So I was watching this TV show, "Tosh.0." I'm not a regular viewer, but I was on a cross-country flight with my wife and our two small monsters, and the monsters had finally fallen asleep, so this was my reward.
I like "Tosh.0." The host, Daniel Tosh, plays a bunch of silly YouTube clips and rattles off a sardonic play-by-play. It's a show about the excesses of narcissism and self-documentation in the age of the Internet.
Anyway, this one segment came on during the flight. It was a home video of a kid jumping on a trampoline in a school gym. He lands wrong and his foot is suddenly bent sideways at a grotesque angle. It's clear that he's suffered a severe fracture, and the subsequent close-up shows us that the bottom of his shinbone is actually through his skin. The other kids in the gym, upon seeing the injury, scream and run away. It's that bad.
But here's the weird thing: Tosh himself doesn't seem fazed at all. As a home camera zooms in on the injury, he riffs on the kid's injury. "Sven is unbelievably calm for someone whose skeleton is exposed," he notes smirkingly. "Maybe he'll take up golfing now that his foot looks like a five iron."
Tosh shows at least one of these sickening injuries a week. It's part of his shtick: teasing people (usually kids) who get hurt doing something dopey.
What struck me about this clip was the reaction of the studio audience. They didn't seem to know whether to laugh or groan. It was an ambivalence that's become increasingly common as America's popular culture descends further into the astonishing glories of sadism.
Our national tradition of regeneration through violence is nothing new, of course. It's been around since the war that granted us independence. It's what made the federal army's systematic destruction of the Native Americans so gratifying.
It shouldn't shock anyone that the airborne murders of Sept. 11, 2001, became not an occasion for mourning and reflection, but an opportunity to reawaken our heroic killing spirit. Within months of that attack, Americans were cheering with gusto for events in which thousands of people — innocent or otherwise — were killed. Which is to say, for the two subsequent wars.
But those were publicly sanctioned, carried out (we were told) in defense of the homeland, as were the many instances of torture later revealed.
What struck me as I sat there watching Tosh tease a kid who may have disfigured himself for life was how much sadism — the pleasure of inflicting pain on others, or at least imagining doing so — now pervades our popular culture.
Everywhere you look Americans are consuming extreme violence and humiliation as a form of entertainment. Our most popular fictional figures — from Tony Soprano to Eric Cartman to Dexter — are all registered sadists. This is to say nothing of the sporting events and reality TV shows that showcase actual sadism.
I'm sure this makes me sound like a real ninny. Or worse, like someone who might advocate censorship. That's not what I'm advocating.
I realize that human beings have an inborn aggressive drive. It's pointless (and maybe even dangerous) to deny these impulses. Not every kid who listens to rap music with violent lyrics, or plays Mortal Kombat, is going to become a serial killer.
But it's equally naïve to suggest that our collective embrace of sadism says nothing about our national character.
Consider this tidbit, from Jane Mayer's terrifying 2008 book, The Dark Side, about the War on Terror. It turns out that top officials at Guantanamo gathered ideas about how to torture suspects from, among other sources, the hit television program "24." How's that for blurring the line between entertainment and reality?
For me, the real issue is empathy, our capacity to imagine the suffering of other people. Because the truth is that most of us aren't going to inflict, or even encounter, extreme violence in our lives. We're the lucky ones. If we witness violence, it will be on a television or computer screen.
The question will then become: can we experience the violence we're seeing as essentially tragic in nature, as another human being in pain? Or will it become just another form of entertainment, something to laugh at, or get our pulses racing?
I'm probably thinking about this more and more because I have these two small kids, and I'm constantly having to tell them not to hurt each other, to be gentle, to say sorry when they make the other one cry.
The reason that the "Tosh.0" clip hit me so hard, I'm trying to say, is because my son's sleeping head was on my lap. And if he'd woken up suddenly and asked me what I was watching, I can't imagine for the life of me what I would have said.