commit crime, that is what would best protect the public. In other words, the implications of the disease model are not the liberal ones supposed, but precisely the opposite.

But of course, pointing to personality disorders to explain away crime is wrong-headed in the first place. If you add up the prevalence of the various personality disorders given in the DSM, more than a third of the population might have one.

Absurdity has all the best lines, though, as the devil allegedly had all the best tunes. As to a solution to the problem, I see none—except to turn the television off.

First published in the Library of Law and Liberty.