A Puff of Absurdity: Idiocracy

Lorne’s post on Harrelson’s naive solution to world problems (from Ethos, but he said it in Go Further years earlier too), in which he suggests we should just stop buying bad stuff and companies will change, works in tandem with this quote making the rounds:

We do need to change our buying habits and show the corporations that citizens have power, but we’re too lazy and stupid to actually do that. We need a shift in our culture to be able to even begin.

And then I read an article by David Hopkins that suggests that the show Friends and the constant belittling of Ross, the only intellectual in the show, was a turning point in the dumbing down of society. I’m not sure if that show started the trend since Cheer’s regular dismissal of Diane’s intelligence started a decade earlier, but it seems clear that the trend has spread to many similar shows that make fun of anyone with more than a couple brain cells to rub together. Hopkins says,

“We’re at a low point — where social media interaction has replaced genuine debate and political discourse, where politicians are judged by whether we’d want to have a beer with them, where scientific consensus is rejected, where scientific research is underfunded, where journalism is drowning in celebrity gossip.”

Then these posts provoked me to re-watch a bit of How I Met Your Mother, and it was striking how often Ted is laughed at for being intelligent. There’s a whole episode about it in which his friends make farting noises whenever he adds a cultural reference to the conversation. Now, I happen to find Ted particularly annoying because he’s always whining about some girl. That’s gets old fast, and it’s a wonder the gang doesn’t roll their eyes or otherwise cut him off when he goes on a whinge-fest, but they’re quick to stop any intellectual discourse. This creates the illusion (or perhaps it creates the reality) that intelligent ideas are to be dismissed for being boring or, as Ted finally decides, “douchey.” And then he just stops saying anything intelligent, and his dialogue is reduced to self-obsession and quips.

Hopkins also notes that Ross got annoying, which just further illustrates that some of the best comedic writers either don’t know how to make intellectual discourse entertaining or they’re being pressured to make the best and brightest into people we can’t stand. Is it that if we can be made to accept mediocracy then we’ll buy more stuff? Is that the game we’re playing?

But who cares, right? Why analyze goofy TV shows when there are serious real events that need attention? I actually think sit-coms are important. I agree with Hopkins that they are quietly teaching us how to behave and what to care about. There’s a growing concern over the rise in anti-intellectualism in our culture: it’s being blamed for unwavering creationists, mass murders, and the rise of Trump. I believe it will be the death of us. Some think the cult of ignorance is entirely the fault of a weakened school system, but no method of education can flourish in a culture that ridicules intelligence, and our culture is influenced dramatically by TV shows that we get sucked into watching on a regular basis.

But that’s not always a bad thing.

I remember the first time I saw condom use mentioned in a casual way in a TV show as if of course we all take a moment to discuss contraception before having sex. I was at the perfect age to be positively influenced by Bruce Willis’s charming character asking Maddie Hayes about protection in the heat of a moment that had been building up for years. All the health class videos in the world can’t teach how to have that conversation in a suave and sexy manner as well as a sit-com can.

A decade later, when Ellen’s character came out on a sit-com, it was a game changer. After that, other shows scrambled to get some same-sex kissing on their show in whatever contrived way they could, and, after an awkward period of tokenism, now we have many characters throughout shows and films who happen to be LBGTQ. Sit-coms normalized something once demonized – well, for most of us.

But it takes a careful touch to manipulate the populous well. Ostrov and Gentile’s experiment on the correlation between educational TV and relational aggression in children is telling. Children’s television developed morals and removed all traces of the violence of anvils and steamrollers. This would be great except the study found that children missed the overall moral of the plotline of shows like Franklin, Arthur, and Magic School Bus, but they picked up on individual behaviours of the characters:

“The most common relationally aggressive behaviors were children saying, ‘I won’t be your friend anymore unless you do what I say,’ or ‘You can’t come to my birthday party’ as well as socially excluding a peer from play,” Ostrov said. “From our viewing, this type of relational aggression is much more common in young children’s programming than physically aggressive behavior.”

We were hoping to have a new generation of kinder and more knowledgable kids, but we ended up with passive aggressive banter on the playground instead. What we teach isn’t always related to what they learn.

Pro-social TV can backfire horribly, like when Fonzie got a pair of glasses and a new “school is cool” mantra. It didn’t make school look cool, it made Fonzie look like a nerd who literally jumped a shark for attention.  In classical conditioning lingo, the neutral stimulus (school) is supposed to take on the response generated by an unconditioned stimulus (Fonzie) by association, so, after several pairings of the two, we develop a conditioned response and react to school like we would to Fonzie (love it – maybe even swoon a bit). The problem comes when a neutral stimulus (school) actually provokes a response already (aversion because it’s so uncool). Then the neutral stimulus can act as the unconditioned stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus acts as the neutral stimulus creating a conditioned response to Fonzie (hate him the way we hate school).

But while it may be difficult for media to get us to change our behaviours around things we already love or hate, it can be easy to change a behaviour that’s just a mindless habit, particularly if a well-loved character reacts negatively to it. But it has to be clearly disliked not just from the story-line, but from all the behaviours and attitudes by the protagonists.

There are many tiny behaviours that could be shifted by this medium, but all too often shows reinforce the status quo. It was disappointing in HIMYM when it was revealed that all the characters smoked. I guess they ran out of story-lines, so they brought in a new problem to be fixed. The story-line presented it as a problem, but the behaviours we saw showed close social engagement facility by cigarettes.Thus when Lily quit smoking, but her husband Marshall didn’t, she got grossed out and offended as soon as he walked in the door after a cigarette. That might have influenced people to develop a distaste for smoking except she behaved in a policing manner, which made her the authority catching her husband’s misbehaviour. Few people want to align themselves with the authority figure, especially if we’re participating in the misbehaviour. We want to have fun with Marshall not tell him off. For a real anti-smoking campaign to work, they’d need a new character that everyone hates to do the bad thing. Then they could all disparage the redshirt uniformly.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin‘s protagonist was viewed as undeveloped, and part of that came from watching him cycling through the city. He was put on a fast-track to adulthood that included selling his stuff and learning how to drive. Virgins ride bikes, and sexually-active dudes drive cars. Would it have been possible for his character to develop enough charm in the process of his first relationships to convince everyone to start biking to work? He does get his girlfriend to go for a ride, but a car is still presented as a necessary marker of adulthood. Under a careful hand it might have worked, but audiences sniff out manipulations. It has to be done well or not at all.

But it can be done. All it would take is a few well-loved characters to insist on tap water over bottled water, to decide to walk or subway instead of jumping in a car without making it seem a hardship, to have a drink over a variety of platefuls of vegan dishes instead of hamburgers or wings, and to make the smart one the clever, lovable hero again. Barney Miller, Bob Newhart, Andy Travis were the voice of maturity and reason in a cast of goofy characters. We laughed at the inane antics of the ensemble, but the shows’ trajectory had us relieved there was some wisdom in the midst.

If it’s possible for sit-coms to affect our culture significantly, and if we know where the culture needs to be heading in terms of people embracing science and taking personal responsibility for actions that affect the well-being of the world including our consumerist habits, then shouldn’t entertainment make some movement in that direction? I don’t think many of us struggle to be moral, to have character and integrity, so I’m sure it’s far too much to ask of a production company. There are a few that have characters who do the right thing: Rectify and even Brooklyn Nine-Nine has a heart, but if only Andy Sandberg could insist on fair trade coffee at work! That would be a start.  At least it’s a cop show where nobody gets shot.

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