The Daily StarThere was a lot of concern expressed a while back about ‘dumbing down’ in the British press and TV. I believe that the more insidious threat to emotional intelligence from these sources has been largely overlooked.

Helen Fielding coined the term “emotional f***wittage” (in her very funny novel Bridget Jones’ Diary) to mean the opposite of emotional intelligence. This is the condition that the UK tabloid press and most of its TV seems to want to reduce us to.

Here’s the evidence:

1. Voyeurism

From the paparazzi photos to be found in all tabloids to the blatant ‘upskirt’ shots on the cover of the ‘Daily Sport’, the message seems to be “it’s OK to invade people’s privacy – in fact it’s OK to be a peeping tom”. While I’m sure most people would draw the line at spying on someone else, or taking long-lens pictures covertly, whenever we view such pictures we become complicit.

2. Living other people’s lives instead of our own

Linked to the above, via the culture of celebrity. Every time we read an article about the Beckhams or J-Lo, every half-hour we spend watching Corrie or Eastenders, that’s time we’ll never get back. Any attention we devote to thinking about the affairs of celebrities is attention diverted from our own lives.

Remember how you felt when Princess Diana died? I remember thinking “Oh no” and feeling a sudden impact of sadness, despite having never met her and really having not much idea of what she was like as a person. Indeed it’s often forgotten that right up until her untimely death, she was often treated as a figure of fun. Yet there I was, suddenly feeling like I had lost someone close to me.

The emotions we project onto celebrities are at the expense of sharing our emotions with real people who are close to us.

And when your kids are watching Eastenders, the prevailing messages of which are (last time I saw it, which admittedly was quite a few years ago) “violence is the ultimate solution to any problem” and “life is overwhelmingly grim”, remember that they are learning about life from characters who have no idea how to live.

3. Passing Judgement

Any spiritual or therapeutic tradition worth its salt cautions us against passing judgement on others. To judge other people means that we waste energy on things we can do nothing about, and consequently spend more time than we need to indulging in anger anger and misery.

The tabloid press encourage us to judge others, not just for their alleged moral failings but also for how they look.

Women come in for particular attention here. And the worst offender is the ‘respectable’ tabloid the ‘Daily Mail’. A couple of years back back the Mail ran a double-page spread of female celebrities on the beach, each one rated by a well known personal trainer (Cornel Chin, if memory serves) for their ‘physical age’ versus their chronological age. Every bit of cellulite (or rather ‘cellulite’ , as I believe the scientific jury is still out on whether this actually exists or is an invention of the cosmetics industry), every surplus pound, every wrinkle was ruthlessly highlighted. Not many of the celebs came out at or under their real ages – so not much hope for the rest of us then.

A commentator in a rival broadsheet aptly pointed out that in the Mail’s eyes the gap between the point at which a woman’s body is too thin and that at which it is too fat is narrowing all the time. In fact the two areas may now overlap, leaving no acceptable weight at which a woman can feel comfortable.

4. Encouraging a ‘them and us’ mentality

Again, all spiritual traditions worthy of the name emphasise that enlightenment comes when we realise that we are one with everything – there is no distinction between us and the rest of the world.

Not so in ‘tabloid world’ – we are constantly encouraged to treat whole sections of society as alien and not really human. A long time ago it was Jews who were demonised (remember that famous ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’ headline in the Mail in the thirties?), later, ‘blacks’, Asians, gays and ‘hippie travellers’. Now it’s asylum seekers.

In The New Leaders, Daniel Goleman gives useful advice on how to distinguish emotionally intelligent leaders from manipulative demagogues. The true leader will appeal to positive emotions, while the demagogue will whip up negative feeling. In their constant appeal to fears, tribal hatreds and insecurities, the tabloid papers are definitely in the ‘manipulative’ camp.

The antidote

Pretty obvious really. Stop reading the tabloids, and watch less telly. Psychologists Robert Kuber and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have been studying the negative effects of excessive TV viewing (‘Television Addiction Is No Mere Metaphor’, Scientific American (2002) February, 62-68). They found that people feel drained of energy and have more difficulty concentrating after viewing than before.

“After playing sports or engaging in hobbies, people report improvements in mood. After watching TV, people’s moods are about the same or worse than before.”

The researchers suggest that the attention-grabbing techniques of modern TV – jump-cuts, zooming, sudden sounds and images – continually alert the orientation response (our instinctive response to any sudden or new noise or movement). In the past this response helped to protect us from predators – but modern TV overloads it.

Apart from anything else, if you are a ‘religious’ watcher of a couple of soaps, you will gain two to five extra hours each week if you stop watching.

(NB – The Simpsons is not a soap!)

Emotional Dumbing Down In British Popular Culture

One thought on “Emotional Dumbing Down In British Popular Culture

  • Enjoyed this article and indeed gave up soaps and daily newspapers many years ago for this very reason. I now just need to stop reading he comments section on online articles and some of the twitter accounts I follow as they are so vitriolic and so much anger, venom and hatred directed toward someone the responder does not even know. Judgement taken to another level indeed!

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