Emotional Vampirism Part 1

I learned something yesterday about the Internet and TV visiting a friend’s place. The news came of the TV: first up the Virgina Tech shootings. My friend asked if I had seen the tape sent by Cho Seung-Hui to NBC. I replied. “Absolutely not, though I certainly have had plenty of opportunity.” Being a psychiatrist I thought it was more than idle chatter when my friend went on to say that it was wrong to broadcast Cho’s tape because it would appeal to every other alienated, angry young man with similar feelings. And encourage them to imitate Cho because it rewarded his behavior exactly as he, and others like him, crave. But I also noticed my reply. I realized that because I get my news exclusively from the Internet I get to opt into what I want to experience. With TV I have to opt out and the only really effective way to that is to not watch TV news at all. With the Internet I am in control. With TV they are in control. As I was thinking about that, two other stories floated by: three men missing from a catamaran off Queensland, then a one year anniversary rehash of the two miners trapped underground in Tasmania.

Later I saw a link on Instapundit to an article titled Emotional Vampirism by Jonah Goldberg. I clicked and was rewarded:

Because there isn’t enough new information to fill the infinite void allotted to these stories, the press quickly succumbs to a kind of emotional vampirism, feeding off the grief, fear, and anguish of victims clearly incapable of understanding their own feelings or of finding meaning in events that defy either understanding or meaning.

Just as with the Columbine massacre, the Oklahoma City bombing and countless other slaughters whose names tug at our memories – as well as our guilty consciences because we cannot quite recall the details of those “unforgettable” events – we can be sure the media will continue to milk their role as remorse voluptuaries for as long as conceivably possible.

Earlier in the article Jonah Goldberg said he found the Virginia Tech coverage “repelling.” I’ll go further. I find TV news in general repelling because it relentlessly pushes emotional manipulation on the viewer. It is their framing, their picture choice, their sequencing of every story, every image, every word.

In order to get a fuller understanding of emotional manipulation on TV I need to talk about the idea of psychological containment. The psychologist Jung wrote that in the traditional marriage of the early 20th century it was common for a wife to be contained intellectually by her husband and the husband to be contained emotionally by his wife. That is, that one partner was relatively unconscious intellectually and the other emotionally. To be fair to Jung and not to offend today’s liberated women he also said that the reverse occurred. As a university lecturer in the 70s I wasn’t alone in observing that many of the married female students who flocked to universities in those days discovered that their marriages came apart as they liberated themselves intellectually while their husbands remained emotionally unconscious. I bring up this matter of emotional and intellectual containment because I believe that TV sets out to contain – ie manipulatively control – its audience both emotionally and intellectually. To put it directly, TV is designed to induce us to hold certain convictions as our own – to contain us intellectually – and to render us emotionally reactive and dependent – to contain us emotionally.

What I saw a bit more clearly yesterday was how the Internet tends to break the hold of TV on both our emotions and our intellects. It breaks the spell because instead of taking TV for granted as the way we know and feel things we sense the ‘push’ and come to realize we are being had. I think that the more we get our news from the Internet the more obvious the emotional and intellectual containment becomes. McLuhan was dealing with this problem when he pointed out that when any new medium emerges we go numb or unconscious about how it is affecting us. It is therefore no surprise to students of McLuhan that the Internet would tend to make us more aware of the distortions to our awareness induced by TV.

I think the matter of emotional manipulation deserves much more exploration because I believe it is less obvious and therefore more insidious than intellectual manipulation. I base that view on TV reporting being commonly criticised for bias, but seldom attacked – as Jonah Goldberg did – for its emotional vampirism.


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