May 4, 2015

Atheist Infighting as the Bad Reality TV Show We Love

Stars of the original reality tv show, colour
Stars of the original reality tv show, colour (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The thing about bad TV is that we do not always stop watching it even after we recognize it is bad. Sometimes we even end up watching it because it is so bad.

What is the appeal of the standard sort of "reality TV" that has been so popular in the U.S. for the past several years? The formula is the same - a diverse collection of people with personality disorders (or close to it) are thrown together in a house or some other situation requiring close contact. Conflict ensues.

Do we watch these shows because they make us feel better about ourselves? Perhaps. Or maybe it is something else. Most viewers realize that these shows are staged and not "reality" at all, but this knowledge does not seem to detract from our enjoyment. So what is it that draws in the viewers and keeps them coming back?

I would like to suggest that the primary appeal is the conflict itself. There is something many find appealing about the sort of over-the-top conflict depicted on these shows. Seeing someone with relatively few restraints get in someone's face and yell at them is enjoyable, in part, because we would like to do the same thing but are usually too restrained in our own lives to tell people what we really think of them. Seeing someone else do it gives us sort of a vicarious thrill, especially when the person being told off reminds us of someone in our lives that we would like to tell off. In a way, the dysfunctional personalities on these shows are freer than we are. Might this be part of what makes them attractive to us?

Try to imagine one of these reality shows being successful without the high level of conflict. I cannot do it. Can you imagine how dull and boring one would be? The conflict seems to be a necessary ingredient that keeps us returning to the show. In this way, conflict sells. It keeps viewers coming back to see what will happen next.

Could it be that the appeal of conflict - not universal by any means but shared by many - is part of why the public infighting among atheists is so difficult to extinguish? Perhaps the relative anonymity and lack of real-world consequences for bad behavior provided by the Internet, combined with the appeal of cartoonish conflict, bring us back to confront those with whom we disagree. Some have realized that conflict and controversy sell (i.e., translate into increased blog traffic); others might find themselves inexplicably drawn to it as a safe way to work out their inner struggles. And for some, the conflict is like seeing a bad accident on the side of the road. We want to look away. We know we should look away. But we cannot quite manage to do so.