Friday, February 03, 2017

Governance as "Reality TV"

I have never liked “reality television.” No judgement against those who do, but I’ve just never gotten into it. And realizing that fact has helped me understand in part why I’m struggling so much with the way the Trump administration is running our country.

They are governing as if it is a “reality” tv show rather than a nation.

I heard the tail-end of an interview on the radio this morning that kind of turned on a light bulb in my mind. So when I got home I went and listened to the whole thing, which you can hear right here. It makes a lot of sense to me. Here are my reflections on Tom Forman’s insights.

First of all, “reality” tv is conflict based. The whole point is to set up conflict, and build the tension in the conflict to an extreme level, thereby drawing people in. Whether it is who is going to be kicked off the island or to whom is the bachelor going to hand the rose, we love the conflict.

Of course, we say that we don’t like conflict. “Why can’t we all just get along?” But we are lying to ourselves. We LOVE conflict. (It’s why we watch sports, too.) We are drawn to conflict like moths to flame. Whether it is to applaud or to cluck our tongues in disappointment is not the point; the point is, conflict grabs our attention and does not allow us to look away.

Secondly, “reality” tv is all about personalities, and personal relationships. “Reality” tv does not deal with complicated topics, nor consult experts in the field. It does not do well with nuance and subtlety. The intricacies of systematic thinking are never on display in “reality” tv shows. It is personality driven, and it pretty much stays right there at that level.

We know our “reality” tv stars’ names, and they are often a part of our daily conversations. And we know who is allying herself or himself with whom, who is stirring up conflict (see above), even who we like and do not like. We make quick judgements about people, all based on what a producer has decided to show us of them.

Thirdly, “reality” tv moves very quickly from one thing to another, and the more unexpected the better. “Reality” tv producers know that our attention spans are terribly short, and have obliged us in their format. These shows take us from one setting to the next in rapid fire succession, leaving no time to dwell in any one scene before transitioning to the next.

And if these transitions are abrupt and surprising, all the better. We love to be shocked. We have a penchant for the outrageous, the appalling. And again, we pretend we don’t, just like with conflict (see above), but it’s true. Everyone loves a good scandal; it gives us something about which to feel superior.

And finally, “reality” tv is a ratings-driven phenomenon. If we didn’t watch it, they wouldn’t make it. The entire point of all the conflict, the big personalities, and the fast-paced surprises, is to get people to watch, which will lead to higher ratings. It’s all about those numbers; counting the size of the audience is the only thing that matters.

Of course it must be noted that “reality” tv is at its core a distraction from real reality. Real reality is not a continuous state of conflict. Real reality deals with nuance and implications and interconnected systems that are complex and difficult to navigate. Real reality has the ability to dwell, to linger, to be deeply present in the moment.

Everything about “reality” tv is designed to distract us from thinking at this deeper level. And why? So that a few people can make a lot of money. That may be cynical, but if it quacks like a duck …

So I have found this framework helpful in ordering my thoughts about the Trump administration. Leaving aside some of the content of his decisions with which I strongly disagree, these first two weeks have been a running “reality” television show. And as I mentioned above, I have never liked “reality television.”

Because the big question begging to be asked is, “From what is all this distracting us?” And I’m really afraid of what that answer might be. I’m really afraid that a few people are going to make a whole lot of money as a result of this “reality” tv administration’s policy decisions, and those few people don’t really care all that much about the rest of us. While we are distracted by the noisy sparkly flashes, somebody somewhere is going to be benefitting financially. Now of course, I hope my fear is cynical, misguided, and ultimately wrong. But … you know, “quack quack.”

Fomenting conflict, highlighting personalities over expertise, rapid fire executive orders, and an ongoing obsession with ratings … this has been the first two weeks of President Trump. Perhaps it will eventually slow down, get deeper, become less combative. Perhaps not.

I just don’t see how the nation can keep this up for 3 years and fifty weeks more.

No comments: