When I did my student teaching practicum in 1993 my supervising teacher at the high school told me that she saw a shift in kids’ behavior in the 1970’s, specifically with respect to how they talked. The explosion of television sit-coms (Happy Days, Sanford & Son, All in the Family) seemed to have changed how people viewed and expressed humor. “Everything became about the sarcastic retort, the one-liner, and one-upmanship,” she told me. “They’re much more disrespectful with each other, and with adults.”
Given the breakdown of public discourse—when was the last time you had a contra-partisan conversation on social media that didn’t devolve into name-calling within two or three exchanges?—it seems my mentor may have been onto something.
Television is, at its core, about ratings and profits. The larger a show’s audience, the more it can charge for advertising spots. And frankly, morality and good behavior don’t sell. Jerry Springer, Sally Jessy Raphael, & Geraldo didn’t build their talk show empires with segments on financial advice, car maintenance, or cute animal tricks. They exploited angry exes, homosexual strippers, self-mutilation, and bestiality, to list the first few topics that came up when I Googled “Jerry Springer”.
We’ve sensationalized and celebrated the very worst in humanity and called it humor, education, news.
Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? (The term “art” is used here very, very loosely.)
How did we end up with a thrice-married, five-times-bankrupt, reality TV personality in the White House? Because “he tells it like it is!” and he “fights back!” and he “stands for what we stand for!”? Right. No. We scooped him out of the tabloid talk shows and made him our king. He’s the poster boy for everything television studio audiences want to see: lewdness, loudness, and hostility.
If you disagree, then do your own research. Next time you’re consuming some media (watching TV, reading a magazine, or browsing your social media feed), ask yourself what the thing you’re seeing is trying to sell you. Right now I’m trying to sell you the idea that we’ve been duped into believing that what we see on TV is real life, that that’s how we are and how we ought to be.
The jewelry ad that promises, “Make her fall in love with you all over again” is trying to sell you hope that your marriage will get fixed if you just buy your wife some bling. The Instagram friend who posts a photo of her cherubic toddlers mixing up cookies in a kitchen that looks like the set from a Crate and Barrel catalog shoot is trying to sell you a particular image of herself. Those click-bait List-of-35-Whatever social media posts are trying to sell you whatever you’re willing to click on so they can get kickbacks from the 872 ads they’ve mingled in with their content till you can hardly tell which is which.
What are television shows trying to sell you? While they’ve all got an implicit worldview (Star Trek, for example, espouses a lot of Bahá'í philosophy), for the most part they’re not selling you anything. They’re actually selling you. Your presence in front of the screen ups their ratings numbers so they can feed you to the ad agencies, who want to siphon off your cash. Same thing with Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. You are the commodity that the advertisers are buying.
If that doesn’t bother us, we’re probably not giving it enough thought.
Which is probably why we are where we are.