Here in Italy there are lots of English people walking around wondering exactly how it was the Britain left the European Union. We are hearing of how many British people have swarmed Google to find out exactly what the European Union was, in other words about what exactly they had been voting for in the first place. We may be in a similar boat in which many are rooting for a candidate when they might well not know what he really stands for; that would be Donald Trump in our case.
In an age where drama and celebrity seem to trump (I know) actual thinking, the Trump phenomenon appears to be less surprising than most of us seem to surmise it is. In a New York Times article from November 20, 2002, entitled “Forget the Sex and Violence; Shame Is the Ratings Leader” by Alessandra Stanley, what is underlined may help us make some connections. I’m suggesting to begin with that it may not be so much about what the Trump campaign might be organizing as what the popular appetite is looking for.
The NY Times article is something I recently recalled and went to look for . At the time, it had me at the second paragraph where Stanley wrote.” More than sex, more than violence, humiliation is the unifying principle behind a successful reality show”. Further down she adds, “Viewers have shown an insatiable appetite for the queasy thrill that comes from watching an ordinary person suffer searing public embarrassment in exchange for 15 minutes of fame.”
If we think of the thrill of watching others be humiliated, do we understand too the thrill of being humiliated for what feels like a little bit in the spotlight. Do we know that we can identify with Donald Trump as the powerhouse who made–and still makes–people feel rejected and worthless out loud, and that perhaps we identify with all the players in his show as we identify often with the various parts of our own dream? Do we know that perhaps we have come to feel that we are in a reality show, that what matters is the drama, the not knowing who will be ruthlessly injured and mortified at the hands of the opponent?
People in Italy (I am being exaggeratedly general) look at us confounded: how is it that Donald Trump is running for President, they ask. And then they ask, could he actually win? Their countenance is comical but with a bit of worry: after all he would affect the whole world, even Britain. When I suggested to a neighbor at the pool, that maybe Americans are feeling that politics has really become reality television that made sense to him.
When I thought about it further, what struck me is that when there is a tendency, a trend that takes hold, unless we interrupt it, it may just spread. Something can spread from fashion into politics, from politics into religion, and there can be some contagion where we lose sight of the boundaries between fields. In Britain, it seems for example that many citizens didn’t realize the depth and breadth of what they were voting for, saying to the media that if they had to do it over they would vote differently. And so I wonder: do the Americans eager for Trump really know his policies and their content well enough to make a positive decision? Will they wake up to find that voting for a President is not quite as thrilling the morning after when the adrenalin of having a cowboy in the White House seems more distant, because he is no longer on the campaign/reality show circuit?
I am suggesting that we might need to discuss the role of humiliation in our politics, and when we have more time (after November?) we might discuss its role in bullying, in weight loss campaigns (before and after), and in the media outlets that feed us our daily bread, with or without gluten.
So, then, let’s get back to humiliation. I am really proposing we have some more concentration on that, some more discussion and analysis, of how many of us are more wound up in it than we think.
We, in denying our vulnerability, can laugh together at whatever the joke is at the moment, and whomever the joke is on. The illusion is that we who are laughing are exempt from being humiliated; we identify with the humiliator, feeling impervious to mortification. But if the game is humiliation it can turn on us at any time. The humiliator, the Donald Trump among us, does not have the interest of anyone at his core, because he is interested in the show, the so-called reality show that has gone on to influence the concept of reality itself.
To the liberals among us, we too have become addicted it seems, to the reality show that is Trump. We can talk to each other to humiliate him in our heads, or can we talk to each other so we can talk out loud about interrupting humiliation as a game. It’s harder than we think, because making fun can actually be making fun, creating our own entertainment. And it can take discipline to interrupt the movie we may also be enjoying: wow how will this end?
There is, it turns out, a crucial piece regarding the interrupting this show. It’s not only about the discipline of stopping a game, but also about the recovery of our own dignity, our own sensitivity and appreciation of the dignity we crave as a human right. Then it is not only about the obligation to interrupt a destructive addiction: it’s also about the true appetite for participation. We would thus conceivably move away from being merely a bystander or voyeur. And as such we could move away from a reality show that is dangerous in favor of creating something more truly “real”.
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