Column from June 21, 2000
Copyright 2000 by Laura Hershey
I just found another reason to kill my television.
But I probably won't. For me, TV is more than just electronic entertainment. It's a source of insight, and stress. It's a 32-inch window looking straight into our nation's soul. I don't always like what I see there. But I can't seem to look away.
TV's latest offense is CBS' summer series called "Survivor." It's part of a strangely popular entertainment genre called "reality television." That's a misnomer: The central situation of Survivor is about as far from the average American's reality as "The Wizard of Oz." How many viewers can relate to the experience of being placed on a desert island with a group of strangers, and having to compete in various bizarre competitions like raft races and gross bug-eating contests? The "reality" part means that instead of paying actors, the show uses regular people.
Despite its non-existent grip on reality, Survivor seems to have caught the public's imagination, rewarding CBS with high ratings, aiding the network's financial survival. The show has become fodder for workplace gossip and David Letterman jokes. It has taken on a life of its own on the Internet, spawning dozens of fansites.
Why is it so popular? An exotic location, a diverse mix of personalities, cooperation and competition, winners and losers. It's perfect summertime fare, dramatic and fun, if you don't think too hard about it.
That's my problem: I think too hard about it.
When I watched the first two episodes this month, I could see those exciting elements. I knew Survivor would be a hit. But I also found watching it profoundly uncomfortable. At first, I couldn't understand why the show bothered me so much. My first, inarticulate critiques were that the show was "stupid" and "contrived." But that describes about 90 percent of what's on television. There was something about Survivor that disturbed me more than usual.
Over the next few days I began to understand my visceral reaction to the show. I saw a carefully-developed message emerging from the very first episode. It's a message that I, as a disabled person and an advocate for people with disabilities of all ages, have every reason to fear.
Here, in a nutshell, is the message: The strength of a group depends on, and justifies, getting rid of its less powerful members.
That same theme has been carried throughout the series. The point is driven home in every episode, quite deliberately and bluntly. Camera angles and music help to heighten the drama, evoking the prescribed mood for each event. Although the cameras do capture spontaneous interactions and responses from the island inhabitants, or contestants, or whatever you want to call them, there's nothing accidental about the show. Through explicit rules, elaborate rituals, and deliberate editing, the program presented to us is exactly what the producers want it to be -- namely, a tribute to our country's most punitive social and economic policies.
Blending sophisticated production techniques, Survivor pulls us, the viewers, into an adventure. Then, while it's got us riveted to the screen, it seduces us into participating in an insidious selection process. Ask anyone who has watched the show, what is the most gripping and memorable part of each episode? It's the "tribal council" meetings, where a group must decide which of its members to send packing.
The final vote, where one person is deemed unfit to stay, becomes the compelling climax of each hour-long segment of "Survivor." As each individual enters the "voting confessional," we hang on every word of their pseudo-private reflections. We hear them considering the undesirable traits of whichever of their companions they have decided to reject. They use terms like "weak link" and "not contributing."
This process of deciding whom to eject is clearly the show's main attraction. That's what gets people talking. The fansites are full of invitations to "click here and vote on who should be the next survivor to be eliminated." Viewers are irresistibly drawn into the Survivor dilemma: Which members of the group are assets, and which are liabilities? Who should stay, and who should go?
As we follow the series from week to week, we viewers are seduced into accepting the show's unspoken essential premise -- that in order for a society to be strong, to survive, certain individuals may have to be expelled. The process of voting people out is presented as harsh, but necessary. As each "tribal council" meeting begins, each participant lights a torch and places it ceremoniously next to his or her seat, while the rather obnoxious host of the show explains soberly that the flame "represents your life, your identity." Then, when the final vote results are announced, the unlucky outcast must extinguish his or her torch and disappear into the jungle, never to reappear in that community again. Thus, the weak link of the week is not only banished, but metaphorically killed. Their flame, symbol of their life, is snuffed out by majority vote.
My own revulsion at this show, I think, arises from my suspicions that on some level, it's sending a message that I've heard before. People with disabilities, in particular, have often been singled out, branded unfit, and sent away. Nursing homes and other institutions are full of people, young and old, who have been essentially banished because they cannot function with complete self-sufficiency. Rather than support these people in living in their own homes and communities, public and private health agencies, and even families, choose to relegate disabled individuals to human warehouses.
In some quarters, disability is seen as a crime deserving not only confinement, but death. Jack Kevorkian recently received a "citizen activist award" from a supposedly progressive foundation. His contribution to human progress? He helped to kill over 100 people, most of whom had non-terminal disabilities. It is true that these people requested "suicide assistance" from Kevorkian; but if they had been able-bodied, and depressed over some situation other than disability -- divorce or unemployment, say -- their request would not have been considered a mitigating factor. Kevorkian would have been prosecuted and convicted much earlier in his career, had he been killing the nondisabled. His victims were denied the equal protection of the law, simply because their health status got them branded undesirable members of society.
What does all of this have to do with Survivor? No one on the island has an apparent disability. This is a notable omission, given that the show's producers obviously put a great deal of effort and thought into creating a diverse group. The cast of castaways includes several African-Americans, an out gay man, a range of occupations from doctor to truck driver, and a group of hearty women who don't shrink from building fires or eating vermin. Given the difficult living conditions, and the demanding "challenges," it goes without saying that a person with a physical impairment wouldn't make it. Perhaps the producers wanted to avoid a scenario in which someone with multiple sclerosis, or blindness, had to be voted off the island. It would seem politically incorrect, and cruel. It would make the show's harsh philosophy just a bit too apparent.
Nevertheless, I am guessing that variances in physical ability will be an undercurrent throughout the series. The line between ability and disability will be thin and constantly moving; but contestants' survival will often depend on which side of that line they're on during that particular episode. In the debut episode, the democratically-elected loser was a woman who consistently demonstrated compassion and cooperation, but who sprained her ankle and fell during the group challenge, slowing down her team. From the moment she showed such weakness, her fate was sealed. Her companion-competitors started talking about how she was "holding back" the group. I will not be surprised if variations on this theme recur repeatedly during the series: If you can't keep up, you've got to go.
I can't help thinking it's no coincidence that Survivor appeared at this point in history, when powerful economic interests are promoting an agenda of scarcity and denial. Civil rights laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act come under attack as a threat to business growth. Corporate welfare subsidies enrich the rich, while already-underfunded public health, education, and income support programs come under attack as a drain on society. Increasingly, poverty is viewed as a personal failure, a criminal act deserving punishment. Discrimination is dismissed as paranoia. These attitudes result in denial of help -- or, more to point, justice -- to poor people. That frees up more resources for the rich and powerful.
Or, to look at it somewhat more optimistically, perhaps we are seeing a backlash against recent progress in social justice. The disability-rights movement has achieved a few modest gains in making society more accessible and accommodating. For every step forward, we meet resistance. Children with disabilities have a federally-guaranteed right to be educated in regular classrooms with appropriate supports; but parents of nondisabled children often object that the presence of a learning disabled student will detract from their own "normal" child's educational experience.
In the midst of these escalating social conflicts, there now appears a game show -- mere harmless entertainment. It's fun, gossipy -- so we don't question its underlying principles. But the rules of this "game" seem designed not just to reward the winners -- that's an expected part of any game -- but especially to punish the losers.
Somehow, I realized, this game seemed eerily familiar to me. I remember exercises I participated in during adolescence -- several times at church youth camp, once in a high school class -- called "values clarification." This involved a group discussion about making difficult choices in some hypothetical adverse situation. As I recall, these exercises were supposedly intended to help us understand our own beliefs. That sounds benign, even enlightened. But in reality, I remember I often felt deeply troubled not only by the outcomes of these discussions, but also by their instigation.
A typical example: My peers and I were told to imagine being stranded on a lifeboat, along with an assortment of strangers and a dwindling supply of food and water. Our companions on the boat included a young pregnant woman, a surgeon, an unemployed drifter, an elderly man, a Boy Scout, a woman with cancer, and so on. The setting and the cast of characters varied, but the basic idea was that some people would make it, and some people wouldn't -- and that it was up to us to decide, based on what we thought of the relative value of each fictitious person.
I never had much to say during these discussions. When they were over, I often had a queasy feeling that stayed with me for several days. I never fully understood why, until much later, as an adult. I gradually came to understand that these so-called "values clarification" exercises were based on a preordained set of values, which I could not accept. The games assumed that there weren't enough resources to go around; and that some people have more value, more right to live and to consume resources, than others do.
As a disabled kid, these assumptions -- and the conversations they prompted -- made me nervous. Perhaps I was already acquainted with the idea that some people just don't belong. Years earlier, my parents had had to battle the local school board to get me placed into a regular classroom, rather than in the stultifying "special ed" setting where I had spent my first two years. Since then I had thrived academically, and we never regretted the hard-won change. But occasionally I still found myself at odds with other people's attitudes. I remember, in particular, a journalism teacher who consistently discouraged my ambitions. When I applied to be editor-in-chief of the high school newspaper, she made me features editor instead, even though I had more experience and skill than any other journalism student. Then a friend told me about a casual conversation her mother had had with this teacher. The teacher told this acquaintance that I should not be in her classroom at all, but should be in a "special" school instead. I can still recall the horror, confusion and shame I felt when I heard her views stated so blatantly, even from a secondhand source.
Such attitudes have not disappeared. I continued to confront them as an adult. I once found myself debating the merits of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with a belligerent radio talk show host. He was furious that government dollars would be spent on adaptations like ramps, elevators, and telephone devices for the deaf. I pointed out that we all use structures and services paid for from the public coffers. I mentioned highways and schools. This really raised his self-righteous ire. He blustered, "The difference is, I am a net tax payer, while YOU are a net tax user!" His easy use of this terminology told me that it was not a concept he had invented on the spot; clearly, his worldview was based in large part on this neat division of the population into two groups: those who contribute to society, and those who only take from it. I might have been shaken by being placed on the wrong side of his harsh dichotomy, as I was by my high school teacher's prejudice. But by then I had developed a worldview of my own -- a worldview, shaped by the disability-rights movement, is very different from that of Survivor.
In the disability-rights community and other social change movements, I have seen genuine efforts to create sustainable societies -- efforts that could teach those TV "survivors" a thing or two. There are so many ways to contribute to a group effort, and every person can be valuable if given the opportunity. I've seen people with severe disabilities, who grew up in institutions, who were denied any chance for a formal education, who by conventional standards had few skills and no power -- and watched as these same people evolved into true leaders. They were not leaders in a competitive or domineering sense, becoming winners by making other people lose. Rather, they commanded respect for their own unique qualities.
Perhaps we all live on an island of some kind, with our own assortment of companions. On my island, which is to say my conception of society, everyone belongs. Everyone contributes. Everyone is absolutely necessary, until natural events or their own choices take them somewhere else. Some of them earn admiration for their devotion to the cause, their willingness to perform seemingly "menial" tasks with good humor and utmost dignity, to help the success of a campaign. Some find and nurture innate talents for art or music or political theory, and use those talents to strengthen their communities. Some simply live their lives, defying all attempts to exclude or marginalize them, and in doing so they model an ideal to which we can all aspire; this may be the greatest contribution of all.
Communities aren't communities if they exclude anyone. It isn't physical prowess or cutthroat competition that makes a society strong; it's solidarity, the ability and willingness to include everyone in the ongoing life of the community. We're all in the same lifeboat -- planet earth -- and no one can be voted off.
Now that's reality.
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