Saturday, July 03, 2010

On Outbursts

I ran across a fascinating article in USA Today this week. The short version: behavioral researchers are concerned that as people are exposed to more outlandish emotional outbursts in their entertainment (think reality television in particular, where a recent study found 52 "acts of aggression" in an hour versus 33 per hour in scripted programming), they are becoming more apt to regard over-the-top reactions as normal:

"People can be seduced into thinking that's the most common way of reacting to life, when it's not," says Roderick Hart, a professor of communication studies and government at the University of Texas-Austin. Because of this "tutoring" of emotions, Hart says, people are becoming culturally conditioned to think "it's OK to be more overreactive. Reality television has hyped all the emotions. You can't just be happy. You have to be ecstatic. You can't be upset. You have to be violently angry," he says.

In my daily life, I can't say that I've seen greater incidents of emotional outbursts. Granted, I don't get out as much as I used to (one becomes a bit more sheltered with a four-month-old child), but as far as I can tell, it is still a bit of a cultural taboo to show too much emotion in public. And in recent years, I've been impressed with the lexical evolution of a certain word. When I was in high school, if someone were to utter the word "drama," they would be referring to theater class. But high schoolers today use the word derisively to refer to the practice of imbuing social situations with too much significance. Come to think of it, this application arose roughly simultaneously to the genesis of reality TV. So perhaps instead of increasing undesirable behavior, it may be argued that this programming instead turned a mirror on society, and made us more aware of the ugliness of our own pre-existing behaviors.

Yet I am more apt to find resonance in another aspect of the article:

One example is the flak President Obama has taken for not displaying enough anger at BP's failure to stop the gushing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He has been called "No Drama Obama," and the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed his job approval ratings down to 45%....says Scott Schieman, a sociology professor... "there's definitely research that suggests when people display anger and it's perceived as appropriate, the person is perceived as more competent and more in charge."

This reminds me of the criticism I've seen this year directed at Milwaukee Brewers manager Ken Macha. Given the mostly disappointing season the Brewers have suffered, managerial criticism may be inevitable, but the type of criticism has been interesting. Rather than second guess his decisions or dissect his leadership capabilities, fans are angry that he never seems upset when things go poorly. A local sportswriter even felt the need to address this in a column.

Now, President Obama and Ken Macha may have somewhat different occupations, but one thing in common is that the public usually sees them filtered through a television screen. Could it be that even if we are successful in recognizing the inappropriateness of applying the ethos of reality television to our day-to-day lives, we may unconsciously equate milieus that share the medium of television (even if they share little else)?

So if it is true that we are expecting our presidents and baseball managers to act like candidates on The Apprentice, what can be done to alter these expectations? Perhaps the key is to recognize that it is not necessarily a spontaneous outburst of powerful feelings that the public craves, but rather that they are looking for something, anything, they can perceive as authentic. There is a reason that the word "reality" became the moniker by which the entire genre has become known-- people are looking for the genuine, and the easiest way for an actor or a producer to present that (even if what they are presenting is ultimately anything but genuine) is to emote. But I don't think it is the only way.

Therefore, I think that if the President wants to improve his poll numbers, a nightly video of just a couple minutes in length, in a laid-back setting, and posted on the usual social networking sites, in which he describes what he did that day and what he is thinking about important issues, would appease the public demand for authenticity. I'm well aware that the White House website posts a weekly video address, but a teleprompter-assisted stump speech isn't going to connect with a generation raised on Simon Cowell.

And as for Ken Macha, my advice would be to... sorry, I've got nothing.


Anonymous Tim said...

Doubt this is anything new. Michael Dukakis would probably agree:

Also, I think this is kind of HILARIOUS!!!!!!!!!!

4:43 PM  

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