The “Meaning” of America: Doubling Down on Cruelty

“Sometimes I think we should all have bumper stickers that read, Stop Worshipping Assholes. But I’m not sure most people can agree on the characteristics of an asshole.“

The “Meaning” of America: Doubling Down on Cruelty
Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

Is there Some Reality TV in all of us? Yikes!

While slavery and the genocide of Indigenous Peoples were, in my opinion, the height of evil and villainous acts in our country’s history, in this piece, I examine accepted American nastiness in a format called the reality show. What does it say about us?

By (loose) definition, reality shows cast non-professional performers for continuous taping/filming of their lives in a particular scenario. Some claim they are non-scripted. I was on a few episodes of true crime shows and was heavily scripted—but that genre might be different.

Candid Camera is considered the first reality show, but I don’t remember a heightened level of cruelty during the Candid Camera pranks.

New Rules

I’m no shrinking violet, but more than a decade ago while watching a competitive cooking reality show, I was surprised that the hosts not only tolerated cheating and bullying between contestants but were amused by it. I’ve seen the same thing on other competitive reality shows. No one gets kicked off for causing harm to others or for not playing fair; it’s accepted. Sabotage, cheating, lying, and bullying are business as usual. Silly me, I thought those things should disqualify a person from participating on a show. I guess the producers consider it “good TV.” And I feel like a fossil for even using the term, “playing fair.”

May he rest in purgatory, the late Jerry Springer’s shows brought the least of these into our homes. We watched admissions of adultery and paternity tests bring guests to blows. I’m not sure his talk show would’ve been considered a reality show, but in reality, it contributed to the lowered standards bar.

Voyeurism—the kind that enjoys the pain of others—gifts many reality shows with high Nielsen ratings. We see young adults choose mates or potential mates using a show’s process; this can range from blindly selecting romantic partners by talking behind walls, to dating two dozen people at once in search of a spouse. Sadly, we get to know when they have sex and watch when they’re dumped or dissed by the potential mate 

I watched one show to see if it was for real. In this one, psychologists use algorithms to decide who should marry and the strangers meet for the first time on their wedding day. During the ceremony they announce whether they do or don’t intend to marry. So not only is the rejection in full wedding attire, but it’s also broadcast on national television. I’m not sure how arranged marriages used to work, but I thought that traditional arrangers were from families familiar with each other and their histories—although, I wouldn’t want anyone choosing a life partner for me. I rather make my own mistakes.

And in the most popular shows, contestants/guests/cast members--are stranded in some remote location and are primed to scheme against each other. This is like watching people punch each other’s faces until bloody. I must be the odd person out, because I swear, I don’t get it! Must be our new-ishly popular term, Schadenfreude, a combo of the German words for damage/harm (Schaden) and joy (Freude).   

Schadenfreude, also called malicious joy by Grammerly, is the feeling of pleasure or satisfaction that some people may experience when they see others suffering. This may be due to a variety of factors, including jealousy, resentment, or a sense of superiority.

Researchers claim there are three driving forces behind schadenfreude – aggression, rivalry, and justice. Not surprisingly, they’ve found that individuals with lower self-esteem experience schadenfreude more intensely and more often. There is an attitude that someone else’s failure is better and gives them pleasure rather than the confident individuals view that someone else’s successes or failures have little to no impact on their life. More confident people are not invested in the lives of others and how they fare.

The lower the self-esteem, the greater the Schadenfreude, according to psychologists. The more aggressive schadenfreuders are into group identity so the failure of “others,” validates their beliefs about their group. The rivalry type is more individualistic. We all know those people who only feel great about themselves when someone else loses or faces misfortune. And the justice-leaning want to see what they consider immoral or the bad ones, punished. Their perceived moral high ground.

I don’t often place a stake in high moral ground because, frankly, it would seem hilarious for the life of this free-spirited and solidly liberal, wannabe non-conformist. But in a culture that feels increasingly cruel in our public political narratives, I find my satisfaction in fictional justice on TV. I’ll never tire of the ever-winning Perry Mason, the attorney whose investigations result in a murderer’s confession and the innocent going free. Or Lt. Columbo’s one-more-thing approach to weeding out truth. We don’t always get that in real life.

Does Anyone Believe in Truth and Justice, Anymore?

Sometimes I think we should all have bumper stickers that read, Stop Worshipping Assholes. But I’m not sure most people can agree on the characteristics of an asshole. The dictionary definition, (not the one referring to human biology), describes an asshole as a stupid, irritating , contemptible person. Clearly, judging from reality show “stars,” and political leanings, we don’t all agree. Truth and justice are in the eyes of the beholders.

Back to me….

My journey of self-analysis and disdain for Schadenfreude made me wonder if I’m actually a justice-seeking type who watches fake justice because I desperately want bad people to pay for their transgressions. Are you really a Schadenfreuder if you want people to get their comeuppance? Is there an essential element of Schadenfreude in the belief of karma where what you do comes back to you because actions determine fate? Maybe we all have a little Schadenfreude in us and that is why reality shows are so popular.

Back to the bar… Not for my signature martini, but the theoretical bar of standards

In conversations with friends, we talk about today’s unveiled hate-speech, injustice, and lack of empathy—it’s like a Schadenfreude-fest gone wild. We have a burning desire to see those who harm others, get harmed. We deeply want those who cheat, lie, and steal to pay a price. But I realize the difference is that while it would satisfy my crowd, retribution would in no way bring us joy. The standard that divides us from the MAGAts, the reality show loyalists, and the immoral morality police is that we take no joy in the pain of others, even the most evil among us.

The toughest reality to accept about reality TV is that it reflects our culture. Like that mirror at a carnival, it might be a bit loopy and distorted but at its core, it’s part of us. And that might not be a good thing.

For those who want to try it, here’s the signature martini recipe. (From a guy in Southern California many years ago).

Into an ice-filled martini shaker add:
1 oz of gin
1 oz of vodka
One drop of Grand Marnier
Shake, never stir

We named it the Gold Finger because of the hint of golden color.

Cheers! Some days we could all use a strong drink.

Myra Jolivet is a storyteller. First a TV news anchor and reporter. Then came PR work and consulting. That's where she is today - banging her head against the wall - trying to help CEOs and political candidates tell their stories well. Myra writes a series of murder mysteries She was a kid with an imaginary friend. That says it all.