When Survivor first aired, I watched the initial episode with the naive idea that it was actually a show about survival. As in, dump a group of people on an island, and the one or ones who is the best at building shelter, figuring out sources of food, and keeping their innovative and rational wits about them, win. With rescue teams to keep the others from actually dying. Imagine my disappointment to discover that it was, instead, a show offering a re-run of junior high cliques and pout-fests. "Oh, dear god," I thought. "Junior high was bad enough the first time. Spare me the torture of watching it all over again." But I reassured myself with the thought that surely, this kind of show wouldn't last.
Last, of course, doesn't begin to describe what's happened in the reality TV world. Rabbits should reproduce and spread so prolifically. And even a number of my very intelligent friends have become avid fans of one show or another.
My own view, however, has remained unchanged. If a sinister power wanted to get state secrets out of my hands, a few days of non-stop reality TV show watching would do the trick. Enough back-to-back Bridezillas, The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency, and Bachelor-babe catfights, with no hope of turning the channel, and I'd be pleading for mercy. But I'd also assume that I was the only torture victim in that equation.
Drawing on interviews with reality TV show contestants whose non-disclosure contracts have now expired, the article, headlined "Tired, Tipsy, and Pushed to the Brink," details a broad range of techniques routinely used on contestants, including sleep deprivation, isolation, taunting, food deprivation, and pushing of alcohol consumption. Take out the alcohol, and the list reads like a page straight out of a manual for enhanced interrogation techniques. Which both explains a lot, in terms of the bad behavior on those shows, and also provides a vivid illustration of why those techniques don't always get reliable intelligence from suspects.
Granted, reality show contestants have the option of leaving at any time--a significant difference. And one could argue that if contestants are stupid enough to sign on for the 15 minutes of humiliation fame reality shows offer, they deserve what they get. But even if contestants have visions of easy money or fame, I'm not sure they really know what they're getting into. Many may assume they can beat the system, knowing that they don't normally behave like the people they see on the shows. But even the stalwart feminist warrior Germaine Greer, who signed on to Britain's "Celebrity Big Brother" show in 2005 in the hopes of raising money for her rainforest charities, was overwhelmed by the abuse and dysfunction and quit after only four days. (Her account of her brief stay makes for interesting reading.)
There are undoubtedly any number of individual vulnerabilities and character flaws that plays into the equation, as well. But isolation, group pressure and sleep deprivation are powerful behavior-altering techniques, regardless of who's involved. That's why interrogators use them. When I was 16, I spent a week at a "Girl's State" convention that was ostensibly aimed at teaching us how to be better citizens. By the standards of reality TV, the experience was mild. But we were kept up late, roused early, and subjected to non-stop mandatory lectures each day. Group pressure to approve and conform was great. And within only a few days, almost all individual thought had evaporated. Each speaker got a standing ovation. Any differing opinion was booed, and the questioner ostracized. It was a frightening glimpse into how easy brain-washing and behavior modification are to accomplish--especially in a group.
Add alcohol, taunting, and the other tactics that seem commonplace in reality TV show environments, and you have a disturbing cross between George Orwell's 1984 and a modern-day Roman Coliseum. And yet, like the Romans of old, we cheer. We laugh. We watch. Seemingly without any twinge of conscience. And the puzzling question is ... why?
Is the entertainment quality of the shows that much better than the scripted programs we used to watch? I can't imagine I'd find many who'd say that. Are we so twisted that we love seeing other humans suffer? Or does watching the immature manipulative behavior, suffering and humiliation of seemingly-willing participants on those shows make us feel better about our own lives, no matter what we're going through?
Perhaps, like the contestants themselves, we don't realize what we're endorsing when we watch the shows, or buy the products they advertise. But that's beginning to change. As more information about the treatment of contestants comes out, will we continue to watch? Even knowing that that the last thing the behavior on reality TV shows represents is reality .... unless it's the reality of what vulnerable people will do under harsh and artificially-induced conditions?
The producers of these shows may be behaving as badly, or worse, than their inebriated, sleep-deprived contestants. But they could rightly argue that just as the slave trade depended on having people willing to buy the slaves, the reality TV shows depend on having audiences willing to watch. We are complicit. And as long as we are willing consumers of the product, the torture will continue--both for viewers who have increasingly fewer options in terms of what to watch, and for those hapless souls who sign up for a dream, and end up in a nightmare.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
The neurologist leaves behind a body of work that reveals a lifetime of asking difficult questions with empathy.
Oliver Sacks always seemed propelled by joyful curiosity. The neurologist’s writing is infused with this quality—equal parts buoyancy and diligence, the exuberant asking of difficult questions.
More specifically, Sacks had a fascination with ways of seeing and hearing and thinking. Which is another way of exploring experiences of living. He focused on modes of perception that are delightful not only because they are subjective, but precisely because they are very often faulty.
To say Sacks had a gift for this method of exploration is an understatement. He was a master at connecting curiosity to observation, and observation to emotion. Sacks died on Sunday after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis earlier this year. He was 82.
A new study pinpoints the Facebook status updates that irk us to the point of no return.
In the 1997 movie Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, the two title characters, worried that they haven’t done anything noteworthy to share at said reunion, decide instead to lie and claim they invented Post-it notes.
Their story quickly unravels, of course, but had the movie been made a decade later, even the very concept of the ruse would have been impossible. Everyone would have known about Romy’s daily slog at the Jaguar dealership through Facebook.
Or would they?
The ebb and flow of Facebook friendships has become fruitful territory for social scientists in recent years. At least 63 percent of people report having unfriended someone on Facebook, but what prompts these digital rejections can tell us a lot about both the nature of real-life friendship and about how we manage our online personalities.
Residents of Newtok, Alaska voted to relocate as erosion destroyed their land. That was the easy part.
NEWTOK, Alaska—Two decades ago, the people of this tiny village came to terms with what had become increasingly obvious: They could no longer fight back the rising waters.
Their homes perched on a low-lying, treeless tuft of land between two rivers on Alaska’s west coast, residents saw the water creeping closer every year, gobbling up fields where they used to pick berries and hunt moose. Paul and Teresa Charles watched from their blue home on stilts on Newtok’s southern side as the Ninglick River inched closer and closer, bringing with it the salt waters of the Bering Sea.
“Sometimes, we lose 100 feet a year,” Paul Charles told me, over a bowl of moose soup.
Many communities across the world are trying to stay put as the climate changes, installing expensive levees and dikes and pumps, but not Newtok, a settlement of about 350 members of the Yupik people. In 1996, the village decided that fighting Mother Nature was fruitless, and they voted to move to a new piece of land nine miles away, elevated on bedrock.
The new drama series, which follows the Colombian kingpin’s rise to power, feels more like a well-researched documentary than the gripping saga it wants to be.
Netflix’s new series Narcos is possibly arriving at the wrong time: The doldrums of summer aren’t really the ideal moment for a narratively dense, documentary-like look at the rise and fall of the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Narrated in voiceover by DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), the early hours of Narcos feel like a history lesson, though an visually sumptuous one.
As Netflix continues to expand its streaming empire, it’s making a concerted effort to appeal to worldwide audiences, and Narcos fits neatly into that plan, alongside last year’s expensive critical flop Marco Polo. Narcos was shot on location in Colombia and stars the acclaimed Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as Escobar. It takes full advantage of its setting, loaded with sweeping helicopter shots of the Colombian jungle where Escobar founded his cocaine empire, filling a power vacuum left by various political upheavals in late-’70s South America.
Wine snobs, string quartets, and the limits of intuition
Several months ago, this author sat at a classical music concert, trying to convince himself that wine is not bullshit.
That may seem like a strange thought to have while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. But Priceonomics had recently posted an article investigating The Price of Wine, part of which reviewed research that cast doubt on both consumers’ and wine experts’ ability to distinguish between quality wine and table wine or identify different wines and their flavors. It seemed a slippery slope to the conclusion that wine culture is nothing more than actors performing a snobbish play.
Listening to an accomplished musician while lacking any musical experience resulted in a feeling familiar to casual wine drinkers imbibing an expensive bottle: Feeling somewhat ambivalent and wondering whether you are convincing yourself that you enjoy it so as not to appear uncultured.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Grasses—green, neatly trimmed, symbols of civic virtue—shaped the national landscape. They have now outlived their purpose.
The hashtag #droughtshaming—which primarily exists, as its name suggests, to publicly decry people who have failed to do their part to conserve water during California’s latest drought—has claimed many victims. Anonymous lawn-waterers. Anonymous sidewalk-washers. The city of Beverly Hills. The tag’s most high-profile shamee thus far, however, has been the actor Tom Selleck. Who was sued earlier this summer by Ventura County’s Calleguas Municipal Water District for the alleged theft of hydrant water, supposedly used to nourish his 60-acre ranch. Which includes, this being California, an avocado farm, and also an expansive lawn.
The case was settled out of court on terms that remain undisclosed, and everyone has since moved on with their lives. What’s remarkable about the whole thing, though—well, besides the fact that Magnum P.I. has apparently become, in his semi-retirement, a gentleman farmer—is how much of a shift all the Selleck-shaming represents, as a civic impulse. For much of American history, the healthy lawn—green, lush, neatly shorn—has been a symbol not just of prosperity, individual and communal, but of something deeper: shared ideals, collective responsibility, the assorted conveniences of conformity. Lawns, originally designed to connect homes even as they enforced the distance between them, are shared domestic spaces. They are also socially regulated spaces. “When smiling lawns and tasteful cottages begin to embellish a country,” Andrew Jackson Downing, one of the nation’s first landscaper-philosophers, put it, “we know that order and culture are established.”
Since 1980, more than 260,000 black men have been killed in America. Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, is on a crusade to stop the killing.
In late april of 1994, a 9-year-old African American boy from the broken-down Central City neighborhood of New Orleans wrote a letter to President Bill Clinton, asking him to bring about an end to the violence that was devastating his city.
“Dear Mr. Clinton,” James Darby began. “I want you to stop the killing in the city. People is dead and I think that somebody might kill me. So would you please stop the people from deading. I’m asking you nicely to stop it. I know you can do it. Do it. I now you could.” He signed the letter, “Your friend, James.”
Ten days later, on May 8, Mother’s Day, Darby was visiting A. L. Davis Park with several members of his family. The park, named after Abraham Lincoln Davis, the first African American to sit on the New Orleans city council, is a compact rectangle of basketball courts and grass patches situated directly across the street from a public-housing complex.