Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- April 24, 2007

Touch Football and Television

Ernest Partridge

I belong to the last generation to experience childhood without television. And I have often wondered what was lost when the children of that generation deserted the playgrounds and moved indoors to watch the tube.

It is widely reported that many children today spend more time watching television than they spend in a classroom. Thus as a child sits alone, hours on end in his own private world, he fails to learn the fundamental rules of social interaction – the necessity of compromise, accommodation, and empathy, which is to say, the ability to see the world (oneself included) from another’s perspective. Instead, his world is the world.

A library of books and articles has been devoted to the topic of the impact of television on the developing brain, and upon society at large: the consequences of watching, alone, millions of advertising messages and thousands of simulated acts of murder and mayhem. I will not elaborate on that subject here. Nor will I discuss here social-psychological-cultural consequences of the dawning computer/internet revolution, which might well prove to be even more profound than the impact of television, a half century ago. Then, that new medium held great promise of social benefit, a promise which, as we all know too well, was overwhelmed by commercialism. The internet today now offers similar benefits and faces similar threats.

However, instead of examining the impact of television then, or the computer today, I suggest that we ponder the psychological, social and moral advantages of spontaneous play – advantages that may have largely been lost to us with the advent of television.

When children rush on to a playground at the close of school or on weekends, something wonderful happens, much more than is apparent to the casual eye. If the children begin to play an informal game (a game without referees) – touch football, soccer, or one-base baseball (we called it “one o’cat”) – they immediately embark upon a competition in a context of cooperation.

Inevitably, disputes break out, disputes about which rules are to apply and whether or not they are violated. Was the forward pass thrown behind scrimmage, and was the runner tagged (“touched”)?  Was the hit fair or foul? Was the soccer ball intercepted in or out of bounds?  Remember, there is no referee to impose a ruling; it is up to the players themselves to settle the disputes.

If the dispute is severe and unresolved, the game ends and the children quit and go home. Usually, the children tacitly agree that continuing the game is more important than winning an argument. So the dispute is resolved, often with a coin toss or by “taking turns” on yielding. Children who doggedly refuse ever to yield soon find that they are not invited to play.  Eager to rejoin the play, they then agree to compromise and yield to the consensus of the group.

Out of such activity, a sense of compromise and fair-play emerges, sentiments essential both to democratic politics and to social morality.

Sadly, and inadvertently, some of these moral lessons may have been lost with the advent of Little League football, as umpires and adult coaches, who envision themselves as frustrated Vince Lombardis,  impose decisions and directions that might better be worked out spontaneously by the children in their unsupervised play.

Indoor activities have also changed dramatically with the advent of television. Card games and board games, like playground games, have given way to The Tube. And pity it is, for such activities develop a capacity for empathy – the ability to view the world from the perspective of an opposing player.

Military strategists since (and doubtlessly before) Sun Tzu, twenty-six centuries ago, have insisted that the first rule of military engagement is to know the mind of one’s opponent. Legend has it that the game of chess was invented as a device to train military officers to do just that: think like the other guy.  And recall George Patton's remark (in the movie biography) after his first victory in North Africa: "Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!"  Empathy -- “getting into the head” of one’s opponent -- is also, paradoxically, essential to diplomacy and peacemaking.

But more fundamentally still, many moral philosophers including Adam Smith and David Hume contend that moral behavior is founded in the “moral sentiments” of empathy and benevolence. From these sentiments arise "the moral point of view:"  the ability to adopt the perspective of a benevolent spectator of oneself, one's companions, and one's society.  This insight, which I endorse, is reflected in The Golden Rule – a precept found in all the world religions.

However, this is not the approach of the neo-conservatives. Their approach is never to talk with the “enemy,” but instead to crush the opponent with overwhelming force. Knowledge of the mind of the “enemy” is regarded by the neo-cons as irrelevant, or else it is dogmatically assumed, with no attempt to examine and confirm that assumption. 

As the leaders of my pre-TV generation retire, the TV generation – “the baby-boomers” – take their place in Congress, and in top management positions in the corporations. To the boomers, “winning” is more important than the maintenance of what the framers of the Constitution called “domestic tranquility.”  The symbiotic relationship between workers, entrepreneur and investors is being been supplanted by parasitism, as the wealthy impoverish the middle class which is, ultimately, the source of their wealth. Uncompromising competition is eroding the context of cooperation which allows the “games” of politics and commerce to continue and flourish.

Meanwhile, consumerism is replacing citizenship, as we define ourselves less by the ideals that we share and more by what we individually own or aspire to own. As Robert Putnam points out in his book, Bowling Alone, "civil society" -- voluntary participation in sporting teams, lodges, community service organizations -- is declining, as more and more individuals withdraw from their communities and migrate to the couch and the tube.

Such an aggregate of alienated and narcissistic individuals is, as we are discovering, more easy for the wealthy and powerful, in control of the mass media, to manipulate. And this disconnected aggregate is less inclined to solidify into mass movements of dissent and reform.

Is all this happening, at least in some small part, because playgrounds and board games have been supplanted by television?

Quite frankly, I just don’t know. But I have my suspicions.

Copyright 2007 by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .