Why do so many people insist on exaggerating the bad things in our society and rejecting the good things?
A father of two told me his son didn’t want to go out riding his bike. When asked why, the boy said he had heard on television that the governor had released all the criminals from prison. Then the boy asked, “Dad, what is a rapist?” The father’s response was to shut down the television, at least until the elections were over.
I am not convinced that anything elected politicians do while in office is as bad as what their advertisements do to society while they campaign. But it is not only political advertising that is responsible for the negativity that pervades our culture today.
A friend who recently moved into a country house mentioned that she was having trouble sleeping. She said, “I keep hearing strange noises, and I think someone is trying to get into the house.”
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When I spoke to her a few weeks later, she was sleeping well. “I had to stop listening to those podcasts about real crimes,” she laughed. “They were playing with my mind.”
That is exactly. The stories we consume play with our minds, and if we are not careful, they can make us completely lose our minds.
Fascination with crime, especially thrilling brutal crime, is nothing new. In Great Britain in the 19th century, publishers of penny scary books were selling over a million copies a week. They’ve shown the violent feats of characters like Sweeney Todd and Jack the Spring Heeled. In this country, many novelists from the same era told harrowing stories of outlaws including Billy the Kid and Jesse James.
The difference today lies not so much in the nature of storytelling as in the sheer scale of it. In the 1930s and 1940s, Warner Bros. was making three or four very popular gangster movies like “Public Anime” and “Scarface” every year. Universal Studios has been wowing audiences with horror movies including “Frankenstein” and “The Invisible Man” almost at the same pace. Horror entertainment fans can watch a movie every month and then listen to radio shows like “The Shadow” or “The Whistler” several times a week.
Today, the entertainment industry feeds us a constant diet of apocalyptic. True crime is especially popular, appearing in podcasts, audiobooks, films, documentaries, and TV series. The mini-series “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” has hit streaming records this fall on Netflix. Three of the top 10 podcasts in the country currently are devoted to true crime. Indulging in programs that depict the worst of humanity is not only possible today, but a way of life for many.
Well, some might say, what’s wrong with that? After all, stories are just stories. Watching crime shows turns one into a criminal no more than watching monster movies that turn one into a monster.
This is true enough. But stories affect us. They get into our imaginations, and the more time we spend with certain kinds of stories, the more they shape the way we see the world around us. It subtly influences whether we are more inclined to see a stranger as a potential threat or a potential friend. They can influence our decisions about where to live, which legislation to support and which politicians to vote for.
In The Republic, a book in which Plato imagines building an ideal society, he argues that storytellers should be banned. He does so not because there is anything wrong with stories as such, but because the stories that tend to attract us the most are the erotic stories that depict the worst behavior. Stories of murder, rape, and torture have instant appeal. On the other hand, stories about the good seem boring by comparison. Who wants to watch a movie about someone helping their neighbor shovel leaves or baking a cake for a community fundraiser?
However, our quality of life depends on that most people spend most of their time doing such things – quietly doing hard work, raising children, helping neighbors, participating in the life of their community.
Moreover, it is not simply true that good is boring, but the most interesting aspects of good are mostly internal. They are not fit to watch. It’s not exciting to watch corn grow, but the inner life of a farmer who grows, cares and harvests crops can be very rewarding.
The reason so many people today tend to exaggerate the worst while ignoring the good is that we have become addicted to the spectacle. The more time we spend entertaining ourselves with wonderful diversions rather than nurturing our minds along the many paths of meaningful experience, the worse we become.
In Mary Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein notes, “If a study which you apply yourself tends to weaken your passions and destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can be mixed, then such study is certainly unlawful, is to say, unbecoming of the human mind.”
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