Bioethics Blogs

Amusing Ourselves to Death? The Tension between Entertainment Values and Civic Virtues

Kayhan Parsi, JD, PhD

In Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

–Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

With the rise of Donald Trump as a political force, we should take stock of some prescient work of the last 30 years. In 1985, cultural critic Neil Postman wrote his landmark book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (a 20th anniversary edition was issued in 2005 with an introduction by his son Andrew Postman). In this much-discussed work that transcended academic circles and became a popular hit, Postman argued that the medium of television inevitably trivializes our political discourse. The medium of television is so seductive that we would hardly notice that our civic dialogue has become cheapened and coarsened. Indeed, the ascendancy of Trump is a triumph of entertainment values—brief soundbites, aggressive marketing, and appealing to the lowest common denominator. Witness the tenor of the Republican debates in this latest election cycle. Weirdly, the debates echo old school rap battles where rappers would duel with other contenders, belittling their competitors’ rapping skills and generally exuding over-the-top bravado. In this year’s race, Trump mastered this form of political Jiu jets, recognizing that insulting your opponents, moderators, Muslims, and immigrants would not be a liability but rather an asset. This form of political theater left his more politically experienced opponents flat footed and eventually in the dust (see Jeb Bush).

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.