"Plays, farces, spectacles, gladiators, strange beasts, medals, pictures, and other such opiates, these were for ancient peoples the bait toward slavery, the price of their liberty, the instruments of tyranny. By these practices and enticements the ancient dictators so successfully lulled their subjects under the yoke, that the stupefied peoples, fascinated by the pastimes and vain pleasures flashed before their eyes, learned subservience as naively, but not so creditably, as little children learn to read by looking at bright picture books."Americans love their reality TV shows - the drama, the insults, the bullying, the callousness, the damaged relationships delivered through the lens of a surveillance camera - and there's no shortage of such dehumanizing spectacles to be found on or off screen, whether it's Cops, Real Housewives or the heavy-handed tactics of police officers who break down doors first and ask questions later.
- Etienne de La Boétie, The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude: How Do Tyrants Secure Cooperation? (1548)
Where things get tricky is when we start to lose our grasp on what is real vs. unreal and what is an entertainment spectacle that distracts us vs. a real-life drama that impacts us.
For example, do we tune into Bruce Jenner's gender transformation as it unfolds on reality TV, follow the sniping over Navy sharpshooter Chris Kyle's approach to war and killing, or chart the progress of the Keystone oil pipeline as it makes it work through Congress? Do we debate the merits of Katy Perry's Superbowl XLIX halftime performance, or speculate on which politicians will face off in the 2016 presidential election?
Here's a hint: it's all spectacle.
Studies suggest that the more reality TV people watch - and I would posit that it's all reality TV - the more difficult it becomes to distinguish between what is real and what is carefully crafted farce. Unfortunately, Americans have a voracious appetite for TV entertainment. On average, Americans spend five hours a day watching television. By the time we reach age 65, we're watching more than 50 hours of television a week, and that number increases as we get older. And reality TV programming consistently captures the largest percentage of TV watchers every season by an almost 2-1 ratio.