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|The Janet and Justin escapade has been
characterized by thoughtful social analysts as simply the latest and
most flagrant example of our increasing loss of civility. But I
think it exemplifies something deeper, more general, more troubling,
and more pervasive than that – the mass promotion of the most ignoble
of the human spirit in order to make money or secure fame, popularity,
or prestige by pandering to the least cultivated instincts of the
largest market or lowest common denominator. Incivility is just
one symptom of the loss of higher aspirations for personal and social
And, contrary to what most people seem to dwell on, it is not sex on tv that helps make tv trashy; it is the base locker room or coffee shop discussions and peephole portrayals of it, whether on MTV or HBO’s “Sex and the City”, devoid of intimacy, love, and any inward beauty, that cheapens one of the more potentially life-affirming and emotionally bonding acts of life. The Timberlake-Jackson explanation that it was a wardrobe failure of the undergarment to stay put while the outer garment was ripped off does not explain why they thought his ripping off her outer garment was appropriate entertainment in the first place, or why anyone would be satisfied by that explanation if they really believed the result was accidental. That a depraved intentional act has an unexpectedly additional bad result does not excuse it. The baring of Jackson’s breast, whether by accident or design received the most furor, but it really cheapened an already tawdry and decadent halftime show by only a slightly greater amount. Had the undergarment stayed in place, his ripping off her bodice and the rest of the halftime show would still not have had any redeeming artistic or social value. That the public tuned in to the show and stayed with it long enough to see the skin, and then is only outraged about that, makes more of a social commentary about how low we have sunk as a society than what was done on stage.
But gratuitous, impersonal, and degenerate portrayals of sexuality for immature audiences are only a symptom of the greater systemic problem. Almost all the higher aspects of humanity are degraded and dehumanized similarly in the mass media. Sermonizing replaces analysis. Contentious, facile, and polarizing debate has replaced sincere, meaningful exploration of serious issues to find deeper insight and common ground. Testing factual recall to improve meaningless scores to surpass vacuous standards for the sake of appearance has replaced teaching for understanding, wisdom, and inspiration. Energetic rhythm and verbal rage serve as music. Action and special effects take the place of plot and character development in movies. The grotesque and absurd masquerade as art. Even deserving principles and ideals are seen as mere authoritarian rules, and arbitrary rebellion against any principle is considered progress. Simple sentences and simplistic ideas serve as speech.
The worst in the behavior of nature, man, and government is portrayed as newsworthy or entertaining because it is the easiest to show and to watch. Opinions in polls, votes at election, and short term financial return on investment determine value, and the size of street demonstrations or the bizarre behaviors of its participants determine its worthiness to report. No distinction is seen between reasonable opinions based on complete evidence and unreasonable ones based on whim, intuition, or mere feelings. Greed and self-interest guide business and government leaders rather than a determination of the deeper and more far reaching consequences of plans and practices. Legal minimums, at most, determine moral standards. Consumerism is the national religion and television its sanctuary. Physical pleasure and self-indulgence is considered to be the highest good, instant gratification is too slow, and anything requiring mental effort is considered boring, old-fashioned, unnecessary, and pointless. Sensationalism and insensitivity chase each other in a vicious spiral.
We have essentially discarded the public pursuit of nobility of the spirit and the intellect. Aristotle held, with good reason, that happiness is an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence. But that concept is not part of any standardized test, so Americans aren’t introduced to it in school, and instead we pursue in the mass media ever more hedonistic pleasure, action, sensationalism, and material goods, which merely provide the illusory promise of happiness.