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Television, Materialism and Culture: An Exploration of Imported Media and its Implications for GNH McDonald, Ross, 1961- 2004-12

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 Television, Materialism and Culture: An Exploration of Imported
Media and its Implications for GNH
Dr Ross McDonald'
I recently spent two weeks in Thimphu, hosted by the Centre
for Bhutan Studies. While there, among other explorations, I
sought out general views about television and its impacts on
Bhutanese life. Almost everyone I spoke to welcomed the
medium which was introduced in 1998. Cable television,
dominated by Indian and American programming, was
generally seen as a positive advance with the potential for
educating, entertaining and symbolically connecting Bhutan
to the modern world. I encountered few contrary opinions -
from government ministers to cable operators and from shop
owners to students, the view was the same. The few
dissenting exceptions, came in the main from foreigners
posted on temporary contracts within the country. For them,
the arrival of 45 channels of commercial television symbolised
the beginning of the end for Bhutan's unique identity and
It was a curious division of opinion and as is the case in most
such divisions, both sides posses some truth. It is certainly
true, as the Bhutanese will testify, that television is an
absorbing and fascinating medium. It does connect the viewer
with worlds that were previously beyond their ken and it is
fantastically entertaining. But there is indeed another, less
visible side to television - a more complex aspect that can
only be untangled by appreciating the commercial intent that
hides behind the layer of apparently harmless entertainment.
When the function of global television is connected with the
ideology of globalising capitalism, it reveals itself to be a force
intent on distraction and cultural reformation. It is this
aspect that those long exposed to television and its effects,
* Professor, University of Auckland, New Zealand
 may seek to warn Bhutan of. The unease though, is often
only vaguely felt rather than clearly articulated and so is
often minimally helpful in empowering Bhutanese policy
makers to make wise decisions regarding television and its
management. The aim of this writing is to attempt a clearer
and more useful articulation of this trepidation.
This paper then explores the broad nature of commercialised
television and how it impacts individuals, communities and
cultures. Central to understanding these dynamics is an
appreciation of the critical role television plays in globalising
capitalism - that of consumer creation. The consumer is the
necessary ideal of capitalism - a type convinced that well-
being necessitates accumulating ever greater volumes of
goods. As a social entity however, the consumer has been
proven to be a highly dysfunctional type. Its basic psychology
revolves around a complex of dissatisfaction, social isolation
and immunity to larger ethical sensibilities. It is hardly a type
to encourage in any society aiming to forge a sustainable and
happy collective life.
A capitalist system aims to render the market and those who
control it, free from all forms of constraint. To maximise its
potential, capitalism must achieve the submission of any
ideological forms that act to impede its cultivation of
consumption. In this important sense, any cultural form
promoting material restraint is perceived to be a barrier to
"progress". Liberation from such cultural confines requires
removing the mass from traditional referents and authorities
- a function that television achieves with remarkable finesse.
Thus, the recent arrival of commercial television in Bhutan
represents more than the introduction of a merely benign
technology. Global television brings with it a deeper process,
one that systematically cultivates social isolation and the
dissolution of all contrary cultural priorities. If Bhutan is to
judiciously negotiate a happy balance of tradition and
modernity, policy makers must become much more aware of
the dramatic cultural impacts this medium seeks.
 Part One - The Impacts of Television Viewing
Television and Cultural Distraction
The most obvious power of television in modern society
relates to its ability to capture and retain attention. In effect,
television removes the viewer's consciousness from the
immediate social and physical environment - and often for
highly extended periods of time. When television is on, social
interaction is curtailed. Conversation becomes fractious and
partial, even superficial when it comes to cohere around
referents to what is being viewed. For whatever time viewers'
attention is captured by the small screen they forgo the verbal
interaction that allows for sharing, learning and building
collective perspective. As most with a television set will attest,
there is littie in everyday conversation that can compete with
televisions hypnotic attraction. Doris Lessing the South
African novelist captures the socially disruptive power of
television in her autobiographical account of its arrival in her
household in 1950s London:
Before I left Denbigh Road I saw the end of an era, the death
of a culture: television arrived. Before, when the men came
back from work, the tea was already on the table, a fire was
roaring, the radio emitted words or music softly in a corner,
they washed and sat down at their places, with the woman,
the child, and whoever else could be inveigled downstairs.
Food began emerging from the oven, dish after dish, tea was
brewed, beer appeared, off went the jerseys or jackets, the
men sat in their short-sleeves, glistening with well-being. They
all talked, they sang, they told what had happened in their
day, they talked dirty - a ritual; they quarrelled, they shouted,
they kissed and made up and went to bed at twelve or one,
after six or so hours of energetic conviviality... And then from
one day to the next - but literally from one evening to the next
- came the end of the good times, for television had arrived
and sat like a toad in the corner of the kitchen. Soon the big
kitchen table had been pushed along the wall, chairs were
installed in a semi-circle and, on the chair arms, the
swivelling supper-trays. It was the end of an exuberant verbal
culture. (1985: P342)
The collapse of verbal culture is most apparent in those
 nations most saturated by television, where its attractions
appear capable of pushing out even the most intimate of
social relationships. In the United States, the most televised
nation on earth, half of the population now report watching
television while eating dinner, and more than a third watch
while eating breakfast or lunch.. Indeed, in the United States,
people devote more time to watching television than they do
to talking with their spouses (four to six times more) and
playing with their children (an average of twenty minutes
each day compared with four hours of television viewing). In
Britain, a nation almost as media saturated, 46% of people
say that at the end of a working day all they want to do is
watch television. And increasingly, television viewing is being
done in isolation. In the United States studies suggest that
from one third to one half of all viewing is done alone and
American teenagers watch less than 5% in the company of
their parents. 32 % of British three year olds now have a
television in their own room (See Bunting, 2003, Putnam,
Television's sensational ability to capture our attention has
reached the point that it is the number one leisure time
pursuit in much of developed world with people giving it
increased time with each passing year.
The absorption that television commands clearly involves a
withdrawal from intimate social connectedness but this
disruptiveness is not just limited to the home, it is clearly
visible in broader patterns of community vitality, or what has
become known in western parlance as 'social capital'. Social
capital refers to the overall health of social connectedness -
feelings of common purpose, common identity and common
commitment. Healthy communities are characterised by high
levels of social capital and regular mutual contribution. It is
unfortunate then, that by all recent accounts, watching
television is deeply implicated in the literal collapse of positive
civic participation in almost all of its forms.
Foremost   in   a   large   body   of   work   documenting   these
 relationships is the authoritative work of Robert Putnam. In
'Bowling Alone', his encyclopaedic survey of "the collapse of
American community" in the latter half of the 20th century,
Putnam charts a dramatic decline in virtually every
measurable dimension of civic participation. From voting to
visiting friends, from having neighbours to dinner to joining
clubs and giving money to charity, Americans have, since the
arrival of television in the late 1950s, demonstrated a
dramatic withdrawal from collective participation in their
communities' lives. In dozens of specific indices, the pattern
is the same - a steady increase in social capital during the
immediate post-war period until 1957, the point at which
television saturated the country. From this point on, all
measures of commitment begin to fall off markedly. In
explaining the source of this civic disengagement Putnam
Considered in combination with a score of other factors that
predict social participation (including education, generation,
gender, religion, size of hometown, work obligations, marriage,
children, income, financial worries, religiosity, race,
geographic mobility, commuting time, home ownership and
more) dependence on television for entertainment is not only a
significant predictor of civic disengagement, it is the single
most consistent predictor that I have discovered. (2000: p.231
- original italics)
In fact Putnam goes further to conclude that from the
More television watching means less of virtually every form of
civic participation and social involvement. .. Other things
being equal, each additional hour of television viewing per day
means roughly a 10 percent reduction in most forms of civic
activism, (p.228).
Televisions power to force social withdrawal relates directly to
its attentional attractiveness. We literally become unwilling or
unable to 'pull ourselves away' from its captivating immediacy.
And indeed this is the whole purpose of commercial television
- to grab more and more attention. In seeking to do this, both
 programming and advertising become ever more sensational
and intrusive - and increasingly difficult to extract oneself
from. In fact attentional capture has been so perfected that
the American Psychiatric Association considers commercial
television viewing to be a formally addictive disorder - as the
behaviour tends to become habitual, compulsive, increasingly
ungratifying and difficult to break. Driven by commercial
imperatives, the cuts and edits and sound bites become
shorter and more sensational. Sex, surgery and violence
become more explicit. The lifestyles and special effects
become more fantastic and above all, the pace of change
constantly accelerates. Each advance is driven by the
competitive need to maintain audience attention from
moment to moment and hence to be able to sell audience
mindshare to business.
There are numerous implications that follow from this
tendency to take the person 'out' of an interconnected social
world, but one must be noted immediately. To the extent that
attending to television removes the individual from active
social interaction, it weakens their ability to contribute to ongoing lived culture in its traditional forms. Bhutanese culture
only has meaning to the extent that its unique
representations provide the dominant living discourse of daily
life. When individuals become lost to television, giving
attention to it in essential isolation, they fail to participate in,
and so sustain, the living culture around them. The danger is
that they might come not to care for its slow celebrations, nor
attend to the complex and subtie lessons that tradition has to
teach them. All around the globe people forego local dialects
for the international language of 'cool' and the young in
particular, are targeted by increasingly intrusive
representations idealising priorities wholly foreign to their
parents' culture. David Korten explains the threat in the
following words:
(Corporate) techniques have an elegant simplicity. They centre
 on manipulating the cultural symbols in which our individual
identities and values are anchored. Before mass media, these
symbols were collective creations of people relating to one
another and expressing their inner feelings through artistic
media. They represented our collective sense of who we are.
The more time we spend immersed in the corporate-controlled
and packaged world of television, the less time we have for the
direct human exchanges through which cultural identity and
values were traditionally expressed, reinforced and updated.
Increasingly, those who control mass media control the core
culture. (1995: p.155)
The effects of commercial television should not be
underestimated and it is interesting to note in this context
that in surveying the collapse of community more deeply,
researchers have uncovered a telling dynamic. The decline in
civic participation that comes with televisions arrival reflects
an overwhelmingly inter-generational shift. Closer analysis of
the downward trends observable across the developed world
reveal that older generations (those who might be said to have
come to maturity before television permeated the collective
consciousness) have maintained very high levels of
community contribution. The overall trend to withdrawal
comes from those raised, at least in part, by commercial
television. These televised-to generations exhibit an ever-
greater reluctance to identify with, and commit to, active
community life.
In a very important sense then, televisions effects suggest
that in seeking to capture mindshare ever more effectively,
the medium tends towards an erosion of social and cultural
engagement - and that this effect extends beyond the simple
metric of time spent passively in front of the set. This lack of
engagement threatens to atrophy both culture and
community as these depend utterly on continuous, self
regenerating participation by the majority. If social and
cultural needs are not attended to, they cannot be maintained.
The message embedded in numerous inter-generational
studies is that television has been a central player in a
dynamic that has seen the failure of a more community
oriented culture to transmit itself from one generation to the
Much of televisions potency in these realms comes from its
cultivated reliance on speed and sensation. Pre-television
cultures operate at a pace that is wholly different from that of
the flickering screen. Reflected in the light of televisions
excitements, traditional ways can come to seem comparatively
dull and constraining. For Bhutan, where the transmission of
cultural understanding entails cultivating a slow and subtle
appreciation of life, there is a distinct risk that all things
traditional will be deemed boring, out of date and irrelevant
by a new generation drawn into the contrary attractions of
speed, change and easy sensation.
Television and Enhanced Materialism
The impacts of television do not stop at mere distraction from
active cultural participation for while distracted, attention is
shifted to forging a wholly new set of cultural associations.
The public mindshare that television programmers capture is
not an end in itself but rather a means by which broadcast
organisations earn their commercial revenues. The majority of
these revenues come from selling audience attention to
businesses in order that they can attempt to mould and
shape new desires in the viewer. But in order to fully
understand this logic we must take a brief detour into the
broad history of capitalism as a hegemonic social
The historical expansion of capitalism has necessitated a
balance between maximising the means of producing
commodities and maximising the capacity to absorb that
production through greater consumption. Via a complex
interplay of human, physical and virtual technologies, the
capacity to expand production has proved to be immense,
meaning that now most segments of the global market are
saturated by over-production. In the last half-century the
central question for capitalism has become not how to
produce goods, but how to distinguish and dispose of them
once produced.
 The solution has come in the form of techniques of mass
persuasion, technologies forged to stimulate demand and
drive consumption - in short, commercial advertising. We
now occupy a world dominated by the symbols, brands and
suggestions of advertising. And as a competitive form, it
constantly seeks evermore sensational means of capturing
attention. As Todd Gitlin says of advertising
...the ironic challenge for television networks is how to "break
through the clutter". But of course the clutter is not a force of
nature; it is an artefact of the frenzy of competition. The
clutter consists of nothing but the sum of all prior attempts to
break through the clutter. So the clutter of images and
manufactured sounds is the engine that drives ads into
hitherto virgin spaces. (2002: p.89).
Thus, advertising is constantiy forced towards new and more
incisive formulations for convincing the broadest possible
number that greater consumption of ever more goods is
essential to well-being. In the global economy, billions of
dollars are spent annually on developing advertising
techniques, more than is collectively spent on global
education. Legions of highly trained psychologists build
careers in the fields of consumer persuasion, bringing rafts of
research to bear on the micro processes of manipulating
product appeal, image and loyalty.
What these researchers have come to appreciate in this
constant drive for persuasive perfection is that particular
traction is to be gained from forging positive associations
between products and our most basic human needs. The vast
majority in society want love, acceptance, respect and esteem
from others. They want romance, happiness, success and a
sense of positive purpose. And given the fundamental nature
of these felt needs - they are literally the lowest common
denominators of human motivation - people will give
inordinate attention to the means by which they might be
satisfied. Knowing this, television advertising around the
world   has   come   to   be   suffused   with   carefully   crafted
 suggestions that happiness, social acceptance, success and
respect are all necessarily associated with very high levels of
material consumption. In the parade of advertising, those
who have what we do not always appear happier, more
popular, and more successful that we are. Stimulating
feelings of comparative deprivation has become a dominant
strategy in expanding markets. Compared to the levels of
fulfilment displayed in advertising and in mainstream
programming, the life of the average viewer can only seem
bland and unfulfilled. And while television's content works to
inculcate this basic feeling of distance from how things might
ideally be, it simultaneously offers up its ways for bridging
that gap - the consumption of endless material products. Of
this process Clive Hamilton, director of the Australian
Institute says
Modern consumer capitalism will flourish as long as what
people desire outpaces what they have. It is thus vital to the
reproduction of the system that individuals are constantly
made to feel dissatisfied with what they have. The irony of this
should not be missed; while economic growth is said to be the
process whereby peoples wants are satisfied so that they
become happier - and economics is defined as the study of
how scarce resources are best used to maximise welfare - in
reality economic growth can be sustained only as long as
people remain discontented. Economic growth does not create
happiness, unhappiness sustains economic growth. Thus,
discontent must be continually fomented if consumer
capitalism is to survive. This explains the indispensable role
ofthe advertising industry. 2003: (p.79).
Although each separate advertisement targets its appeals to a
distinct offering, the unrelenting message throughout them
all is that consumption and possession represent the only
true routes to lasting fulfilment. Of the materialism that
results psychologist Tim Kasser says.
...The minds of materialistic people become saturated with
shows and ads exhibiting levels of attractiveness and wealth
well above the norm, and thus beyond the level of attainment
of the average viewer...Put in terms of discrepancy theory, ads
 create an image (being like the person in the ad who has the
product and a great life). Marketers and business people are
banking that advertisement-induced discrepancies will
convince us to buy the new improved detergent or take out a
lease on the new car, so that our discrepancies can be
reduced, and so their bank accounts can be enlarged. (2002:
In Kasser's extensive empirical work, the materialism that
television directly shapes, has been found to be a deeply
dysfunctional mode - one associated with depression, anxiety,
insecurity, physical illness, social isolation, a lack of empathy
and a general dissatisfaction with life. In summarising a lifetime of research on its nature he writes
Existing scientific research on the value of materialism yields
clear and consistent findings. People who are highly focused
on materialistic values have lower personal wellbeing and
psychological health than those who believe that materialistic
pursuits are relatively unimportant. These relationships have
been documented in samples of people ranging from the
wealthy to the poor, from teenagers to the elderly, and from
Australians to South Koreans... The studies document that
strong materialistic values are associated with a pervasive
undermining of people's well-being, from low life-satisfaction
and happiness to depression and anxiety, to physical
problems such as headaches, and to personality disorders,
narcissism and anti-social behaviour. (2002: p.22)
That materialism is a singularly unprofitable route to
happiness is evident also in the considerable literature that
attests to consumptions inability to significantiy boost
national happiness. The extensive researches of a
considerable numerous scholars points to the clear
conclusion - that beyond a very basic level of wealth (one
essentially enabling security and sustenance), increases in
consumption have no significant ability to increase happiness.
Rather progress towards this ultimate goal comes from
cultivating other satisfactions including friendship, self-
understanding and a sense of positive contribution - ones at
best unaffected by materialist fixations and at worst wholly
undermined   by   them,   (see   for   example   McDonald   2003,
 Diener and Seligman, 2004)
It is important to note the significant implications of this
misdirection of purpose, for as capitalism moves to securing
consumption on the basis of unconscious and false
associations between products and effective need satisfaction,
it moves beyond the pale of ethical legitimacy, even as defined
in its own narrowly curtailed terms.
Ideologically, the ethical defence of free market capitalism
rests upon claims of uncontaminated 'consumer sovereignty'.
In this framework, the consumer is the ultimate authority as
they are uniquely qualified to make the most rational
decisions as to what their needs are and how they might best
be met. The ethical role of business then, is one of pure
service to society as it works to deliver ever more efficient
means for meeting genuine public needs. However, with the
introduction of associative advertising, business violates this
arrangement by actively cultivating the needs its aims to
satisfy. The famous economist J.K. Galbraith (1958) calls this
the Dependence Effect and notes
The direct link between production and wants is provided by
the institutions of advertising and salesmanship. . . These
cannot be reconciled with the notion of independently
determined desires for their central function is to create
desires - to bring into being wants that previously did not
exist, (in Hoffman and Moore, 1984: p. 441)
With this shift towards cultivating demands in order that
consumers serve the predominant profit interests of business,
capitalism loses much ethical authority. By falsely
insinuating materialism as the necessary means to satisfying
our deepest common needs, it creates an inefficient illusion
that is deeply damaging to the individuals true capacity for
happiness. Indeed to the extent that an unconscious and
excessive materialism prevails, it effectively blocks rather
than facilitates the effective satisfaction of our most essential
non-material needs.
 Television and Ethical Suspension
If commercial television is to fully activate consumerism it
must also distract consumers from the effects of that lifestyle
on the larger interconnected whole. Despite its claims that it
is an educational instrument, television is primarily used for
entertainment and distraction. Soap operas, movies, celebrity
trivia, sex, game shows, reality TV and sports typically
constitute the most popular television fare. Although it is true
that television contains many news channels and
documentaries these too have largely succumbed to the
pervasive imperative of retaining consumer attention. The
result is evident in the relative decline of integrative analysis
and the relentless rise of the shrinking sound bite. On the
whole, complex perspective is increasingly removed in
mainstream programming as disconnected sensationalism
comes to dominate the 'news'. Graphic disasters, explosions,
particularly horrifying crimes, celebrity happenings and other
such easily digestible fare, amply satisfy the fleeting demand
for disposable information. Indeed, as global media ownership
becomes concentrated in the hands of fewer competitive
players - the Rupert Murdochs and Conrad Blacks of the
world - the line distinguishing propaganda from perspective
and fact from fiction, becomes increasingly difficult to discern.
It is fair to say then, that the larger and more complex issues
raised by capitalisms attempts to maximise consumption are
not suited to televisions mode. What perspective is made
available gets quickly washed away by the larger torrent of
which it is only a small part because, as David Korten points
Television has been wholly colonised by corporate interests.
The goal is not simply to sell products and strengthen the
consumer culture. It is also to create a political culture that
equates the corporate interest with the human interest in the
public mind. In the words of Paul Hawken, "Our minds are
being addressed by addictive media serving corporate
sponsors whose purpose is to rearrange reality so that viewers
forget the world around them. (1995 pp. 157-157)
In essence, television cannot afford to do more than give the
 most fleeting attention to the broad impacts of consumerism.
Consider the ecological situation for example. It is an
unfortunate but inescapable truth that we live on a planet
that is limited in its capacity to regenerate resources and
recycle waste. The modern growth-fixated economy fails
utterly to acknowledge these limits - for as soon as they are
admitted, the ethical legitimacy of endlessly expanding
consumer appetite evaporates. Looking at even a few of the
most prominent environmental indicators strongly suggests
that the global ecosystem is under severe stress as it tries to
cope with excessive industrial throughput. These trends are
however, rarely brought together and connected to
materialism. Thus, through televisions unreality we are
allowed to ignore the fact that our current levels of
consumption demand destroying the ecological integrity that
future generations depend upon.
The clear moral implications of behaving in this manner are
strategically avoided as capitalism continues to focus solely
upon expanding market capacity in the name of short-term
profit. What we see here is the basic failure of capitalism to
engage a sufficient ethical restraint. In fact we see more than
this, that this ethical suspension is critical to the capitalist
system - and particularly critical in the mind of the consumer.
For the consumer to consume maximally they must be freed
from any debilitating concerns including ethical ones. It does
not pay to connect poor coffee farmers to the price paid for
the luxury beverage in the consumer's hand, nor global
warming to the 'bigger and better' four wheel drive. And it is
hardly constructive to connect images of battery farming with
a romantic dinner for two.
In discussing this tendency to distraction, Michael Billig
notes a basic complicity on the part of the consumer to deny
any ethical challenge to their own indulgence. This is most
effectively achieved by severing all connection to the
processes of production that brings goods to the consumer in
a competitive global economy.
 The very term consumer capitalism exemplifies absent-
mindedness. If commodities are to be consumed as items of
pleasure and as confirmations of the identity of the consumer,
then the consumer must routinely not think about the labour
relations involved in the production of what they are
consuming. This means forgetting about the social relations
which lie behind the commodities...The economically
determined pursuit of pleasure demands a repression of the
ego in order to push out of consciousness those sociological
realities and an incipient sense of conscience which would
spoil the consuming party. (1999: p320-321)
Ethical dilemmas can only "spoil the consuming party" and so
they are willingly avoided. But it is not only in denying the
relationships to the environment or production that
capitalisms impacts are negated. Television is most notably
silent concerning its own role in undermining the consumer
sovereignty so necessary to capitalisms legitimacy.
In capitalist ideology, the market must always grow as this
maximises the potential for profits. Throughout its broad
history, but particularly in the past forty years, capitalism
has managed to engineer a radical social transformation in
much of world, as its advance has pushed aside traditional
restraints. In the process, the ethical ideals of cultural and
democratic governance have been forced to the sidelines. Now
mainly free of larger institutional control, global capitalism
recognises no restraint to its expansion and intensification.
Critically, given the resulting centrality of the consumer to
capitalisms purpose, it seeks to avoid confronting any deeply
incriminating associations. Television cultivates the ideal
state of ethical suspension necessary for global business to
continue its unsustainable throughput. The consumers it
cultivates become maximally greedy, wholly oblivious and
ultimately harmful to the collective interest. Furthermore,
they have become mindless of their own indignity. As Peter
Hershock so vividly puts it
As markets become increasingly extensive and dense,
consumers begin to function as producers of waste. Or, more
graphically stated, they begin to serve as organs of elimination
 by means of which the residue of profit seeking - whether
material or experiential - is summarily disposed. (2003:
The many Bhutanese who point to the pleasures of television
and it's brilliance in their lives are right to do so. But as the
above evidence suggests, there is a less obvious and more
worrisome process at work beneath the endlessly absorbing
surface of sleek entertainment. While it distracts, imported
television threatens to act as a severe corrosive in Bhutan,
dissolving lived culture and its priorities, to replace them with
a particularly profitless fixation on material accumulation.
The impact may not be apparent as yet, but it is the
undeniable end-point sought. Given this, it is a medium that
the Bhutanese should handle with considerable care.
Part Two - Television, Materialism and Gross National Happiness
It is well known that the Royal Kingdom has declared its
intention to seek a form of development that allows for a more
meaningful expansion of human capacity than mere
consumerism - and that its ultimate aim is to achieve high
levels of Gross National Happiness. GNH has come to be
contrasted with GNP or Gross National Product, the
conventional western measure of market scale. In clarifying
the difference, Bhutanese officials have reiterated an essential
insight - that economic growth is not a balanced goal in and
of itself, and that if pushed too far, this mode is destructive to
both the individual and the collective interest. Currentiy,
GNH is a loosely developed ideal, but it has been consistently
associated with basic Mahayana Buddhist principles of
material moderation and spiritual accomplishment. The
Second Noble Truth of Buddhism states that all suffering
comes from desire, and the subsequent Noble Truths explain
the means to diminishing appetite in order to achieve
happiness. To the extent that the ideals of GNH are
consistent with the ideals of Bhutanese Buddhism, it
represents a framework fundamentally opposed to the
ideology of globalising capitalism.
 But in order to clearly see the essential conflict, some further
elaborations on Buddhist sensibilities are in order, as is a
clearer exposition of the exact meaning of GNH. To begin with
the latter, it is evident that the concept has an immediate and
intuitive appeal. But despite the fact that numerous articles
on Bhutan's plans to achieve GNH have appeared in serious
newspapers and magazines around the world, the concept
has advanced little beyond broad outiine and uncritical
support. If Bhutan is to forge a truly unique middle way
between modernity and tradition, it must more consciously
articulate the principles inherent in its national policy of
facilitating Gross National Happiness.
Some useful articles have been written on these issues,
explaining most commonly that GNH ultimately rests on four
pillars - good governance, living culture, a sustainable
environment and a healthy economy. But how exactiy these
factors might relate and inter-relate has not been specified.
This poses a problem for developing the conscious precision
necessary to effectively meet the shifting challenges
globalisation presents. Television provides a useful and
urgent case study in how a philosophy grounded in GNH
might be operationalised.
When considering GNH in broad terms, it is clear that the
priority of happiness is linked to a balanced conception of
material and non-material maturity - one uniquely Bhutanese
and explicitiy Buddhist in form. In this sense happiness
becomes inseparably involved with a whole constellation of
other accomplishments. As Peter Hershock writes
In the Majhima Nikaya, for example, it is said that "with
mindfulness comes wisdom, with wisdom comes tireless
energy, with tireless energy comes joy, with joy comes a
tranquil body, with a tranquil body comes happiness, with
happiness comes attentive mastery, with attentive mastery
comes equanimity.' - as well as the other immeasurable
relational headings (brahmavihara or appamanna) of
compassion, appreciative joy and loving-kindness. (2003:
 Happiness then is an integral aspect of a much more
complete maturity. It is a worthy end state to seek,
particularly for others, but it exists only as a co-product of a
more pervasive transformation. Happiness is part and parcel
of being generous and respectful, as it is of being non-violent
and wise. To seek GNH then, is really to seek the fullest
possible development of the individual's potentials for clarity,
wisdom and positive contribution. Inherent in this process is
the corollary need to undo the restraints or 'poisons' that
prevent maturity's flowering. In classical Mahayana
Buddhism the most important hindrances are greed,
ignorance and harmfulness and Bhutan's cultural heritage
revolves around practices designed to minimise the impacts of
these dysfunctional tendencies. Volumes of Buddhists texts
speak to the complex dangers of these three hindrances and
attest to the need to keep them under control. Those poisoned
by them, consumers in modern terms, are trapped in
immaturity and unhappiness and spread these ailments
among others. From a Buddhist perspective and thus from a
GNH perspective, cultivating excessive consumerism is wholly
The issue of commercial television is not primarily one of
whether it insinuates materialist orientations, nor of whether
these are deleterious to the individual - the answer is clear on
both points. Rather the immediate issue is whether Bhutan
has the will to seriously engage with the realities of television
and prevent it from undoing the fabric of Bhutanese life. To
maintain cultural sovereignty is to maintain the pre-eminence
of ones own culture and the ethical insights that lie at its core.
Where the core referents that inform indigenous purpose
come to be dominated by foreign criteria (like capital gain)
then a culture begins a slow and usually unremitting decline.
Commercial television then, should not be allowed to enter
the Bhutanese consciousness unchallenged on any terms but
its own because ideological systems always win by their own
referents. Television broadcasts its own justifications - that it
is wanted, informative and fun - and to argue against it in
 these terms is difficult, if not churlish. Only when television is
challenged by more holistic terms does it reveal its weakness,
both as an ideology and as an ethical force. In order to
grapple with television or any other aspect of the global
economy, Bhutanese officials have to continue to see the
issue clearly in terms of their own cultural priorities. After all,
television draws mass numbers away from reflection and the
cultivation of interconnectedness. Attentiveness, the prerequisite for skilful advance is shattered by televisions
intrusiveness. And desire, that most foundational problem, is
enflamed and enraged by its manipulations. The deficiencies
are obvious when tested in Buddhist terms, but largely
invisible when viewed in televisions own terms.
If engaged culture is co-existent with maintaining indigenous
sovereignty, then what about the other pillars of GNH, what
for example is the role of good governance in the context of
television? It is logical to suggest that in general, good
governance in a Buddhist culture must involve acting to
empower and sustain the grounding necessary for clarity,
wisdom and positive contribution to flourish and inform
decision-making. This of course represents nothing new for
Bhutan as traditional governance has always involved a close
co-operation between monastic and civil authorities. In the
Bhutanese context, government must eventually rule on the
propriety of television in terms of its potential to help or
hinder an advance towards the sustainable maturity
necessary for GNH to prevail
When it comes to commercial television and advertising,
Bhutan needs to keep in mind that globalising capitalism is a
highly combatative cultural form and that it inevitably seeks
cultural re-arrangement to achieve its global expansion. The
demands on government correspondingly require high
degrees of vigilance in order that the more invasive intrusions
be identified and contained. In the face of aggression,
protection becomes a necessary governing virtue. If the deep
and humane values of Bhutanese life are to be sustained,
then the strident call to abandon them in the name  of a
 grasping self-interest must be countered. Commercial
television aggressively seeks it mindshare, and seeks to draw
it away from the more functional reflections of Buddhism. The
most basic requirement of Buddhist 'good governance' in this
context would involve protecting the public consciousness
from any expansion in foreign televisions calculating
manipulations. If television is to play a positive role in any
context it must be governed effectively, and by criteria that
counter its constant movement towards complete attentional
capture. Within a framework of GNH this could be done in
any number of ways. Pressure to allow satellite broadcasting
to spread commercial television beyond the towns can be
resisted. Licences can be limited and advertising can be
controlled. There is no reason why these things or others
cannot be done if deemed pragmatic by reference to higher-
order outcomes.
With regard to the other components of GNH - the
environment and the economy, we can again see how the
engagement of cultural values and sensibilities are essential.
The economy and the environment have come to be linked in
an unfortunate opposition in recent times. This opposition
reflects the limited capacities of the biosphere to cope with
unsustainable levels of production and consumption. In a
limited natural system, economic growth comes at an
environmental cost, and environmental integrity comes at an
economic cost. From this essential trade-off, an inevitable
conclusion follows - that beyond a finite capacity for
expansion, further short-term material consumption can only
come at the cost of long-term sustainability. For a perspective
that recognises interconnectedness and seeks the well-being
of all sentient beings, a restraint of material desire is
necessary if all are to thrive. To deny the need for moderation
in consumption, in the present context, is to deny
Buddhism's legitimacy. It is exactly the end-point consumer
capitalism seeks.
In the final analysis then, we return to a basic point. Among
the four pillars that support GNH, economy is distinguished
 by its singularly unrestrained nature and its corresponding
tendency to corrupt its companions. The state of the global
commons is illustrative of the miseries that occur if its
aggressiveness goes unchallenged. As economy expands it
devours ecological sustainability, corrupts responsible
governance and hollows out the core of all restraining culture.
If Bhutan is not to fall prey to the global imbalance, the
actively destructive force of material consumption must be
contained in order that the complimentary goods of ecological
health, social harmony and wise culture are allowed to make
their contributions to national happiness.
GNH is a dream that can only thrive to the extent that the
Buddhist culture that informs it continues itself to thrive.
Globalising capitalism uses television and its attention
grabbing power to shape attitudes detrimental to Buddhist
accomplishment. As such, it must be engaged with and
restrained. Television represents not a merely beguiling and
entrancing medium, but a major cultural intrusion. Simply
put, it represents a fundamental threat to the on-going
viability of Buddhist culture and all the higher attainments
(including GNH) it seeks to facilitate. In closing, it is
appropriate to remind ourselves of Neil Postman's sober
warning with regard to the medium. When a population
becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as
a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public
conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short,
people become an audience, then a nation finds itself at risk;
culture-death is a real possibility. (1985: p. 161).
Billig,    M.    (1999).    Commodity    Fetishism    and    Repression:
Reflections on Marx, Freud and the Psychology of Consumer
Capitalism. Theory and Psychology, 9(3): 313-329.
Bunting, M. (2004). Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is
Ruining Our Lives. Harper Collins, London..
Diener,  E.   & Seligman,  M.   (2004).  Beyond Money:  Toward an
Economy of Weil-Being. Psychological Science in the Public
Interest, 5(1), pp. 1-31.
Galbraith, J.K.  (1958). The Affluent Society.  Houghton Mifflin,
New York.
Gitlin, T.  (2002). Media Unlimited:  How the Torrent of Images
and  Sounds   Overwhelms  our  Lives.   Metropolitan   Books,
New York.
Hamilton, C. (2003). Growth Fetish. Allen and Unwin, Sydney.
Hershock,   P.    (2003).   Trade,   Development   and   the   Broken
Promise of Interdependence. Journal of Bhutan Studies, 9,
pp. 23-60.
Hoffman, W.M & Moore, J.M (1984). Business Ethics: Readings
and Cases in Corporate Morality. McGraw-Hill, New York.
Kasser,   T.   (2002).   The   High   Price   of  Materialism.   Bradford
Books/MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.
Korten,    D.     (1995).    When    Corporations    Rule    the    World.
Earthscan, London.
Lessing, D. The Roads of London. Excerpted in Granta, 27, pp
McDonald,    R.    (2003).    Finding   Happiness   in   Wisdom    and
Compassion   -   The    Real   Challenge   for   an   Alternative
Development Strategy. Journal of Bhutan Studies, 9, pp.  1-
Postman,    N.    (1985)    Amusing    Ourselves    to    Death:    Public
Discourse in the Age of Show Business.   Random House,
New York.
Putnam, R.D. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of
American Community. Simon and Schuster, New York


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