When we think of people who don't participate in watching/reading/listening to the mass media in our culture, we often think about the anti-commercial activists, the highbrow critics, conservative censors, and (overly) concerned parents. It's easy to forget about a significant segment of American society, however, who willingly choose to ignore the media to mainstain their lifestyle, a group of people commonly grouped together as "plain people"--the Mennonites, the Amish, and the Brethren. These three groups of people, in varying degrees depending on the particular community, distrust media use among the members of their society.
The head of our consortium, Henry Jenkins, was quoted as saying, tongue-in-cheek, that not allowing a child to participate in media consumption was a form of child abuse in a media-saturated society in which people communicate through and by talking about the mass media. Yet, here we have a group of people who say that it is not just the content funneled through a medium but the very media forms themselves that serve to disrupt their way of life, which requires being cut off from the rest of society.
Thomas W. Cooper, a professor at Emerson College and cofounder of Media Ethics Magazine, presents an intriguing look at what he calls a "media fast" among these plain people in the latest issue of The Journal of American Culture, entitled "Of Scripts and Scriptures," (pp. 139-153).
The plain people often see surveys and interviewers' questions as invasions of their privacy, so in-depth probing of their view on the media is often hard to receive. On the other hand, it's important to realize that, even in our media-driven country, there are plenty of people who consciously cut themselves off from the mass media industry.
In the June 2006 journal, Cooper provides readers with a review of the history of the plain people and how the groups share similarities yet have distinct differences among them. He also briefly details the history of plain people with mass media technologies, from photography to radio to television to the Internet. He explains the spiritual reasons these people reject the media, often not on form of content, as most social conservatives would, but on the principles of the medium itself.
For instance, many cannot substantiate fictional works because acting is seen as a form of professional lying, and radio and television cannot be trusted because "Satan had been biblically described as 'the Prince of the air.' Further, while most other social conservatives and liberal critics would criticize the mass media for its homogenizing effects, the plain people often distrust the individualizing nature of these media forms, encouraging people to fragment themselves from each other and to quit attending communal events. To these people, letting even some families participate in these media forms can be problematic because the communities are often felt to be a cohesive unit, in which any "antomized individualism" is dangerous (146).
Cooper concludes that, while many of the policies of these communities can be seen as oppressive and narrow-minded, the societies should be commended for avoiding many of the social ills of American society in general and for maintaining their own control of technology.
While Cooper's identification with his research often causes him to be overly sympathetic with the restrictive views of these societies, in my opinion, his essay does provide a valuable look at why these people choose to distance themselves from the media in order to preserve their culture. I remain skeptical about celebrating any culture that attempts to severely restrict the parameters of those who grow up within it in order to retain them as the next generation of that culture, and I find that the mass media can be an important way for people to be exposed to a variety of ideas and cultures, but I did appreciate the opportunity Cooper gives us to better understand why this oft-forgotten group of people choose to live in an insular world.