Sunday, 3 January 2010

Schadenfreude as "Entertainment"

What I am about to write may well get up your nose, you have been warned.

I am about to talk about certain reality television programmes that disturb me deeply, however, I also recognise that they are extremely popular and that in attacking them I may well upset or irritate you. This is not meant to be a mindless attack (for which the internet is justly famous) but, hopefully, a relatively reasoned analysis of what I have observed and why it disturbs me so much.

I'm talking about the recent 'I'm a Celebrity...Get me out of here' and, along the same concept, Celebrity Big Brother. I have no interest in any reality tv programme but unless one lives under a rock, and there are times when it's very tempting, it is almost impossible to escape news of any of the above.

While the programme was still being aired I was listening to James O'Brien on LBC and he was discussing Chris Packham's criticism of the programme's treatment of insects (used in some of the...challenges?) and the hypocrisy of some animal lovers' silence on the issue. James suggested that their love of animals was based on the animal's 'cuddliness' factor which explained their lack of disturbance when insects are involved.

I often call LBC to contribute to the discussion as best I can and on that day I called and made the following point. Viewers of a programme based around a voyeuristic enjoyment of human suffering can hardly be expected to empathise with the suffering of insects.

If I've understood 'I'm a celebrity' the public are, amongst other things, asked to vote on which of the inmates (is that the term?) should be subjected to a revolting/humiliating task. If memory serves, Jordan aka Katie Price was repeatedly voted for the worst of it all until such time as she'd had enough and left. Let me say now that I'm not her biggest fan by a long shot. In fact I see her as a tragic and pathetic figure and yet my heart went out to her in this episode of national, popular bullying.

Some of you may be getting ready to tell me about the fascinating study of human behaviour that these programmes are and to you I say, nonsense! These programmes are nothing more than an exercise in schadenfreude, taking joy in the pain and humiliation of others! That those who watch have justified it by saying that these people chose to be there and that they had it coming fails on many levels. Anyone who would willingly subject themselves to such suffering and humiliation for the sake of a very transitory recognition are frankly in serious need of help and should be thought of as vulnerable adults in the throes of one of today's worst addictions, fame. If Katie Price wasn't a classic example of this I don't know who is.

Secondly the idea that this is a televised experiment in human behaviour is belied by the fact that psychologists design the various 'activities' and 'challenges' specifically to subject the poor souls to the worst of human behaviour, behaviour that is well documented from serious scientific study! These 'experiments' are redundant at best.

As a psychotherapist I consider these psychologists as the real world equivalent of having turned to the dark side in using their knowledge to indulge a really ugly side of human behaviour. I suspect that many if not most of them became psychologists to help people, where is that noble motive now?

We seem to think that we own famous people. That somehow celebrities are our property to do with as we please. I mention this because this was a oft heard refrain when the question of how we can treat people like this came up. These people are human beings first and foremost and programmes that take advantage of their tragic addiction to fame for our depraved entertainment are a deeply disturbing trend to me because of all the darker elements of human behaviour I fear cruelty above all. I recognise it as an issue of mine that I continue to work on. However, to see it celebrated in the guise of either entertainment, for the more honest amongst the viewers, or as a 'fascinating experiment' for the rest troubles me more than I can say.

In this 'enlightened' day and age can we find no better entertainment?


  1. National bullying is becoming a frighteningly popular pastime. Woe betide anyone who makes a controversial joke: the Daily Mail army will be on the phone before you can say "we'd just like to apologise to the viewers."

    But that's a rant for a different time. Suffice it to say, I agree completely that we really are targeting the lowest common denominator with these shows, and I refuse to watch them. I'm extremely concerned about where this is heading.

  2. Isn't it funny that Milgram's experiment gets such a bad rap but, when a similar environment is generated for TV the only controls that are used are at the discretion of the producer?

  3. As one of those few people that live under a rock (or mayby a dnd style underdark) this post is my first exposure to this concept of celebrity torture. But I have to say while this is not a very pleasing aspect of humanity, it is one that i fear will not be going anywhere soon. Granted my own miasnthropy may be colouring this but my own response to this is no longer to cry at the folly of man, but to shurg and get on with life in the hope that eventually we will move past enjoying watching people humiliate themselves, althoug I don't advise holding your breath.


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