Executive Perspective

Living in a Jerry Springer World

by Paul D. Houston

OK, I admit it. I have watched Jerry Springer on occasion. It is a guilty pleasure. I don’t know if his popularity is because we know people like the ones he has on his show, because we don’t know people like the ones he has or because we are just glad we aren’t on the show ourselves.

The Springer show has come to represent the extremes in our society—perversion, unlikely pairings, lying, cheating and what have you. Come to think of it, kind of reminds me of Washington, D.C. And that’s the point.

As I look at what has evolved in our society over the past few years I sometimes think we are all living in a Jerry Springer world. On one hand we have seen a coarsening in our society of what is acceptable. Our public discourse has become laced with words of four letters. We see the vice president, a hero of social conservatives, dropping the “F bomb” on a senator in the Senate chamber itself. And not much is made of it. Just the way things are.

Liberal Hollywood has been roundly criticized, and justifiably so, over the direction it has taken with much of our entertainment to the point that AASA even considered a position calling for a tax on the “toxic culture.” The theory behind the measure was that our children are victimized by movies, records and video games that teach and glorify violence and that you pay a price in terms of what parents and schools must contend with as a result of this toxic influence. So those who perpetrate it should have to pay to offset the influence.

The idea was too complicated to gain much traction, but the fact that it was even considered says much about where we are right now. Further, much of the toxicity of our culture as it affects children comes from our cultural fascination with violence, but as a culture we often seem more upset with sex than we are with violence—so what do we tackle?

So much was made of Janet Jackson’s costume malfunction that it changed the way the Federal Communications Commission looks at television programming. This has led to programs being pulled off the television or modified for fear of incurring a steep fine. It is hard to keep up with what has happened lately and it is hard to know which side to come down on. My social liberal tendencies are at war with my conservative grandfatherly instincts. My libertarian views of feeling government should stay out of people’s lives clashes with my Christian values. I think many of us are torn.

Backwards Looking
Not long ago I was watching a reprise of the first Super Bowl in 1966 and was surprised to see the men in the crowd wearing white shirts and ties, while many women wore suits and hats. White shirts, ties and pillbox hats at a football game? Yes, that is the way it was. And there is something in most of us that longs for that simpler, more genteel time. On the other hand, most of the minorities present that day were on the field of play—few were sitting in the stands—reminding us once again that the “good old days” weren’t so good for everyone and that progress is never achieved by stepping backwards.

But some things are pretty clear at this point. We won’t be wearing ties to a football game anytime soon. Profanity and sexuality will be a part of our culture for the foreseeable future. And as a nation we will continue to debate which is more obscene—Janet Jackson’s breast, or a “shock and awe” military attack with collateral damage.

What worries me in the midst of all this is that on Jerry Springer you have the guests, who seem to have come from some parallel universe where bad teeth are a mark of beauty, but you also have the audience. And the audience isn’t much different from us. The most obscene thing about Jerry Springer isn’t the poor lost souls who share their horrible secrets with the world—it’s the audience that sits there and hoots and howls and begs for more or, on the other extreme, shouts down the guests, preventing them from explaining themselves. We have become a culture of hooters and howlers who egg on bad behavior.

I have become increasingly concerned not just about our toxic culture but also our culture of censorship. First, I think that creating laws or rules will not change behavior. It is like Austin Powers yelling, “Oh, behave.” You can yell it, but it won’t happen. We don’t need constitutional amendments to direct behavior. We need changes in personal constitutions. Further, who are the censors and what do they know? Do I want James Dobson or Jerry Falwell or Larry Flynt determining what I see and hear? Do I want Orrin Hatch or Ted Kennedy to determine what is appropriate for me?

Deeper Conversations
I think I reached my own tipping point recently when I read about the attack on Spongebob Squarepants and the accusations he was promoting “alternative” lifestyles because they had used him in a tolerance promotion. Hey, it’s a cartoon! Lighten up! Were Mickey and Minnie promoting cohabitation? (As far as I know, they never married.) The real obscenity is attacking tolerance.

I think we do need to have a deeper conversation with each other about the kind of culture we want and we need to include everyone in the discussion—even Spongebob Squarepants and his “deviant” friends. And we need to work on our parenting skills. Maybe if we raised our children with some support and structure, they wouldn’t be so affected by the culture that surrounds them. And maybe we need to understand that in a Jerry Springer world, the problems cease when the audience stops watching. If we don’t like how our world is, we need to become part of the solution and stop being part of the problem.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.