Re-valu-ing the Family, Part Fourteen: Culprits’ and Their Characteristics (Continued)
by Richard and Linda Eyre

This week we will take a closer look at the “family damage” that is done by entertainment and media institutions, information and communication institutions, and political and governmental institutions.

Note: In this twenty-six part column, Richard and Linda Eyre explore the recent revolution of the family from the honored centerpiece of society to a disrespected and seemingly redundant appendage to the larger corporate and cultural institutions of our new world. Re-valu-ing the family, the Eyres believe, is the only alternative to America’s demise. The sequence of the column is: A. Re-valu-ing the family (part I); B. The “crux” (parts 2 and 3 — why family is the foundation for everything, including happiness); C. The “curse” (parts 4 and 5 — the social problems that plague our society today); D. The “crisis” (parts 6 and 7 — the breakdown and breakup of families that allows and leads to the social problems); E. The “cause” (parts 8, 9, 10, 11 — the reasons our families are failing); F. The “culprits” (parts 12, 13, 14, and 15– how our new, large institutions are destroying the small, most basic institution of family); G. The “cure” (parts 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22 — what you as a parent can do about it); H. The “case” (parts 23, 24, and 25 — a case for government and big corporations to pay more positive attention), and I. Finding or forming a family support group (part 26).

4. Entertainment and Media Institutions

Entertainment has existed as long as people have, and the messages of song and dance, of theater, of the visual arts, and even of sports have always been varied and diverse — some of them derogatory or dangerous to the family. Various ways of reporting on events or “news” have also existed forever.

But it is only recently that entertainment and news have combined with electronic media technology and become an institution so vast, so powerful, and so centralized that its messages could threaten and undermine families and the values that sustain families on a wide, even global scale.

On the positive side, entertainment media, from movies to TV to music, brings families together, gives them a shared experience, helps them communicate and can at times uplift and even inspire them. And news media keeps us informed and up-to-date like never before.

Yet at the same time, our media today is so pervasive and so addictive that it takes time away from families and substitutes for communication within families even as it douses us with content that desensitizes us to violence, to dangerous, casual sex, and to other destroyers of family.

When soap operas (or sit-coms) portray promiscuous teenage sex as the norm, it becomes the norm. When movies or TV dramas portray indiscriminate violence as commonplace, it becomes commonplace. When rap songs portray hatred and bizarre acts as the thing to feel and the things to do, they become exactly that for millions. When news covers only the sensational or the violent, we think that’s how the world is. And when irresponsible or valueless behavior is presented without any reference or connection to consequences, young people (and older ones, too, for that matter) begin to believe they can get away with anything.

In a television debate on who should take responsibility for a horrendous high school murder and suicide tragedy, a producer/director-type was insisting that it was unfair to blame media. Where then, questioned his opponent, did the shooters get their graphic images of dark gun violence, spurting blood, and exploding bodies. Did they get those images from their parents? From their school? From their church?

We know how susceptible the human mind is, especially the young mind is to visual and audio suggestion. It’s why companies are willing to pay a million dollars for a thirty-second impression during the Super Bowl. Yet we continue to allow violent, anti-social images to flow at our children several times a day.

Teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are at epidemic proportions as our kids watch nightly sitcoms where people jump into bed on the first date and sex is generally treated as a form of recreation. Routine divorce, single parenting, and various alternative life styles get far more play than stable marriages and families. So much so that someone really committed to his marriage and family might tune in for an evening of standard fare TV and conclude that he was a dinosaur — hopelessly old-fashioned and out of touch.

Daytime TV talk shows, in their quest for ratings, compete against each other in terms of which can find and present the most irresponsible and bizarre behavior. In the process they “lower the bar” in terms of what is acceptable and undermine the values and behavior that is necessary to preserve and protect families.

We used to look through our rectangular glass windows and see our neighbors and feel connected to them and share their same values. We still do that today but our rectangular glass windows turn on and off with a switch and our view is of a made-up fictional kind of neighbors whose behavior carries no consequence, who get their problems resolved by the end of the half hour, who seem to effortlessly have everything we want without paying for it, and who make us think we’re old-fashioned because we don’t live or think like they do.

It’s not only the entertainment media that sucks away our time and influences our values, it’s the news media as well. “Staying informed” takes up big chunks of our day, and, far from being “values neutral,” much of the data that reaches us is slanted or “spun” to make most everything else seem more important than family.

Never before have we been so in touch, so well-informed, so up-to-date on so much of what is going on in the world. But, in addition to not being very practically useful, much of the information of our informative age is anti-family in various ways.

It is a generally accepted fact that the press and news media, taken in aggregate, is more liberal in both its ideology and its life style, than the average American. And the most visible conservatives in the media are often so strident and self-righteous in their style that they become hard to identify with. Thus anti-family life styles are treated as legitimate life style alternatives and traditional, measurably functional families are portrayed as outdated, old-fashioned, or more and more often, as nonexistent.

Even the “reputable” news shows seem compelled to go for what shocks us rather than for what helps us.

A personal example: “20/20” called us to ask if we’d help them with a show on values. We were excited to do so in light of some work we were doing with inner city kids based on our Teaching Your Children Values book. They came and filmed for two days and got some very touching footage of disadvantaged kids who were really turning their lives around by understanding and implementing values. In one particular segment on having the courage to stand up for what you believe, a beautiful but victimized eight-year-old was responding to “scenarios” in a color coded teaching game. “Someone offers you drugs;” Yellow — “You take them;” Orange — “You say no;” Red — “You turn in the kid that offered them.” None of the scenarios were hypothetical to this little girl — she’d faced them all. At the end of the game, I asked her what she thought she was — yellow, orange, or red. With a tear in her eye she said, “I’ve been mostly yellow, but I’m trying to hang out with more reds so I think I’m kind of orange now.” It was a beautiful, positive moment — and the film crew recorded dozens more like it. But when the show was produced and aired, the upbeat, hopeful stuff was all cut. They used footage of hard, defiant kids who made shocking statements about their lack of values. Completely unbalanced, the show implied that all kids are basically monsters.

Why is disproportionate news coverage given to violence and cruelty? Why do magazine shows and news features seem almost as preoccupied with deviance and dysfunctionality as are the talk shows? The answer, of course, has to do with profit. News ratings, just like entertainment ratings, go up in proportion to sex and violence.

The omni-presence of news and entertainment media brings things into our homes that have never been admitted before . . . violence on the evening news, pornography on cable, divorce statistics that are skewed to make it appear that no marriage survives, celebrities who are negative role models for our children, and a general impression that people with money and power are the ones to emulate, not the people with families.

One part of parenting that has always been assumed, if not guaranteed, is the responsibility and the opportunity of deciding what children should learn or be exposed to or become familiar with . . . when they should receive it . . . and how they should view it or prioritize it or think about it. Parents, in other words, were essentially in charge of how their children would initially see the world. They were thus able to mold and shape children’s paradigms and early values, giving them a foundation on which to build their own beliefs and perspectives, their own lives.

The massive news and information institutions of today have seized that function — snatched it away from parents by their very pervasiveness. Short of living somewhere on a primitive island, families have no way of shielding children or screening what they see and hear.

5. Information and Communication Institutions

A generation ago, parents complained about TV — what was on it and how much time it took. But the TV was usually in the living room and it was possible to sit down with the kids and watch it. Today, the Internet poses a far more difficult challenge. Kids can go online from almost anywhere — and get far more raw and explicit sex and violence. And much of what they can find is interactive and thus far more involving and influential. And if kids want to interact with their voice rather than a keyboard and with a live person rather than images on a screen, they can call one of the 900 numbers they see advertized everywhere.

Few would want to do without the marvels of our information age. Our data and communication systems serve us magnificently. They keep us in touch, with each other and with the world. They put limitless information and knowledge at our fingertips. They tend to increase our tolerance and understanding — to break down barriers of ignorance and prejudice. Communication and information institutions — from huge —– utilities to Internet companies to computer networks and systems — literally make the world work; and they make our own individual worlds so much bigger.

Nevertheless, these institutions are definite culprits in the destruction of our families. Their methods of destruction range from the benign to the malignant — from the domination and consumption of our time to the intentional pollution and perversion of our children’s perspectives, morality, and standards. It’s a question both of how much interaction and family time a child is missing by spending five hours a day in front of a monitor and a keyboard or on the phone . . . and it is a question of how much filth he is ingesting from these sources.

If a parental vote could be taken, it’s likely that the Internet would win out as the most feared large institution of all. With a few strokes on a keyboard — something as simple as entering the most violent and sexual words they know — kids can be in direct (and interactive) touch with hard-core pornography, with violent blood-gushing “games,” with on-line pedophiles, or with detailed instructions for how to construct a bomb. What they can get verbally over the phone lines by simply dialing a 900 number is almost as bad.

6. Public/Political Institutions

As acknowledged, there have always been governments — from tribal councils to despot kings, and they have always had the power and potential to be destructive to family life. But it is only in the last several decades that the public sector, our governmental structures, have become big enough and institutionalized enough to systematically take over many of the functions of families and to monitor and tax families to the extent of threatening their viability.

The size of government today, and its scope of “services” taxes families to the point of threatening their economic survival, and then it makes families seem redundant by attempting to supply, via its larger institutions, the services, the welfare, the child and elderly care and a host of other elements that families used to provide for themselves.

Remember that on our diagram, the public sector is the outer ring, existing for the express purpose of protecting the freedom and autonomy of the institutions inside (the family, the private sector, and the voluntary or non-profit sector).

Unfortunately, government on virtually every level, has strayed from and gone beyond that ideal, passing and implementing all kinds of obtrusive and intrusive tax and regulatory laws that undermine the inner sectors in numerous ways and that particularly threaten the bull’s eye of the family. Legislative and judicial branches of federal and state governments (the courts are included with “legal institutions” under number 8) often in well-intentioned efforts to protect individual rights, have failed to consider family rights or parental responsibilities.

“Protect” is the operative word, and the concept around which debate must center. The goal must be to protect individual rights without jeopardizing families. A tax law that makes married individuals pay more than they would if they were single does not pass that test. Nor do laws that make it easier (and cheaper) to find day care for a newborn than to have maternity leave and nurture the child. Nor do laws that are so overzealous in protecting children that they undermine a parent’s right to discipline a child, or to take him to church, or to make decisions about his education.

Our elected governments, like every large institutions-culprit we’ve identified, gravitate to their own survival and expansion and in the process overwhelm families even as they fail to protect them.

Next week: Conclusions of the culprits — focusing on education institutions, courts and legal institutions, community, recreation, and social/cultural institutions, and religious, psychological, and self-help institutions.


2001 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.