Wednesday, August 3, 2011

On Entertainment and Cruelty

While I was in the middle of re-watching season one of Arrested Development yesterday, someone came to my door wanting a donation for an initiative she was creating.  This happens every other day or so.  I'm often very patient listening to people's plea for financial help with their new business or for me to buy their service that they claim I can't live without.  It's the new version of the door-to-door salesman. But yesterday?  Not so much.  I interrupted her with, "Sorry, I'm just not interested," and walked away.

I felt badly afterwards, but rationalized that her intro was just too long for sustained attention.  She needs to get her pitch down to two-minutes tops!  Also, there are many people on my street that will listen to her at length, so I can free-ride on their kindness.  If my reaction upset her, I know the woman two doors down would build her back up.  Right?

But then I wondered if the T.V. show I was watching wasn't affecting my judgment and subsequent behaviour.

I gravitate to shows with snarky, selfish, morally-corrupt characters like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Weedsand Community.  There's likely something in me that appreciates that kind of humour - maybe it's because I typically repress all that in my regular life, so I like to watch it on T.V.   I think I'll go with that.  But to what extent does watching the corruption affect my behaviour and make me even more corrupt than otherwise?

Does media reflect or affect society?  I think it's both.

An interesting study was done that found that "educational media exposure was correlated with future observed relational aggression."  Researchers looked at the connection between the content of non-violent cartoons and verbal aggression, and found a strong correlation.  Shows like Arthur or Franklin, or Magic School Bus are non-violent, but the content is full of anti-social behaviours:  snarky, whiney kids who complain and tease and berate one another.  Another study found that 96% of all children's programming includes verbal insults and put-downs, averaging 7.7 put-downs per helf-hour, and 84% of the time, there was no reprimand or correction, only laughter or nothing at all.  Even though the final moral of the story is positive, the kids watching pick up and directly copy the behaviours seen throughout.

T.V. producers have spent so much energy on taking out all the physical aggression in shows like Road Runner, or Bugs Bunny, that they didn't see they had replaced it with verbal aggression.  Conflict of some type is integral to a story.  Everyone getting along is boring and doesn't entertain beyond the early years.

That physical aggression of dropping anvils on characters or punching them until they have little birds circling their heads are strongly disapproved of in our culture.  Kids know that.  We watched the shows without copying them - much.  At the very least if we copied them, we did it secretively because we know we'd get in trouble if we got caught.  But subtle verbal nastiness is almost socially sanctioned, particularly if it entertains us in class or at the dinner table.  We might say, "That's not very nice," but with a hint of a smile that suggests it's okay anyway.

We all know hitting and biting is wrong.  But we seem to have forgotten that teasing and belittling and whining is problematic.  These behaviours have become socially acceptable on T.V. shows and in our lives.

But is it immoral to hurt someone's feelings in order to get a laugh or because we're feeling impatient with them?  Is it just an etiquette issue?  Etiquette is much more relative and culturally determined.  We were taught to keep our elbows off the table and never wear a hat indoors back in the day.  Most of us ignore these  rules now with no ill effects, and people who maintain them strictly may be seen as old-school.  But the difference between these examples is the harm caused.

Knowingly causing harm to another for personal gain is immoral.  Often instead of altering our behaviour to reduce harm (by not teasing for example), we try to alter our belief in the effect ("She doesn't mind if I tease her") or the receiver's belief in the effect ("Oh, lighten up!").  We rationalize our behaviour to try to convince ourselves and others that we're not really causing harm simply because it's entertaining to us to cause exactly this kind of harm.  And it's a bit of a power-trip.  Of course sometimes teasing really doesn't cause harm.  But we typically know where that line is, and we often ignore it.

I hate censorship.  And I think that's not necessary for the big kids anyway.  I think we can watch the shows, but perhaps should pay just that much more attention to our behaviour to ensure we're not blindly copying the very funny but very cruel attitudes and actions we're watching.  We can laugh at the fools so long as we don't turn them into our role models.  For our children, it's a matter of monitoring when they're able to think before they act before they should watch such anti-social programming, and then discussing the programs with the kids as they watch.  Maybe they can watch some nature shows until then!

And when Montaigne says we need to work against evil in order to actually be virtuous, he might be happy to know that in today's society those opportunities to consider an immoral act but choose to be virtuous are more plentiful than ever!

AND let's not forget it IS possible to be funny without being a jerk:

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