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Reveling in Humiliation

Some time ago I read Girls Gone Mild, a book by Wendy Shalit. Shalit’s first book, A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue was published eight years ago and caused quite a stir. Shalit, an Orthodox Jew, made the audacious claim that the sexual revolution may not have been entirely beneficial for women. She decried the lack of modesty this revolution has brought about and, according to TIME defended “compellingly, shame, privacy, gallantry, and sexual reticence.” Of course many people, and feminists in particular, were disgusted with the book and ruthlessly mocked her. In her second book, Girls Gone Mild Shalit investigated a new movement that seems to be growing in strength and is being led by young people. It is a movement back to modesty and back to an understanding of womanhood that is somehow distinctly feminine.

It is not just Christians who are aghast at our culture’s view of womanhood. The sexual revolution has produced a generation of girls who are brazen in their sexuality. We’ve come to a time when girls are offered the choice between being brave and sexual or timid and modest. Culture teaches that it is acceptable to wait to engage in sexual practices as long as you feel you are unprepared. It is those who are comfortable with their bodies who flaunt their nakedness while those who hide their bodies are ashamed. Hence it is the weak who wait and the strong who engage. And countless numbers of girls are engaged, even from a young age.

But that is not all. As girls become increasingly sexual at an increasingly young age, they also become aggressive. Girls have long been taught that traditionally feminine qualities such as niceness and gentleness are a sign of weakness. Girls are encouraged to be tough, to stand for their perceived rights. And girls do this. Bullying among girls has become commonplace in schools. The term “bullycide” has been coined, has had to be coined, to describe people, and often girls, who are driven to suicide by bullying.

Girls are being mean because their parents and teachers are teaching them to be mean, expecting them to be mean, demanding that they be mean. Adults are telling the children that it is the aggressive who will inherit the earth. The girls who are nice will be trampled on and will be left behind. Girls are also seeing meanness modeled for them in their entertainment. In discussing this topic, Shalit provided an interesting quote from none other than Erika Harold, who was Miss America 2003 and who is now studying law at Harvard. “A profound statement from a beauty pageant winner,” you ask? Read on.

We live in a culture where reality TV is pervasive, and we’re entertained by other’s humiliation and by pulling on people’s weaknesses and watching a weak person be embarrassed; and I maintain that’s the cause—glorifying humiliation of others—not being good. With bullying it’s about thinking you have the right to devalue other people, and there are some people who think people should just toughen up, grow up. But bullying, I think, is a much more pernicious problem than that. If people don’t value other people, they just see it as acceptable to bully other people.

Last February, just as a new season of America’s favorite program began, I wrote about American Idol and how it so masterfully combines our culture’s twin obsessions with exhibitionism and voyeurism. I thought back to this article as I read the quote by Erika Harold. I thought again of William Hung who, perhaps more than anyone else, typifies the victims of reality television. Hung is, well, just not a very good-looking guy (we’ll leave it at that). He may have thought that he was talented enough to make an impact at American Idol but the cold reality, as we all saw, was that he was utterly untalented as both a singer and dancer. Yet he passed through two levels of auditions and was given the stage in front of the judges where he was promptly humiliated and rejected. He was brought back later in the season for a special “Uncut, Uncensored and Untalented” episode where he performed again. He even released a series of three albums, all featuring his horrendous singing. He was a joke and we all laughed at him, not with him.

It is always educational to see what other reality programs are making waves. There is Hell’s Kitchen where a chef with a serious anger problem screams at potential chefs; there is Big Brother, where people compete to be the last person standing in a house filled with cameras; there is American Inventor where people try to create the next big product and America’s Got Talent where thousands compete in a national talent show with a million dollar prize. And then there is some horrendous show who’s name escapes me where young women and older women compete for the attention of a sleazy bachelor. A popular game show, Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? puts “average Americans” up against a group of 5th graders in a quiz show format. Those who cannot beat the children have to look into the camera and say, “I am not smarter than a 5th grader!”

The common thread with all of these shows is that they glory in humiliation. Some are worse offenders than others, but anyone who has seen the commercials where Chef Ramsey screams obscenities at chefs in Hell’s Kitchen or who has seen advertisements of older women in anguish after being outfoxed by a younger woman on that ugly dating show will realize that the humiliation is as much the attraction as is the challenge of the show. I suspect as many people watch Hell’s Kitchen to watch the outbursts as they do because they find the cooking interesting.

What is wrong with us? Why is it that we glory in the humiliation of others? Would we be as interested in these shows if they were merely about talent or about fascinating plots? I don’t think we would. I think we are attracted to them precisely because they humiliate other people. We are attracted to them, at least in part, because they give us the opportunity to feel better about ourselves at the expense of others. “I may not be a good singer, but at least I’m not as bad as him. I may not be able to carry a tune, but at least I’m not delusional enough to go and audition for the show!”

Read the book of James and you’ll come to the undeniable conclusion that what comes out of a person is a sure indication of what he puts in. This is true physically, emotionally and spiritually. What we allow into our hearts and into our minds necessarily impacts our lives. We may not be able to exhaustively examine our own hearts, but we can surely look to what comes out of us and see evidence of what we’ve been putting into our hearts.

It is impossible for us to revel in the humiliation of other people and not begin to see ramifications in our own lives. Bullying is a problem in schools today and it stands to reason that one of the causes of this behavior is children imitating what they see on television. The adults in these shows humiliate and belittle one another and the children take this as an example of acceptable human behavior. You and I may not be prone to bullying, but if we enjoy watching other people be humiliated, what does that say about us? And, of equal importance, how is that beginning to manifest itself in our lives?