Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Disapproval Network

"You're such a whore, Phil."

"Keifus! How can you say that? Dr. Phil is not a 'whore'."

"Are you kidding me? Listen to him shill. What the hell is it this time? Some weight loss crap*? In the name of intervention? The dude's totally shameless...and not exactly the slimmest guy in the world, I might add."

"I don't care. He's not a whore. Look at that little girl crying. You can't fake that sort of compassion."

"Compassion? The knob's exploiting the poor kid's emotions on TV like that. If he really cared about these people, he wouldn't be embarrassing them on national telelvision. But you know, Sweetie, anything for ratings. The whore."

For some reason, my wife doesn't like watching TV with me very much.

I've got kind of a love/hate relationship with the medium. While I enjoy some television programming outright, I choose to apply a relatively high standard if it's purporting to keep my attention between the crass ad breaks. I'm for a free market (with some big caveats), but that doesn't mean that I'm not bloody tired of all the consumerism jammed into every goddamn crevice of my life. I hate the way TV shamelessly angles for the susceptible: those primetime ads at least attempt to entertain me between the allegedly superior programming, but children's telelvision, and the crap on the emotion-pandering-on-the-cheap world of daytime TV just offer up a barrage of inferiority complexes. So when I'm stuck in that hell, I take every perceived opportunity to unleash my inner prick. You know, make my own entertainment. And anyway, Phil McGraw is a fucking whore, and deserves to be called on it.

My libertarianism is more of a pursuit-of-happiness than a laissez-faire stripe. I'm all for that free speech, and for as little government power over individuals that can leave an overpopulated society still functioning. The government will make no law abridging the freedom of speech, but communities can still pressure people to behave, and national television makes the network homogeneous. The TV lessons range from acceptable (friends matter!) to sketchy (love the cops!) to awful (the solution to violence is more violence!). Since we have shit that needs to be peddled and TV, even with cable, is a broad brush, we get the lessons most easily absorbed by the most, and it reinforces the values of the dumbest of us. Sex is bad, says the tube (but we can't get enough--what are our neighbors doing?!). Ditto killin' people. Ditto our opinions on who's not to be trusted, and who can't be punished enough. Don Imus didn't survive this long because he had a good radio voice. He got adopted as some brand of jowly bullshittin' culture reinforcer, a dinosaur remembering the semi-mythical good old days when the uppity mice were kept away from the eggs.

Dr. Phil's message could be worse, I suppose. Self-actualization is one thing, but I could do without the busybodies chasing around the poorly actualized. One of the more odious Dr. Phil guests is a retired detective, who spies on and professionally confronts people. The segment I remember showcased a teenage bride in a sketchy (possibly illegal) relationship with an older man. The camera followed the citizen police into the home, caught his shouting match, filmed him dragging the young woman out to the car. Meanwhile, the mother tearfully milked the Nielsens back in the studio. It worked out well for the young person. On camera it always does, but how many wannabe citizen soldiers have been heartened to bust the doors down on nonconformists?

If the free market means that I have to put up with marketing, then the free exchange of ideas means that insecure people will constantly try to shame you with their loud voices. Good arguments wouldn't rule the day even in libertarian la-la land. Even then we'd have to listen to the chorus of the disapproval network. And don't get me wrong, it's not conservative ideas about community that I'm attacking here (although I'll happily single out a couple of 'em if pressed), but rather the means of reinforcement: by peer pressure, by accentuating insecurity, by barrage.

The prices of freedom, I tells ya.


*It was probably something else last time I was watching, actually, but the diet aid dominated the Google search. Phil-endorsed Shape Up! supplements were something he was actually called on by consumers. The handful of shows I watched had him hawking either his books or somebody's self-help or emotionally-sanctifying product of some kind. In Phil's defense, the books are a lot less bad than the television.


august said...

Not a coincidence, I suppose, that both you and John are writing about emotional manipulation. We finally got rid of cable, which in NYC means no TV. But the fray seems to play to some of the same impulses. Maybe we have a need to be manipulated? Or just an incentive to try to manipulate?