Whenever I visit my grandmother the telly is on. She likes watching television a lot and there is a specific kind of program that she seems to favour. The common denominator of all the shows she watches is that they belong to the category of reality TV. Of course in TV terms, reality usually means ‘structured reality’, which in turn means ‘not reality’. The unfortunate, if not to say tragic, thing is that my grandmother, despite being consistently and insistently reminded of this, refuses to believe that what she sees on screen is not factual.
Her favourite show, I gather, is a programme that sees a camera crew accompany German police forces in their everyday. The bulk of the show is footage of the police dealing with minor crimes, then explaining the nature of the crime, the laws and the punishment. Usually it’s things like someone riding a bicycle through a pedestrian zone in a city centre. The police, as you might expect from Germans, are very strict and unforgiving; something my grandma seems to enjoy seeing. Basically, my grandma likes to watch Germans being anal whereas I like to watch Germans doing…
In a different episode of the same show, a man who had been caught speeding on the motorway was stopped by the police, who then searched his car because they suspected the man was trafficking drugs. As soon as their suspicions had been confirmed, one policeman forcefully pressed the suspect’s face down on the windscreen. The interesting thing about this scene was that, rather conveniently, there was a camera inside the suspect’s car that, through some miraculous circumstance, happened to be pointing at the suspect just when his face was being pressed against the windscreen. I sarcastically pointed out how skilled the camera crew was, considering they were able to anticipate the escalation of the situation and position their cameras and microphones accordingly. My grandmother, unfortunately, did not understand that I was trying to make the point that everything we just saw had been meticulously set up. She took my utterance at face value, which is both hilarious and sad.
What I found more entertaining than the police programme was a show that had a supposedly professional mediator resolve disputes between neighbours. The reason why I found it so entertaining was to do with the fact that, in one of these disputes, a very long-winded and intense conflict between two neighbours who had made threats of physical violence to each other on multiple occasions, was eventually resolved as follows: the mediator took both parties to the nearest park, had them write one word that encapsulates the thing they were upset about on a packet of flour with a marker pen. Finally, both parties were asked to throw the packet of flour down on the ground. That’s it. Conflict resolved. End of show.
Wow. Behold the power of flour! How did I not know about this? See, I was actually very close to applying for a master’s in conflict resolution. Now I’m really having second thoughts. I mean, what more could they teach me? Suddenly, it all made sense. Having witnessed the magic of the packet of flour, I saw the world anew. I saw history anew. Was it not US president Ronald Reagan who, on the 12th of July 1987, proclaimed “Mr Gorbatchev, smash down that flour!”? Inspired by Reagan’s emotional address, tens of thousands of Germans on both sides of the steel curtain rummaged their pantries, took to the streets, collaboratively counted down from ten to zero and then it happened. Every single person smashed their respective packet of flour down on the ground, thus creating a blindingly wonderful and wonderfully blinding fog of flour dust. And once, after a couple of minutes, the fog had dissolved, people came to see that the wall had disappeared and suddenly the Cold War was over. One can only hope that the people of Israel and Palestine can find it in their hearts to do what the East and West Germans have done three decades ago.
I’m going to conclude by saying that I find reality TV philosophically interesting because it consciously attempts to blur if not eliminate the boundary that separates the realm of the factual from the realm of the fictional. Essentially, reality TV, though legally acknowledged to be fictional, tries to pass as fact, which, if anything, is morally delicate because this blurriness can very easily influence if not manipulate people’s societal and, ultimately, political views. This is more or less what happened to my grandmother.
Moving beyond the dying medium that is television, I can report that I have seen videos on YouTube that are similar to reality TV in that its creators intend to misrepresent reality in order to push a dramatic narrative, occasionally in a way that favours their political views by misrepresenting those of the people they disagree with. Humbuggery of this nature is generally disguised as ‘social experiments’. These social experiments are set up in a way that predetermines their result. In most cases, this is achieved by hiring actors who assume the role of random strangers and/or by editing footage very selectively. For example, there is a YouTuber who goes by the name of Joey Salads (yes, really), who has staged the vandalisation by black people of a Trump supporter’s car (the car had Trump stickers all over it) only to conclude that “the black community” (in the United States) is very violent towards Trump and those who support him. Things like this sadden me. Prioritising ideology over truth achieves nothing but to foster mutual distrust, consequently eradicating the possibility for reasonable debate or even just conversation. I wish things like this would stop. But I am no fool and I know that this is not going to stop anytime soon, because money. Social experiments amass millions, sometimes tens of millions of views, generating incredible ad revenue. There is a very straightforward dynamic at play here: maximum drama equals maximum views equals maximum ad revenue. People will attempt to distort reality so long as it pays to do so. If you ask me, there is only one thing that can successfully disrupt this dynamic. What we need is another flour revolution. #FlourPower
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