It’s a supreme irony, or perhaps a sad blindness, that the present generation is supposedly in love with ‘authenticity’, ‘sincerity’, and ‘keeping it real’. After all, we’ve been doing everything but that for nearly a century. As Neil Postman pointed out in Amusing Ourselves to Death, we took a medium designed for amusing spectacle – theatre – and used technology to turn it into the dominant medium of our time. First film, then television, and now the web, have transformed the most serious moments of life into forms of amusement to be watched by a popcorn-eating crowd. Politics has gone from thoughtful debate watched by patient and intelligent crowds, into a cage-fight, with commentators, bookies, and sound-bytes made for TV and the web. The Courts have become reality-TV sideshows for us to laugh at the sassy judge’s replies. Warfare has become a televised sportsmatch, with blow-by-blow commentators and action replays. Counselling has become a bizarre exercise in voyeuristic curiosity, as we hear strangers’ problems, and watch the psychologist untangle other people’s messed-up lives. Education has become films of amusing characters, fun computer games, and amusing activities that suit each one’s “learning style”.
The most serious, or sincere part of our TV experience is supposed to be ‘the News’, where men and women in suits and corporate-wear speak in sober monotones to “give us the facts”. Stories of human suffering, terror and tragedy are literally sold to us as a thirty-minute product paid for by advertisers, and consequently filled with stories that scare, enrage, or excite – the kind that garner viewers or listeners. No one notices the weird incongruity when we go from hearing about chemical warfare in Syria to fun commercials advertising cosmetics, diapers, cars and insurance. (Imagine King Nebuchadnezzar in his throne room receiving word of enemies coming from the west, and every few moments, a court jester running in singing, showing off something from Babylon’s market.) With the recent political shenanigans and the hysterical ‘news media’ that accompanied it, some of the makeup is beginning to drip off this pig. People are beginning to realise that ‘the News’ was always a sideshow masquerading as serious conversation, flattering our view of ourselves as thoughtful people, where in reality we were drawn in by the amusement of alarmism, and sold to advertisers. Nothing really sincere or authentic about all this.
It was inevitable, I suppose, that we should land up with Reality TV. When serious information is just one more show, we start pining for something without actors. Supposedly setting up a camera in a home, or on an island, or in a car, will make the ‘story’ more interesting, more ‘real’. Actually, it’s a sign of the law of diminishing returns. Once those shows that only mimic life no longer scratch the itch, we want life itself to be the show. Note, the move to reality television is not people wanting reality; this is people wanting reality-as-entertainment.
With the ubiquity of screens, cameras and social media, we’re all now in a reality show. So we have reached the place where people film themselves in a place or performing some activity, and only really enjoy the moment when it’s played back on a screen to them, or placed online. It’s as if the screen has become a priest, a mediator. We can no longer get at life through our five senses, we must film ourselves and then live vicariously through the act of watching ourselves again. Spectacle has become our perception of reality, and we even need to be spectators of our own actions. We cannot even enjoy the simple and the mundane on our own, we must publicise it for the entertainment of others on some social media platform, and only when they comment or ‘like’ or smiley-face it, do we feel validated. We have to entertain others or be entertained to even feel that such moments were real. Entertainment is no longer what people do when not engaged in work, it has become their means of perception, their source of identity, their very experience of reality.
So what should we make of all these cries for ‘authenticity’, ‘sincerity’, and ‘reality’? On the one hand, they are clearly preposterous. People gorging themselves on junk food are not yet serious when they talk about health, and people immersed in amusement are not yet serious when they talk about the real world. On the other hand, there is in them probably a true longing for something other than life-as-amusement, being ignorant of what it might be. When people are feeling bored with life, worn out by images, de-sensitised to shock-value, they aren’t sure if they need another shot of entertainment, or an emetic.
I’ve heard it said that millennials are particularly relational because of their social-media savvy. That, in turn, makes them more ‘authentic’ in relationships. If that means they actually spend time with people, put their phones away, stop instagramming and snapchatting every moment, look up from their screens and have meaningful conversations with the other person two metres away from them, then I’d agree. If not, then they are the natural descendants and logical consequence of a twentieth-century generation that made amusement its goal in life, only now its kids get to carry that once-bulky TV in their pocket, and watch it at every available moment. When I was a kid, we at least had the social experience of fighting over the remote. If self-absorption behind a TV has been succeeded by self-absorption while lost in social-media, not much has improved. In fact, the illusion of relationships taking place through these screens has only made the alienation from others more severe.
In truth, behind the lust for the amusement of spectacle is a profound selfishness, and even a narcissism. When seeking amusement, I do not seek to give, to share, to bless, or to grow. I seek only the merest titillation of myself. When this is the dominant form of cultural life, you are dealing with the most loveless generation to see the sun.
We can never become serious about ‘being authentic’ until we are willing to abandon entertainment as our mode of worship, communication, or education. Until we see that the spectacles we use to view the world have become screens, we will no longer notice the ubiquity of them. (I once went into a sports-themed restaurant, and counted around twenty screens from where I was sitting – I was told there were more. And the patrons still had their own screens on their tables in their phones and tablets. At what point do we call this a kind of madness, or sickness?)
If we really desire to “do life”, to “be authentic”, to “keep it real”, it begins by repenting of slavery to the god of entertainment, confessing that we have looked to it for life. We should repent that we have wished that worship, marriage, parenting, work, and obedience could be mediated to us through the mode of passive amusement. To put it another way, we should repent that we have kept ourselves at the centre of our lives, and loved our own amusement more than God or neighbour. The confession of evil works is the beginning of good works, and being real begins with turning away from the narcissistic insincerity of entertainment as the mainstay of our lives.