when putting down others for laughs goes too far

11 02 2007

I recently came across an open letter to American Idol, and the author asked Simon and Company to rethink the strategy of intentionally embarrassing people.  It makes a good point. That’s the main reason I don’t watch the show.  I really enjoy singing and music, and if the criticism was constructive to help people, I wouldn’t have a problem with that.

The comments for that post reference an article by a writer who was discussing how loss of dignity is hilarious.  You see it in many TV shows and movies that try to be funny.  And it’s true — for some reason we tend to laugh at the misfortune of others.  On most TV shows and movies, it’s all staged.  And since it’s acting and not “real life”, it doesn’t seem so bad.  But the show puts down real people in “real life”.  I know a common question is whether the people realize they will be made fun of or if they actually think they’re good.  From what I’ve heard, all the contestants that make it to TV have made it through three or four rounds of preliminary contests, so apparently judges have been telling them they were good.

One commenter on that post expressed his distaste for it this way :

I don’t watch this for the same reason I’m not going to see Borat. Making fun of people who, apparently, have no clue is not fun for me to watch. Maybe I’m not cool enough but, if it’s not staged uncomfortable moments (i.e. “The Office”), I just can’t watch it.

Someone else called it “tabloid TV”.  (BTW, there’s other reasons for not watching “Borat”, but that’s one.)  One of the other commenters addressed the issue of whether the bad singers know how bad they are and are going on there just to get on TV :

I don’t think we can safely underestimate the human capacity for self-delusion. I’ve seen preposterous delusions in my line of work, whether it be of aptitude, disability, or the inherent rightness of one’s own cause. Some people have literally zero capacity for discernment. If you are tone deaf, then it probably all sounds the same to you, and not inherently implausible that you could have the voice to win American Idol.

Of course, some of those people know how bad they are, and just want their moment of fame. It does seem to me cruel to encourage people with delusions of talent, only to slam them into reality in front of a nationwide television audience.

Part of me wants to think the really bad singers know how bad they are (compared to what’s expected), but I’ve also seen people who were extremely self-delusional.  But let’s get back to the premise of the show (particularly the early episodes each season).

To me it seems disgraceful to put down and shame someone in a serious manner.  If it’s considered gossip or slander, then it is definitely wrong.  I realize a rationalization of this would be if it’s done “in fun” then it would be okay.  I see where that argument could be made, but some of the aspiring singers are being shot down and they seem hurt over it.  If it’s hurting someone for the sake of our entertainment, that can’t be right.  Back when I had roommates in college we tried to tackle this issue — not because of some TV show, but because of how we would make fun of each other for a good laugh.  We decided it was okay when everyone knew it was in jest and no one was getting their feelings hurt.  But looking back, I think we took it too far even under those guidelines.  Being men, we’d put on our tough “front” and “fight back” because we didn’t want to appear weak or emotional or sensitive.  (That may sound admirable to men, but we’ve taken it way too far, to a fault.)  So sometimes someone would get hurt but not let others know.  But even if we weren’t feeling hurt at the time, hearing all the negative, derogatory comments doesn’t do much to help our self-esteem.  In fact, it can be damaging, even without us realizing it.

We should strive to encourage, uplift, and constructively challenge those around us.  I think there is still a place for joking around with my close friends, but I’m careful with what I say.  Many a hurtful thing has been said in jest. It’s possible to make a joke that everyone laughs at but still hurts the person who is the “butt” of the joke.  He or she may even laugh at it in defense, but that doesn’t make it okay.  I try to not put anyone down even in joking unless it’s a really close friend who knows that I respect them and care about them.

Most everyone has trouble with self-esteem and with seeing themselves as God wants them to be, so they don’t need their self-image torn down with my coarse joking.  Sometimes that means holding my tongue when I think of something funny.  That has a cost, because it may mean saying fewer funny things, but at least I have a clean conscience before God and I have less of those moments where I’d later think, “I shouldn’t have said that.”  I’m all about having fun and laughing, but not at the expense of others’ dignity and self-image.  There’s plenty of other things to laugh about without making people feel bad about themselves.

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