Tuesday, August 26, 2014

On Glorifying Psychopaths

Murray Dobbin wrote a very provocative article relating our TV viewing of psychopaths to our politics.  Owen explored the glorification of psychopaths in a post discussing the article, and I commented there on the difficulty of establishing kindness in our self-absorbed culture.  I wrote years ago about the crux of the problem: that it's not cool to be kind.  When Fonzie started wearing glasses and caring about things, he lost his status with the viewers, and then he literally jumped the shark.

But the article has sparked a few other thoughts.

First of all, is two shows enough to show a cultural trend?  More to the point, how can we determine which shows are most influencing our politics - or most influenced by our politics, and how can we ever show more than just a correlation? It's an interesting thesis to posit that TV mirrors politics, but it's a difficult thing to discern.  Are the psychopath shows the most watched, or is our current culture more clearly defined by reality TV?  It's a laborious feat if we want to do justice to the concept; it's tricky business that requires a willingness for tedious analysis that's beyond my motivation level. but it's fun just to consider correlations based on the shows that stand out to us.


Dobbin suggests the 50s had movies depicting cold war paranoia during the cold war and current TV shows mirror 21st century psychopathic capitalism.  The shows he focuses on are Breaking Bad and House of Cards, and I don't know how Dexter didn't warrant a mention - nor The Sopranos.  

When I think back to the shows I watched growing up, I can't think of a single one that had a psychopath as the hero.  They were gentler shows.  Happy Days, Star Trek, MTM, Bob Newhart, Barney Miller, Family Ties, M*A*S*H, WKRP in Cincinnati, Cheers, St. Elsewhere, Hill Street Blues, Moonlighting....  There were some dark themes here and there, but for the most part, everyone worked together reasonably happily to a satisfying conclusion.  I'm not sure if they were really gentler times, or if it just feels that way through the soft focus of memory juxtaposed against the stark photos of children in Gaza, missing or murdered Aboriginal women, and so many neighbourhoods closer to home either flooded or on fire.


Beyond my typical viewing, the 80s was marked by soap operas I never watched - many of which at once idealized wealth while allowing us a vicarious delight in the destruction or humiliation of the very wealthy.  This was during the recession, when people were more likely to despise the wealthy than have any potential to join them.  The 80s ushered in this new form of capitalism: insane growth at any cost.  This new type of show we see today is getting a following, not during the height of "successful" capitalism, but after we've seen the fall of this system.  It is a time of helplessness. 

Today, we're either angry or oblivious. Too many have lost too much to money scams or natural disasters.  During the depression, movies were fantasies of a better place - The Wizard of Oz.  Now, we have fantasies of being able to beat the system.  We want to watch people get away with enacting their anger purposefully - in a way that gets them wealth or status or just offers a release to our collectively repressed frustration and rage.   They're able to stay one step ahead of the law.  Maybe it's a satisfying fantasy at a time when too many aren't at all able to stay ahead of the game.

Dobbin quotes a relevant author who suggests, "People enjoy watching sociopaths on television as a kind of compensation for their own feelings of powerlessness and helplessness."  The source of this powerlessness, according to Dobbin, is capitalist hyper-competetiveness.  He sees competition as the catalyst tearing apart families and communities.  I don't think it's the competitiveness directly causing problems - as if people are competing with their own neighbours, copying Frank Underwood's tactics to cause strife -  but the indirect result of the inability to compete, the inability to even reach the bottom stratum of the mythological level playing field. As Dobbin clarifies, "a competitiveness in which almost all but the 1% lose."


Secondly, is this level of violence and ruthlessness new or just new to TV at a time when TV is a whole new medium?  There is certainly a rash of psychpaths in shows today, characters once relegated to the bad guys in horror films.  But I don't believe it's entirely from helplessness that we watch.  We watch for the clever ways they get out of sticky situations week after week - and not necessarily from a sense of wish-fulfillment, but as an admiration of talent.  It's not dissimilar to old shows in which the bad guy set the trap and the good guy gets to foil him yet again, except the criminals and cops have switched roles.  Either way, it's entertaining to watch the set up through to the escape.  That's nothing new or necessarily tied to our politics or power.  

We've always enjoyed a bit of violence too.  As a child, with Little House on the Prairie on in the background, I ate up books on Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology.  One of my favourites was the story of Prometheus' punishment for stealing Zeus' fire:  to be tied to a cliff with his guts eaten by a bird all day, only to have them grow back during the night.  Cool!  Maybe it's the case that our shows were too sanitized and tidy.  Now we're getting a dose of the dark reality of human nature.  Does bringing it out in the open normalize it and foster mimicry, or could it instead - or also - help us acknowledge and understand evil as within each of us?  Could the evil characters be enlightening, or are these notions best left under wraps?  


Finally, does TV viewing create or just reflect cultural behaviour?  I wrote about this before but with a focus on children's programming and the types of comedies I like to watch, questioning the effects on my own behaviour: Does the crass, rude, verbal abuse that entertains me on TV make me less polite and patient with people in real life?  And if it is the case the TV affect our behaviour, do we need to balance the psychopaths with more pro-social TV shows?  When religion was strong, we had lots of pro-social TV shows.  Now that it's waning, when we need moral guidance the most, we're stuck with the Kardashians as the pivotal role models of our times.  If there is a chance that TV creates our attitudes and behaviours, shows us when to feel guilty and shame and pride, shows us whom to respect and admire, then, rather than censoring the violence, I'd opt for adding shows that model virtue, that show us how to be kind.  Dobbin offers that we should just begin to act with kindness.  I think too many of us might not know how without seeing it modelled day after day on Youtube.  But do we want popular media to be our moral guidance?  Do we have a choice?

In my classroom, if I admonish a student by suggesting a behaviour wasn't kind, some just don't care.  They don't feel ashamed that they're being unkind.  It's normal; it's the way people are supposed to be.  And I'm odd for thinking otherwise.  That's a hard, uphill battle that needs to be won.  A shift in popular media could do wonders.      

Some of the shows today are vile.  We get drawn into the intensity of the drama and the shock of evil on display.  I relished every episode of the shows Dobbin despises.  But like Dobbin, I also re-watched The West Wing recently for a bit of hope.  And lately, I'm loving Rectify for its slow pace that forces the viewer to be patient.  It allows tension to build by heartbeats. But I'm also struck by the novelty, in today's world, of the depth of the moral struggling the characters go through and some of the strikingly virtuous choices some of the characters make within grave circumstances.  The good guys take responsibility for their actions and don't even begin to try blaming others or explaining away their actions.  Weird.  And refreshing.  Maybe we'll just tire of the psychopaths soon and the pendulum will shift back to equally complex characters who do the right thing.

And maybe we'll recognize the limits to growth and competition while we're at it.

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