Americans love their reality TV shows—the drama, the insults, the bullying, the callousness, the damaged relationships delivered through the lens of a surveillance camera—and there’s no shortage of such dehumanizing spectacles to be found on or off screen, whether it’s "Cops," "Real Housewives" or the heavy-handed tactics of police officers who break down doors first and ask questions later.
Where things get tricky is when we start to lose our grasp on what is real vs. unreal and what is an entertainment spectacle that distracts us vs. a real-life drama that impacts us.
Yet it’s all spectacle.
Photo Credit: Bravo
Studies suggest that the more reality TV people watch—and I would posit that it’s all reality TV—the more difficult it becomes to distinguish between what is real and what is carefully crafted farce.
As journalist Scott Collins notes, “reality is a cheap way to fill prime time.”
Yet it’s more than just economics at play. As I make clear in my book "A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State," we’re being subjected to a masterful sociological experiment in how to dumb down and desensitize a population.
This doesn’t bode well for a citizenry able to sift through masterfully-produced propaganda in order to think critically about the issues of the day.
Concerning reality TV, journalist Chris Weller explains:
Reality TV is fiction sold as nonfiction, to an audience that likes to believe both are possible simultaneously in life. It's entertainment, in the same way Cirque du Soleil enchants and "The Hunger Games" enthralls. But what are we to make of unreal realness? And what does it make of its viewers? Do they…mimic the medium? Do they become shallow, volatile, mean?
The answer is yes, they do mimic the medium.
Studies suggest that those who watch reality shows tend to view what they see as the “norm.” Thus, those who watch shows characterized by lying, aggression and meanness not only come to see such behavior as acceptable but find it entertaining.
It’s a phenomenon called “humilitainment,” a term coined by media scholars Brad Waite and Sara Booker to refer to the tendency for viewers to take pleasure in someone else’s humiliation, suffering and pain. It largely explains not only why American TV watchers are so fixated on reality TV programming but how American citizens, largely insulated from what is really happening in the world around them by layers of technology, entertainment, and other distractions, are being programmed to accept the brutality, surveillance and dehumanizing treatment of the American police state as things happening to other people.
Unfortunately, for the majority of Americans who spend their waking, leisure hours transfixed in front of the television or watching programming on their digital devices, the American police state itself has become reality TV programming—a form of programming that keeps us distracted, entertained, occasionally a little bit outraged but overall largely uninvolved, content to remain in the viewer’s seat.
The more that is beamed at us, the more inclined we are to settle back in our comfy recliners and become passive viewers rather than active participants as unsettling, frightening events unfold. Reality and fiction merge as everything around us becomes entertainment fodder. This holds true whether we’re watching "American Idol," "American Sniper" or "America’s Newsroom."
With every SWAT team raid, police shooting and terrorist attack—real or staged—we’re being systematically desensitized and acclimated to the trappings of the police state. This is borne out by numerous studies indicating that the more violence we watch on television, whether real or fictional, the less outraged we will be by similar acts of real-life aggression.
For instance, tasers were sold to the American public as a way to decrease the use of deadly force by police, reduce the overall number of use-of-force incidents, and limit the number of people seriously injured. Instead, we’ve witnessed an increase in the use of force by police and a desensitizing of the public to police violence. As Professor Victor E. Kappeler points out, “no one riots because the police stunned-gunned a drunk for non-compliance or because a cop pepper-sprayed a group of protesters.”
Indeed, notes Kappeler:
Police officers possessing less-than-lethal weapons are often more inclined to use these weapons in situations where they would not have been legally justified in using traditional weapons, or for that matter any level of force at whatsoever. This phenomenon is known as net widening. As use of force technologies improve, police become more likely to apply force in a greater number of situations, in less serious situations, to more vulnerable people and resort to force in cases where people simply do not immediately comply with their directives.
What we’re witnessing is net widening of the police state and, incredibly, it’s taking place while the citizenry watches.
Viewed through the lens of “reality” TV programming, the NSA and other government surveillance has become a done deal. Militarized police are growing more militant by the day. And you can rest assured that police-worn body cameras, being hailed by police and activists alike as a sure-fire fix for police abuses, will only add to this net widening.
Ironically, whether we like it or not, these cameras—directed at us—will turn “we the people” into the stars of our own reality shows. Ultimately, that’s what this is all about: the reality shows, the drama, the entertainment spectacles, the surveillance are all intended to keep us in line, using all the weapons available to the powers-that-be. It’s the modern-day equivalent of bread and circuses.
As for the sleepwalking masses convinced that all of the bad things happening in the police state—the police shootings, the police beatings, the raids, the roadside strip searches—are happening to other people, eventually, the things happening to other people will start happening to us and our loved ones.
When that painful reality sinks in, it will hit with the force of a SWAT team crashing through your door, a taser being aimed at your stomach, and a gun pointed at your head. And there will be no channel to change, no reality to alter, no manufactured farce to hide behind.
By that time, however, it will be too late to do anything more than submit.
Feature Image: Shutterstock
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