Tim Elmore over at Growing Leaders has asked in a blog post if television cultivates bullies. His rationale is that with all the brutal judging that children can witness now on reality shows such as American Idol or Project Runway, they may be absorbing this hypercritical state and transferring it to their interactions with peers.
I don’t watch those specific shows, but I do watch another reality/competition show, Top Chef, with our children. And we watch it on purpose because we want our children to see people trying–even when there’s a good-sized chance of failure–and how people react to being criticized and judged. The reactions matter: Some “cheftestants” have pouty, blame-other-people responses to their own failures, while others offer up “this was a real learning experience for me.” Our children learn from witnessing this. Life isn’t a thorn-free walk through the garden. People will criticize you, even your best efforts. What matters is how you respond to that criticism.
I don’t see that this show, at least, offers up much for systematic sadism. The adult judges aren’t being harsh just for the sake of harshness. They’re serving up a heaping plate of reality, arighting some cheftestants’ off-kilter view of their own abilities. Applying apt criticism to someone who’s willingly engaged in exposing themselves to it is not a model for bullies.
Elmore refers to our having become conditioned to refereeing those around us, but judgment and criticism are engrained in the human psyche, part of our innate competition with one another, our battle to keep up with or surpass the Joneses on some level or another. We’ve always judged, always criticized, always refereed. If anything, these reality shows are a manifestation of the basics of human nature rather than influencing it, something I think their developers and producers well recognize. While an overall culture of competition and aggression may, in some way, lend countenance to bullying, I don’t think that reality shows offer up a huge influence for people who systematically and persistently try to break down another human being. That’s a far deeper urge than anything Simon Cowell could develop.
People who bully are not wannabe Simon Cowells, wandering the schoolyard looking for someone to critique harshly. They are, whether adult or young person, childish and feeling weak and using their words and actions to exert power over someone they perceive as weaker than they are. That need to feel power far predates reality television.
Based on the flurry of stories I’ve read lately, bullying itself is not on the rise, although there are now more routes to bullying than ever, thanks to the offerings of cyberspace. These urges to feel that sense of power are as old as the human species, at least. What’s different today is that we are recognizing more and more the long-term effects of bullying–on the bully, the victim, and even the bystanders. Some of us, at least, are coming to understand that this long-time aspect of the human condition needs to come to an end.
I don’t think reality shows play a huge role in perpetuating or fostering bullying. Rather, I think that the continued expression of homophobia from public figures and continued offhand dismissal of people with special needs, such as the persistent acceptance of using “retarded” as an epithet, help to keep the environment rich for bullies who target these most-targeted populations. For these groups, they’re not bullied because of a competition. They’re bullied for who they are.
So…what do you think? Do you think reality TV helps to foster our bullying culture?