Thursday, December 17, 2009

On Reality TV

Jonah Goldberg is more of a classical conservative than I consider myself, and in his more strident writings he sometimes cross the line between provocateur and jackass, but he is a smart, well-read guy who often has a sharp, on-point take on things from the conservative viewpoint, and his latest column in the National Review is definitely worth checking out.

As much as a generally libertarian outlook appeals to me, one aspect of the philosophy with which I've always found myself uncomfortable is the glib ease with which it ignores the less appealing aspects of the free market system - among them the fact that, without social or cultural mores in place to regulate them, they often end up peddling products which appeal primarily to the lowest common denominator - base instincts which humans, even the best of us, share.

This is of course a problem in traditional marketplaces, as the comparative ease with which Doritos outsell health food will attest, but it is no less so in the realm of entertainment. Reality television is, for the most part, cultural garbage - a sort of carnival freakshow in which viewers are invited to gawk at the stupidest, shallowest, vainest, pettiest, and most venal and selfish people among us, and revel in their exploits. Even if we are not ourselves cruel, or vindictive, or duplicitous, or violent, we generally find people who are fascinating to watch - just look at the commonness of gangsters, killers, bandits, and other similarly immoral types in our fiction, as opposed to their rarity in real life - and whatever our reaction to them, be it hatred, contempt, or hidden aspiration, we can't look away.

That's not a new observation, and people have been using it to posit that fiction (in the broad sense of all imaginative art and literature) is fundamentally immoral since the time of Plato, if not before, and that fiction that depicts immoral behavior is particularly dangerous. As a lifelong aesthete I've of course never bought that argument, and I still don't, but it does have a bit more traction for me when applied in the case of reality TV, because there is an important distinction between fiction and reality TV. We can watch or read about the exploits of a thoroughly villainous fictional character - say, Milton's Satan, or Long John Silver, or Michael Corleone, or Dr. Doom - and enjoy the experience, without any real danger that our indulgence in fantasy will perniciously affect the way we lead our real lives. As appealing as we may find those characters, we can't ourselves become fallen angels, or pirates, or mafia dons, or supervillains, so assuming we are not psychotically deluded into believing otherwise, the immorality of their actions is unlikely to act as an impetus to bad behavior ourselves. That's not so in the case of the moral pygmies of reality television. The message the medium sends is that you, too, can become (relatively) rich and famous by being a backstabbing, cheating prick a la Richard Hatch of Survivor, or acting like the empty-headed, narcissistic twats on The Jersey Shore. That is really not a good message to send. While I don't like the air of classism inherent in the formulation of Arnold Toynbee that Goldberg cites, that a society thrives when the common people aspire to the mores of the upper classes, and decays when the inverse is true, I can't help but agree that there's something seriously morally amiss with a culture that adopts the debauchery and self-absorbed idiocy of preening, IQ-challenged lunkheads as one of its foremost forms of entertainment, or elevates those self-same lunkheads to the status of quasi-celebrities. Society suffers when real people act like that, and anything that encourages them to do so ought to be viewed with suspicion.

The Roman philosopher Seneca said of the experience of watching gladiatorial games "I come home greedier, more ambitious, more inclined to venal pleasures, crueler and even more inhuman, because I have been among human-beings." I feel the same way about watching reality TV, and I wish it a swift death.

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