John Whitehead's Commentary
How Reality TV Is Teaching Us to Accept the American Police State
“Plays, farces, spectacles, gladiators, strange beasts, medals, pictures, and other such opiates, these were for ancient peoples the bait toward slavery, the price of their liberty, the instruments of tyranny. By these practices and enticements the ancient dictators so successfully lulled their subjects under the yoke, that the stupefied peoples, fascinated by the pastimes and vain pleasures flashed before their eyes, learned subservience as naively, but not so creditably, as little children learn to read by looking at bright picture books.”—Etienne de La Boétie, “The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude: How Do Tyrants Secure Cooperation?” (1548)
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.
For example, do we tune into Bruce Jenner’s gender transformation as it unfolds on reality TV, follow the sniping over Navy sharpshooter Chris Kyle’s approach to war and killing, or chart the progress of the Keystone oil pipeline as it makes it work through Congress? Do we debate the merits of Katy Perry’s Superbowl XLIX halftime performance, or speculate on which politicians will face off in the 2016 presidential election?
Here’s a hint: it’s all spectacle.
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. Unfortunately, Americans have a voracious appetite for TV entertainment. On average, Americans spend five hours a day watching television. By the time we reach age 65, we’re watching more than 50 hours of television a week, and that number increases as we get older. And reality TV programming consistently captures the largest percentage of TV watchers every season by an almost 2-1 ratio.
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. Then again, it can be hard to distinguish between the two. As cognitive scientist Steven Pinker points out, the hallmark of well-told fiction is that the audience can’t tell the difference.
Concerning reality TV, journalist Chris Weller explains:
Producers have become so good at their job of constructing a cohesive narrative, one that imitates life - albeit, dramatically so - that the narrative ends up compelling life to imitate it. This is an important distinction…. drama doesn't emerge accidentally. It's intentional. But not everyone knows that.
“Reality TV is fiction sold as nonfiction, to an audience that likes to believe both are possible simultaneously in life,” continues Weller. “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.
This is what happens when an entire nation, unable to distinguish between what is real and unreal and increasingly inclined to accept as normal the tactics being played out before them in hi-def, not only ceases to be outraged by the treatment being meted out to their fellow citizens but takes joy in it.
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.
In fact, we don’t even have to change the channel when the subject matter becomes too monotonous. That’s taken care of for us by the programmers (the corporate media and the police state). Before we got too worked up over government surveillance, they changed the channels on us and switched us over to militarized police. Before our outrage could be transformed into action, they changed the channel once again. Next up: ISIS beheadings, plane crashes, terrorist shootings and politicians lip-synching to a teleprompter.
In this way, televised events of recent years—the Ferguson shooting and riots, the choke-hold of Eric Garner, the Boston Marathon manhunt and city-wide lockdown, etc.—became reality TV programming choices on a different channel.
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. As Kelefa Sanneh, writing for the New Yorker, points out, “Cops,” the longest-running reality show of all which has “viewers ride with police officers as they drive around, in search of perpetrators… makes it easy to think of a video camera as a weapon, there to keep the peace and to discipline violators.”
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.
Professor Neil Postman saw this eventuality coming. “There are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be shriveled,” he predicted. “In the first—the Orwellian—culture becomes a prison. In the second—the Huxleyan—culture becomes a burlesque.” Postman concludes:
No one needs to be reminded that our world is now marred by many prison-cultures…. it makes little difference if our wardens are inspired by right- or left-wing ideologies. The gates of the prison are equally impenetrable, surveillance equally rigorous, icon-worship pervasive…. Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours…. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.