recently saw an episode of the Maury Povich show.
First to appear on the show was an obese woman. It was hard to guess her age; she might have been 30.
She didn’t appear to have done anything to improve her appearance for the show. Her hair looked greasy and flat; it hung down both sides of her head. Her dress was nondescript. It looked a lot like a great big flour sack.
When she spoke, she used all the tropes of the rural undereducated: double negatives, pronoun reference errors; verb tense errors; you name it. She spoke often, always in a loud, hostile tone.
The topic of the show was that she and her “fiancé” of five years wished to marry, but she was reluctant because of her suspicions that her fiancé cheated on her.
The fiancé appeared. He had taken great efforts to make himself look nice. But the result was irrefutable evidence that he had the tastes of the hick. From his buzzcut to his silly Fu Manchu mustache to his tight-fitting western shirt, he was pure Tobacco Road. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that he’d done some pretty hard time. His grammar was as atrocious as that of his beloved future bride. He was at least less loud than the loquacious female in the huge flour sack.
He denied he had cheated. But Povich presented hard evidence that not only had he cheated and cheated frequently, but he had cheated with two cousins — I can’t remember whether they were his cousins or hers. The motif of sex with kin was the strongest indication yet that the principals in questions were backwater clodhoppers in good earnest.
But I’m not sure they were one rung lower on the social ladder than anyone in Povich’s audience. The audience roared with excitement, shock, rage, approval or surprise at each twist in the banal drama or at some trite cliché that the wronged bride-to-be shouted. It was a mass frenzy; a mass hysteria; and all about insignificant words and actions on the part of complete strangers of no consequence.
Still, it didn’t in any way seem strange to me. I’d seen it all before — 40 years earlier.
In the early 1970s, I spent every Saturday afternoon watching Chattanooga’s wrestling broadcast on TV. This monstrous spectacle of vulgarity, kitsch and third-rate theater was hosted by a loud, crude, boorish country clod named Harry Thornton.
The audience was the 1970s equivalent of the 21st century Maury Povich audience. Almost every male wore a white t-shirt with no design on it. Each male’s hair was greased back with generous applications of Vitalis or as the result of lack of shampooing. The females all had the same long, flat, greasy, limp hair. They’d been passing around a lot of peroxide.
Just like the Povich audience, the Chattanooga audience roared with emotion at each poorly choreographed move by each wrestler. Every wrestler was either a “good guy” or a “bad guy.” The audience booed the bad guy; screamed with admiration for the good guy. Each of the many violations of the rules of wrestling was acknowledged by angry howls of contempt. Audience noise was especially loud on the fairly frequent occasions when a bad guy wrestler was transformed into a good guy wrestler by coming to the aid of a good guy who was being misused by a bad guy.
While I think these two cultural phenomena are very similar — both a mass underclass outpouring of emotion about matters invested with a false sense of importance — my reactions to the two were different. I watched the Chattanooga wrestling show because I thought it was hilarious from beginning to end. I felt that anyone with a modicum of education would be able to discern that the wrestling moves had been planned and were all show acting; not real fighting. That so many adults — even rather old adults — seemed convinced that everything in the drama was real and important just made the whole thing all the more humorous.
In contrast, the Povich program seemed pathetic: a sad picture of many human beings wasting their time and their lives in an embarrassing, vapid display of emotion manufactured on the cuff.
I see crowds of this sort all over Lake Charles. A couple of dozen individuals are dispersed over the front stoop and yard of a house. There are always a few young male men in wifebeaters. They look strong and healthy, but obviously they aren’t at work. There are young women milling around also.
Some of the adults are yelling. They probably aren’t arguing with each other. Apparently, they just yell when they talk — even if the other person is three feet away.
All the adults are smoking; some are drinking beer from a paper bag. And always there are many very young children running about — sometimes out in the street.
I’m sure that most of the children are playing games they’ve organized themselves. But with the adults of these front yard and front stoop groups, there seems to be almost an absence of organized behavior. Some of the adults are talking to each other, but others stand off by themselves, staring into space. There doesn’t seem to be any purpose or plan or course of action other than to avoid being alone.
For some reason, people who believe they think for themselves — at least to a fair degree — are aggravated or irritated by the spectacle of a group of people who don’t seem to be exercising independent thought in their speech, actions or other behaviors.
It’s not at all as if the aggravation is caused by an inability to explain the phenomenon. It’s easy as pie to explain the Povich audience or the Chattanooga audience or the dazed groups milling around on Lake Charles yards and porches.
The adults in the groups are no doubt severely undereducated. In addition to having a grossly insufficient body of knowledge to use for evaluating experience, they take their general principles straight from the lips of the undereducated elders they’ve grown up with. For instance, if grandfather says, “Wrestlin’ has to be real. If it weren’t real, they couldn’t show it on TV,” well, that’s their education; that’s what they take as the truth. It would never occur to them to think the statement over and if it did, they wouldn’t know how to think it over.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I used a similar horrendously illogical method for evaluating my experience until late in my 20s. If someone talked to me about a phenomenon I was unfamiliar with and told me such and such a thing about it was the case, I repeated this information to others as if it were fact. If I were challenged on the “fact,” I’d defend myself by saying “someone told me that” — a phrase that should always be immediate grounds for dismissal of any assertion — and follow up that childish statement with an even more childish one: “Why would he lie?”
“Why would he lie?” Well, people probably have hundreds of reasons to tell a lie. Some people just like to lie. They do it out of habit; as a means of coping; as a means of making themselves sound important; or as a kind of game — trying to see how often they can make others fall for lies.
One of the weird things about all this is that I already knew this when I was in junior high. I had a close friend who was a habitual liar. He told me, for instance, that he was Batman and that he lived in the Batcave. One day I called him on it in front of a bunch of our friends. I challenged him to show proof.
It was a mean thing for me to do. But it shows I could recognize a lie — even a very well rehearsed one. My friend was already a very good liar at age 13. I don’t want to think about how well he might be able to lie by now.
But since I had all this experience with habitual lying, why, then, at the age of 25 or 26 would I still be uttering such foolishness as “Why would he lie?” Oh, well, I guess everyone is young once. (Not much of an excuse, huh?)
I suppose it takes most people a long, long time to abandon the faulty thinking processes they learned early on and develop the ability to think for themselves. To learn to think for oneself is a long, slow process — quite probably a lifelong process. Independent thinking comes only after decades of long, slow, painstaking, difficult intellectual work.
Let’s return, then, to the person sitting in the audience of the Maury Povich show or at the local wrestling match or on the couch, watching talk shows and Phoenix University commercials and the whole cavalcade of daytime television programming. Perhaps it annoys some of us who’ve developed some degree of independent thought that a certain number of our peers are so deeply immersed in pursuits we find intellectually bankrupt.
But I wonder whether it makes sense to be annoyed by such a thing. For starters, the people on the daytime TV couch almost certainly are not going to change. If they live a full lifetime and another full lifetime right on top of that, they’ll still be screaming at the daytime TV screen about some matter that many of us would only think of as mental clutter.
And then there’s the matter of quality. Is there any evidence at all that the daytime TV watcher finds his diversion any less satisfying than I find my book by Spinoza or Thoreau or Foucault? I doubt it. Is there any evidence that the daytime TV watcher finds his limited ability to analyze reality problematic? I doubt it. What concern is it of his if I find my somewhat less limited ability to analyze reality tremendously satisfying?
I know some things he doesn’t. The ability to think for oneself is notorious for generating doubt, ethical quandaries and challenges and other unpleasant mental states. Of course, it provides great adventures. It can be tremendously exhilarating. But when weighed in the balance, I’m not sure the overall experience of the independent thinker feels any better than that of the daytime TV watcher.
In the end, the whole matter may boil down to being one more case of “chacun a son gout” — each one to his own taste. I may not have much interest in the diehard NASCAR or ATV enthusiast. But I’m a fool indeed if I ever try to persuade him that my interests are superior to his. How perverse it would be to try to convince someone of something I don’t even believe myself.