Thursday, January 03, 2008


Jules Crittenden looks at how reality TV shows impel otherwise normal people into doing bizarre things.

The beauty and genius of reality TV has always been how it launches relatively normal people … which is to say petty, conniving, weak and tantrum-prone … into utterly unreal situations and pits them against each other like lab rats. Subcategories include career-launch reality TV and socially responsible reality TV. ... Now Queer Eye’s Carson Kressley wants to help large or otherwise off-type women feel good about themselves in “How to Look Good Naked.” Laudable goal gets relatively good Herald review, points off for naked commercialism.

Jules Crittenden's observation about the compulsive power of reality TV made me wonder why, if TV could make people do good things (such as motivate fat ladies to lose weight) it wasn't necessarily the case TV could make people do bad things. In a similar vein you might believe it was historically true that the Gestapo broke World War 2 French resistance cells by torturing resistants into revealing their networks and simultaneously maintain that torture is never successful in unearthing information. How is it that people sometimes go through life holding two contradictory beliefs at the same time?

George Orwell called the process doublethink.

The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them . . . . To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.

The really scary thing about doublethink is that it might actually be necessary to maintain apparent normalcy. Henry Thoreau famously observed that people live lives of "quiet desperation". Perhaps we also live lives of chronic contradiction. Yet somehow we manage. Psychologists have theorized that people create new ideas in order to reduce the amount of cognitive dissonance in their lives.

Social psychologist Leon Festinger first proposed the theory in 1957 after the publication of his book When Prophecy Fails, observing the counterintuitive belief persistence of members of a UFO doomsday cult and their increased proselytization after the leader's prophecy failed. The failed message of earth's destruction, purportedly sent by aliens to a woman in 1956, became a disconfirmed expectancy that increased dissonance between cognitions, thereby causing most members of the impromptu cult to lessen the dissonance by accepting a new prophecy: that the aliens had instead spared the planet for their sake.

We perpetually find ourselves caught in our own mental traps and just as frequently burrow out. Are the new tunnels any good? What's really interesting to consider is whether the process of creating new rationalizations or ways of forgetting in order to maintain an intellectual house divided against itself is in some sense a creative engine. It's certainly an unconscious way of evading binary logic.


Blogger Peter Grynch said...

It get's even stranger. A while back, as reported in Science News Weekly, a hacker released a virus into the World of Warcraft online roleplaying game which "infected" and "killed off" many of the role player avatars. The virus was spread when an "infected" player interacted with a noninfected one. Social scientists noticed that players reactions were remarkeably similar to actual plague victim reactions in the real world: some players immediately logged off and went into seclusion, some players became infected and avoided contact with other players, some players banded together to look for a "cure", and some players became infected and then began deliberately spreading the virus!

Now Social scientists want to repeat the situation under controlled conditions but the company that owns the game won't allow it for fear of damaging its business.

Virtual Antrax anyone?

1/03/2008 10:07:00 AM  
Blogger Andrew X said...

How about "That idiot President Bush and his lackey Rumsfeld refused to send enough troops into Iraq to get the job done like any competent Democrat would have done..."

"Oh, yeah, and they should be prosecuted for war crimes" for sending them at all.

Kinda like that?

1/03/2008 11:35:00 AM  
Blogger Towering Barbarian said...

Yeah, kinda like that! ^_~

An interesting claim Jack Chalker once made about 1984 in one of his own books was that George Orwell got the idea for the title by transposing the last 2 digits of the year in which he was writing the novel and that 1984 itself was actually about the Socialist(My phrase, not Chalker's!) politics of Orwell's day. I wonder what it says about "progressive" politics that it hasn't changed in 60 years? o_O

1/03/2008 01:17:00 PM  
Blogger Annoy Mouse said...

Our egos are fragile things but are easily boosted with the fleeting opportunity of fame. Witness the meltdown of numerous TV personalities and nominal nobodies like watching a multipart train wreck between the commercials. Reality TV is like handing someone’s keys to ones own ego. It would be just as proper to offer a bottle of whiskey to a chronic alcoholic. A dysfunctional family bent into predictable pathologies by a public agape at the social disintegration that they willed in the first place.

I thought at some point this quavering display of human weakness would eventually be replaced by something better, like a remake of Gilligan’s Island, but atlas, the interminable writers strike makes it as unlikelier than ever.

I think Doublethink is a disease as much as it is a coping mechanism to mitigate a worldview that is diametrically opposed to ones circumstantial reality. But the pathological liar believes their own deceptions and so reality must take its place. It is a cognitive dissonance that abuts ones aspirations of greatness against the tragedy of existence. “Reality” vs. reality. Did Superman have super intentions supported by a super ego or was he a mere witness to his own greatness? Watch the Special.

1/03/2008 01:39:00 PM  
Blogger Alexis said...

If an ordinary housewife were murdered and her husband stood to benefit from a large insurance policy taken out in her name, a normal police investigation would interview the husband. If he is innocent, it is important to clear his name. If he is guilty, it is also necessary to investigate what he did before, during, and after her murder.

Yet, if a powerful female politician were murdered in a third world country, it would be politically incendiary to even hint that her husband could have had anything to do with her murder. Better to blame it on the rain than to investigate her husband.

To quote Tom Lehrer’s song, My Home Town:

I remember Sam, he was the village idiot.
And though it seems a pity, it
Was so.
He loved to burn down houses just to watch the glow,
And nothing could be done,
Because he was the mayor’s son.

1/03/2008 02:00:00 PM  
Blogger Zenster said...

annoymouse: I thought at some point this quavering display of human weakness would eventually be replaced by something better, like a remake of Gilligan’s Island, but atlas, the interminable writers strike makes it as unlikelier than ever.

Yew betcha! Few people understand the dynamics behind Hollywood's love for "Reality" shows and garbage like American Idol. The "Reality" shows are a total goldmine. No expensive professional actors, no costly props or sets, no striking writers or their unions to deal with, really inexpensive outdoor locations and so on.

All of this combines to create some incredibly cheap production expenses and, at the same time, supposedly reach the "little guy" with ostensibly gritty tales of survival. None of this could be farther from the truth but since when has truth had any currency in Hollywood?

The "American Idol" and other talent shows enjoy many of the same features. Entrants line up in droves to participate, they probably charge the audience an admission fee, the "celebrity judges" and soundstage are the only significant investments. Now, consider the huge cash flow that devolves from all those 1-900 telephone calls to vote on this week's contestant.

Both of these formats enjoy peak ratings that are leveraged into high priced advertising slots. Few better examples exist of "Lowest Common Denominatior" television programming. Some of you might remember when there was an emphasis on quality programming. Shows like Kraft Television Theater, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the early Outer Limits series. These shows came from an era when television was being sold to the viewing audience in order to gain network popularity.

Today, the opposite holds true. We are bombarded with drivel and the sort of drooling idiocy designed to capture the attention span of a six-year old. All of this is because it is the audience that is now being sold. Television shows are created and produced with only one thing in mind and that is advertising revenues. Viewers are being sold to the advertisers and lowest common demoninator programming is the key to such a strategy. Does anyone honestly think that Masterpiece Theater could have evolved in a commercial network broadcasting environment?

1/03/2008 02:48:00 PM  
Blogger Whiskey said...

Zenster -- Reality programming is the net result of the abandonment of the broad middle for the Fox Broadcast (cheap thrills and exploitation) and Grant Tinker strategy (fewer viewers and more upscale).

Never before has TV had so many niche shows with limited appeal to "hip/edgy" yuppie urbanites: The Sopranos, the L Word (Same Sex, Different City), Sex and the City, Big Love (polygamy), Dexter (serial killer as hero), Rescue Me (9/11 Fireman a creepy anti-hero), the Shield (creepy corrupt murdering cop anti-hero), the Wire (Homicide Life on the Street part two), Gossip Girl, Big Shots, Dirty Sexy Money, Desperate Housewives, Lost, etc.

Big Love for example will pull 2-3 million viewers. In 1968, with a population of 203 million, Beverly Hillbillies pulled 60 million viewers. Current US population: 303 million. Yes there is now fragmentation of the audience, but it's hard for me to accept a 75% or more fragmentation of the possible audience.

Reality shows like American Idol can pull in it's finale 30 million viewers. That's still half of what a more mainstream audience would pull in 1968. With a unified common culture and no gender divide.

Go visit a hospital, auto service waiting room, etc. You'll find the men avoid or turn off the TV and women turn it on looking for Oprah, the View, Tyra, etc. TV is a gay-feminine ghetto. It is this way due to the habits of ad buyers (mostly single women 22-28 years old) and advertisers (who prefer women as viewers since they believe they make the majority of purchasing decisions).

To answer Wretchard's question, it is almost impossible for TV to broadly affect more than gays/women. Since men have been steadily pushed out of tv viewing as both reality and scripted entertainment focus exclusively on gays/women.

Take a look at commercials. Count how many times the "idiot" husband/father are upbraided by the all-knowing wife. This in a nutshell explains how men left TV.

1/03/2008 04:25:00 PM  
Blogger LifeoftheMind said...

Interesting, particularly whiskey_199's comment. Television and much of the traditional mass media like newspapers may have abandoned heterosexual men but they haven't exterminated them. Men are still out there and they are not passive objects content to inhabit a vacuum. The question is if the traditional public square has been closed to them then where will they go? Will it be religion? gulp Islam? Maybe a clash of political identifications will compete for attention.

1/03/2008 05:59:00 PM  
Blogger Towering Barbarian said...

I think the answers to your question can be summed up in 3 words; "Anime" and "Video games". ^_^

But I wonder if the broadcasters will be happy at the consequence of driving away so many of their audience at a time when the broadcasters themselves are fighting for their survival? o_O

1/05/2008 05:32:00 PM  

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