Saturday, March 12, 2011

When Meltdowns Attack

At least the risk of a Japanese nuclear meltdown has caused people to pay slightly less attention to the Charlie Sheen meltdown.  After all, if he’s really going insane, we’ll all feel guilty about the laughter later.  Or will we?

I contend people have gotten a bit more vicious and impatient over the past couple decades – not a night-and-day complete-unraveling-of-morals thing, but perhaps a subtle shift due to instant gratification getting even more instantaneous.  I could therefore easily see the next generation of reality shows, driven by people’s callous desire to see something ever more shocking and tawdry, taking it for granted that we will all watch real descents into dysfunctional mental illness with the same chuckling detachment that we now watch cat videos. 

If it entertains the normals, why not put crazies on TV, people will say, and eventually: why not put sociopaths in charge of programming, to make the process even more efficient?  Conscience can get in the way of the tough decisions, like whether to air footage in which a stand-up comedian mercilessly mocks his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s, etc.

If this sounds like pessimistic cultural conservatism, here’s a related optimistic note: Conservatives often complain about the value-neutrality – and thus potential amorality – of psychiatry (how do you feel about that?).  But I think it’s a very good – and conservative – thing that psychiatry regards the lack of a conscience as a form of mental illness.  After all, as Dostoyevsky reminded us, you couldn’t strictly speaking give a rational argument to a complete sociopath about why she should care about other people if she just doesn’t – you have to bank on there being some hint of compassion in there. 

(But the psychiatrists seem to be right from a purely biological perspective: Normal brains are heavily influenced, even formed at the most basic level, by their sympathy with other brains, even across species, and there is indeed something “missing” in the sociopath – the question is just how you could ever convince a stubborn sociopath to care about that problem rather than feeling liberated by the difference – though my impression is that sociopaths are not a happy bunch, so if they’re neither good for us nor good for themselves, you’d think they might acknowledge the problem.)

Once an interest in doing right by other people is established, though, I’d contend, you are logically bound to some form of more or less utilitarian ethical code and numerous objective statements can then be made about “what must be done” or at least “what should not be done,” given economic, political, scientific, and psychological constraints.  Moral rules (though complex, ambiguous, and highly debatable) are objective – you just need something to give people that initial push to care enough to inquire about what they are.  But the handful of people who just don’t care may always be as unreachable – and as dangerous – as a few scattered vampires or zombies among us. 

And speaking of fundamental questions that risk unraveling one’s whole mindset: tomorrow, deconstructionists and atheists.  (And today I tweet and Facebook-update about the crazies in a more callous fashion myself.)


Dave said...

Hey Todd, I thought you'd be interested I just picked up a copy of Proud to Be Right (speaking of unraveling my whole mindset)

Todd Seavey said...

Cool. Needless to say, I don't necessarily endorse every essay, but it's a neat mix.

Christopher said...

"I contend people have gotten a bit more vicious and impatient over the past couple decades – not a night-and-day complete-unraveling-of-morals thing, but perhaps a subtle shift due to instant gratification getting even more instantaneous."

Impatient, perhaps, but it seems that in the US at least, people have gotten far less vicious in the past 20 years. Essentially all types of violent crime have gone way down, there's much more acceptance of homosexuality, attitudes among the general public about domestic violence are much better than they once were, etc., etc. I will agree that 24 news and internet puts every petty griper and mean-spirited asshole in our face constantly, thus perhaps giving the impression that society is more coarse, but I does seem that by most objective measures people are generally being better than they were 20 years ago.

Todd Seavey said...

Context is always important. Thanks. I was mostly thinking of subtler etiquette shifts, but, yeah, it's definitely worth keeping in mind that the murder rate in medieval times, for instance, was something like seven times what we now see in the U.S., and in prehistory it appears about _half_ of males were murdered.

On the other hand, it's been estimated that our current murder rate (which is back down to about where it was a half-century ago when things started getting dicey) would be three times higher if not for the fact that medical advances save so many people who would've died in decades past.

"More vicious but with fewer consequences" might be a pattern we'll see played out in various aspects of the culture in the future (which is not the worst thing in the world), not that one ever really knows.

Or as U2 sang right around the time the U.S. crime rate peaked, "Daddy's gonna pay for your crashed car." Who will pay for injuries on the Spider-Man musical set, though, I ask you? Who?

Christopher said...

For what it's worth, I do think that younger people seem far more rude than they did 20 years ago, but isn't that what everyone thinks as they get older?