One of the jerkiest things I’ve ever done is push a blind man down on an elevator in the Sears Tower. I was on a third-grade field trip to the observatory of the (then) world’s tallest building. I was so excited to get to the top that I shoved my way through a crowd of people standing at the elevator door. Without realizing it, I ran into the back of a blind man’s knees. I kept going, oblivious to the accident.
When I finally turned around to look for the rest of the class, I saw the man lying in a crumpled pile. I’ll never forget the teacher and the other students staring back at me in horror. The teacher grabbed me by the ear and made me apologize, to the man and his wife. I was so embarrassed that I was hardly able to choke out the words.
I wasn’t allowed to go to the top with the class; I had to wait in the lobby with a security guard. The other kids made fun of me for being a jerk the entire bus ride home. My cheeks still flush at the memory.
The school called my parents. They furiously (over) reacted; I was grounded for a month with no television, radio or telephone. I had to write an essay, to be read in front of the class, explaining why I was so rude and five things I could do to be more courteous in the future.
My actions and punishments were humiliating and embarrassing. It caused me great pain to be seen as such an impatient, thoughtless creep. The guilt of my rudeness, re-enforced by my parents and my peers, stayed with me for a long time. I learned from it and moved on.
I tell this story not to illustrate a bygone era of discipline or courtesy but rather to highlight the emotion I most associate with that incident: shame. I violated accepted behavioral standards and was made to feel ashamed, foolish and contrite by my social circle. My peers disapproved of my behavior and ostracized me. My parents and teachers held me up as an example of behavior to avoid.
The culture of that time frowned upon jerky behavior as well; to be a jerk or an asshole was a bad thing. These were the type of people to shun at all costs. My immediate social circle was not alone in enforcing that message; the media of the day echoed the sentiment that it was wrong to be a jerk. Meanness and callousness were the characteristics of outcasts and pariahs and they always lost out.
In movies and on television, the hero always defeated the bully; he always banished the jerk and won the girl because he was righteous and nice. It held true for almost everything in the media of my youth: John Wayne movies, Our Gang, Tom and Jerry, the Brady Bunch, Kojak, CHiPs, etc.
The lesson was always the same: the bad guys never win and, kids, you don’t want to grow up to be like the bad guy.
The opposite is true today.
To turn on your television on now is to see that we have become a society of jerks and jackasses. Our media culture today showcases and rewards behavior that should be ostracized and vilified and yet, we applaud.
In our “reality” culture, the bad guy is the hero and the bad guy always wins. In fact, flipping through the channels now, it seems as if the bad guy is the only one left playing the game. The personality traits so repulsive when I was a kid- incivility, rudeness, pushiness, selfishness, immodesty, aggression and anger- now seem to be prerequisites to appearing on television.
A quick look at the line-ups of the major (broadcast and cable) networks reveals a long, long list of shows revolving around jerks, assholes and misanthropes leading obnoxious lives and doing shamefully rude things to other people. The list of jerks on television is almost endless: Gordon Ramsey, Donald Trump, Dog the Bounty Hunter, Paris Hilton, any of the Housewives, anyone on MTV, Simon Cowell, Jon and Kate, Jesse James, Gene Simmons, The Bachelor/Bachelorette, Bridezillas, Tori Spelling, ad infinitum.
These characters behave as if the world revolves around them. They are aggressive and brash, all in the name of “just keeping it real.” A common trait among them is a crass, overdeveloped sense of entitlement that verges on megalomania. They speak louder than everyone else, shouting about their importance and status at the top of their collective lungs. They gain advance by disparaging and disregarding the feelings of others. And all act without the slightest expression of remorse or regret for their terrible behavior.
In short, these are people you would not invite to your home for dinner.
It would be one thing if they were just obnoxious in a vacuum; after all, turning the television off is easy enough. However, the problem with jerk culture runs much deeper: fundamental and essential social relationships are being devalued and weakened. The way that we have traditionally mentored and fostered collective knowledge, created loving relationships and supported communities is at risk.
An entire generation is being exposed to warped and dysfunctional relationships in the name of entertainment. The maintenance of healthy teacher-pupil/family/ boss-employee/ husband and wife relationships is given short shrift on television.
I fear that we are losing our ability to communicate cultural mores because it is the rejection of those very standards that passes for entertainment. Our culture is being shaped into one in which self-centeredness, self-aggrandizement and relentless aggression are the keys to success.
And it is only going to get worse.
Reality jerk television isn’t going anywhere because it is cheap, disposable and easy to produce. The networks have found that the audience will watch almost any form of outrageous behavior and they are banking on that for the future. There is very little incentive to spend a large amount of money on scripted, well-produced shows and all the reason to find the nearest jackass and let him/her be a raging asshole. In the end, the ratings are the same for about half the price.
(There are some shows that still invest in high production values. Producers are finding that the syndication rights on most reality shows like Survivor or the Hills aren’t that lucrative whereas something like The Sopranos has a much longer shelf-life.)
I recently attended a cable broadcaster commissioning conference and there were two buzzwords coming from nearly every commissioner’s mouth: “Big Characters” and “Unbelievable Situations.” Which translates, in my book, as “get me a loudmouth jerk doing something obnoxious” and you have a deal.
So make way for even jerkier television–and don’t be ashamed to watch it.