A psychological tactic to unite people is not to tell them what beliefs they share, but to juxtapose 'us’ against 'them' and that's part of the reason why the Jeremy Kyle Show was so popular, writes Alastair Stewart.
I can't imagine many will lament the loss of The Jeremy Kyle Show. For over ten years, it has played to an insipid, reactionary, bourgeois loathing of the have-nots, down-and-outs and the dysfunctional. It doesn't stand alone in the dock, but a million people watching it every day makes it a sorry tale indeed.
So why have we put up with it for so long? Some say it's because we've become a base, or perhaps baser, society that delights in 'poverty porn' and lunchtime rubbernecking. Others, with a wee bit more of a cerebral wink, say it's because we're doomed not to revel in others' suffering, but to desperately feel relieved that "we're not as bad as them".
Alexander Wendt, a German political theorist, made a fascinating social constructivist argument that identities are formed in opposition to the things they encounter. From the earliest tribes, humans gained their sense of self not by sitting around and plucking their values from thin air, but from facing the ideas they didn't like and found profoundly distasteful.
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There's a genuine part of me that refuses to accept that British society enjoys human bear-baiting. Yes, it's hard to dismiss the massive daily ratings of Kyle, but I'm convinced a sizeable part of those numbers came from hospital waiting rooms up and down the country (challenging to prove, I admit).
If nothing else, the end of Kyle's show reaffirms that the public does have standards. They're happy to indulge the usual middle-class condescension – to a point. There's only so much they're prepared to tolerate, and the decision to axe the show after the suicide of a guest was as much a preemptive moral retreat as it was a PR one.
The same was true with the decline and fall of Katie Hopkins at the Daily Mail. Her raison d'etre, as far I could discern, was to be a reactionary knave. Only the foolhardy would buy into her deliciously provocative comments because they were pantomime nonsense and fodder for the tabloids.
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No one sincerely believed that Kyle's 'cure by bollocking' was a genuine lifeline of hope and help to 'guests' even if counselling was available before and after the show. The whole thing was to get a rise out of the public, to make them feel good at the expense of others. People watched it for a voyeuristic kick; they watched it because they loved not having the type of life that would drive them to appear on the programme in the first place. The whole formula has more in common with walking through a hospital and thanking Christ you didn't have X, Y and Z disease.
Hopkins' notoriety turned her into a cash cow, and her comments were a going concern to fill her pockets. Clicking on her articles and retweeting her comments generated revenue even when you did so in ‘outrage’. That was the accidental byproduct – the 'love to hate' idea has more traction than cliche suggests because nothing fuels public opinion like hating or loving something in unison.
A primary psychological tactic to unite people is not to tell them what commonalities they share, but to juxtapose 'us’ against 'them'. Our national institutions are more beloved and treasured when they're at risk from some external component. Sports teams are most supported when they're on the line against an implacable foe. Kyle and Hopkins are, or were, equal parts objectionable in the new staple of British 'entertainment' – outrage, shock and disgust so you feel great about not being a racist brute, about not being poor, about not having a shambles of a personal life.
It might lack the political reliability of polling, but how we react to these kinds of formats is as good as any a barometer for how the public feels about knee-jerk diatribes. That it's taken a suicide to expose the despicable and lasting consequences of this folly is beyond tragic. Kyle and Hopkins and their like are symptoms in the next evolution of clickbait TV and journalism – make the public dependent on another session of the "thank God it’s not me" dopamine hit.
There was a theory doing the rounds a few weeks back that the Joker was the real hero in The Dark Knight film. The logic went that by his en masse destruction and chaos, he united Gotham City and gave it the motivation and the excuse to tackle its social ills and injustice head-on.
Without the Joker there would never have been the convergence of Harvey Dent, Batman and Commissioner Gordon to fight crime. What looked like anarchy was really a grand plan by The Joker to spur people of Gotham to take back their city.
Or so the logic goes.
Today, it's long overdue that we understand why we tolerate people and programmes that provoke well beyond decency and the answer, sadly, starts by looking in the mirror.