Try as I might, I just cannot shake the anger and frustration that stirs in me each time I see hypocrisy writ large. And this week I have seen it. It hit a crescendo yesterday (Janaury 11, 2015) when I saw the scenes of the estimated 3 million people, including world leaders, uniting in a rally of love and peace in Paris. Across the world, in other major cities including here in Toronto, similar rallies were led in solidarity. All this in support of the massacred at the Paris headquarters of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Add to this the fact that every day for the last week my Facebook newsfeed has been cluttered with pictures of individuals holding “I am Charlie Hebdo” signs. And let’s not forget the ubiquitous hashtag bravery (if I may borrow a phrase from Rex Murphy’s January 10, 2015 National Post column) of “#we are Charlie Hebdo" currently infecting the Twittersphere.
Time and again in recent years, from Benghazi to Joseph Kony to Boko Harum, to Syria, Israel, Gaza, and now on to Paris, those of us in free and democratic Western societies wake up to the terror and the atrocities in the world after a catastrophic event just long enough to copy, paste, post, repost, tweet and Instagram our “support” for the cause in question and/or the victims of the injustice. Then a celebrity dies, or is accused of some historic crime, and our focus immediately shifts- either to an outpouring of faux emotion for a stranger whose death moves us to crocodile tears more than one in our own extended family, or to mock outrage as we look down our collective noses at the alleged moral failings of the celebrity in question. A few days later, we all go back to sleep while the real problems in the world continue unabated.
There are evil people in the world. People whose religious zealotry incites them to kill all those who do not believe as they do. We all know that in every religion there are extremists. We also know instinctively that wherever an extremist act is carried out in the name of a particular god that the majority of believers in that god have no part of it. Pundits and their supporters on both the Left and the Right get it wrong. When talking of the recent spate of attacks clearly perpetrated by extremist Muslims, the Left bends over backwards to ensure we don’t offend the innocent Muslims, forgetting that if they are rational moderates then they won’t be offended. The Right, on the other hand, expects every act of Islamic violence to be condemned by the moderate Muslims. Why? Again, the innocents and moderates have nothing to apologize for. All of humanity should be condemning acts of violence that do not accord with our principles of freedom and democracy, regardless of our religious beliefs or those of the perpetrators.
There is hunger in the world. There is deadly disease in the world. There is crime in our own neighbourhoods. There is poverty. There is racism, sexism, and homophobia, despite all the advances we have made in terms of human rights. Sadly, hashtags and tweets and Facebook posts won’t solve a damn thing.
Let’s talk about the the fact that France created a culture where radicalism was allowed to thrive. Let’s talk about the fact that in Canada we too are allowing, as a result of our mainstream media, our universities, and our government policies, a culture where everyone hides behind political correctness on the left, or “conservatism” and “traditional values” on the right (again, Rex Murphy puts this much more eloquently than I in his aforementioned column).
Our democratically elected governments respond either by refusing to act for fear of being seen to be jumping to conclusions, or by passing laws which restrict the liberty of everyone in the name of security (but which provide only the illusion thereof). In this the governments of the Western world and the punditry of the North American media have much in common. A narrow world-view of either left or right, black or white.
Governments should not be cowed to inaction out of political fear, nor should they over-react out of physical fear. We must elect leaders who will not bend to either fear of terror or fear of censure. We must also demand of our media an equally nuanced approach that by now seems anachronistic and downright quaint- a news media that deals in facts, not in speculation; in delivering news, not spectacle.
But we must ask the most of ourselves as individuals. We must stop pretending to care and show our moral fibre and “bravery” (is there a more overused word in the English language?) by our social media presence. We must stop pretending that we really care when our average focus on these issues, many centuries old, is measured in mere news cycles, after several of which a new celebrity sex tape will exorcise all the caring and tragedy from the headlines.
Let’s stop using our social media selves to show our solidarity with the cause du jour. If we really want to be brave, if we really want to care, let’s start using this incredible new technology at our fingertips and in our pockets to have an intelligent dialogue, without invective, rhetoric, and personal affront, to better understand what is really going on the world. Let us use it to educate ourselves and to try and find a way that those of us who really care might, individually or collectively, might make a difference.
Wednesday, 28 May 2014
I have been meaning to write a blog for some time now on the troubles facing the Mayor of Toronto, for reasons that have nothing to do with politics. For starters, I was appalled by all the TMZ-like coverage of Rob Ford’s every move and all the second guessing as to whether he is really in rehab and if so, where? I am equally disgusted by the Mayor’s tweet from rehab about how “amazing” it was and his interview with a US radio show where he suggested that rehab “reminded (him) of football camp”. And don’t even get me started on his inner circle, who seem more desirous of enabling him for their own political gain than genuinely trying to help him kill the demon before it kills him. Yet I wasn’t motivated to write this article just for the sake of calling out the Mayor, his family, and the press. There was more to my thinking, and today I am motivated to write because I have been touched by the deaths of two individuals in the last week whose addictions were the certain cause of their deaths. First, the husband of an old friend. He, I did not know at all. But very sad to me nonetheless since I have known the wife very well for many years, and am heartbroken by her anguish yet helpless to make her pain subside. Then two days ago I awake to a text that C, one of my dearest friends for the last 15 years essentially drank himself to death. The saddest thing about this latter death is that I saw it coming even as I, along with C’s other loved ones, made enormous attempts in the last few months to help my friend get his life in order.
The hallmark of addiction is that one continues to feed the beast even in the face of one’s life falling apart. Despite the consequences, the addict continues to lie to his family, his friends, his workplace colleagues, and most significantly, to himself. In this regard all addicts, male and female, young and old, are alike. It doesn’t matter if the addiction is to drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, food or anything else. Often, but not always, one of these addictions has a symbiotic relationship with one or more of the others. While depression may not be the root cause of addiction (there is much research which suggests that that there is a genetic predisposition to addiction, particularly as regards drugs and/or alcohol), almost all addicts by the time they are in the throes of their addiction suffer from severe depression. At some point the substance of choice becomes a way to manage the depression, the emptiness, the loneliness. The worst thing for an addict is being idle. The lack of structure and time on an addict’s hands mean only one thing- the addict will use. If there is anything worse than idleness for an addict it is when those around him enable him in the face of uncontroverted proof of his addiction. I use the pronoun “he” because the addicts referred to in this article are male, but make no mistake that women are just as likely to be addicts.
I know of what I speak about these matters, having been an addict myself. What began as a way to treat the pain of my severe migraines in 2003 ultimately became, by 2007, a full-fledged addiction to prescription narcotics. I lied when my ex-wife called me on it. I lied to my doctors (yes, doctors- I had many of them- all the better to get more pills). I was confronted with a mini-intervention of sorts by two friends and colleagues who sensed something was amiss. I lied my way out of it and immediately went to yet another doctor to obtain yet another prescription for more Oxycontin which could be crushed, chewed or snorted for the next high. Mostly I lied to myself, thought I was managing, thought nobody knew. Even convinced myself I wasn’t an addict. Even throughout a 2 year period when I was probably never not buzzed. Even as my life fell apart- even as my marriage ended; even as I couldn’t care for my children; even as I became inattentive to my clients and started getting complaints to the Law Society; even as my bank account became increasingly empty with less and less new client retainers to replenish it; even as my health was failing and my naturally thin self lost a terrifying 35 pounds; even as I slept 12 to 18 hours a day but suffered a constant malaise; even as I lost joy in absolutely everything I formerly loved so much. And yet I was lucky, although at the time I didn’t realize it, because I was surrounded by people who loved me, who knew I was struggling, and who only wanted to help. And they tried. My friends, my family, my professional colleagues. Not their fault at the time that they had no effect, It wasn’t until one day when I had an epiphany. At that moment, in early 2009, I accepted my disease and committed to getting help. At that moment, I realized I had fallen into a pit of despair and hit rock bottom and thus began the slow ascent back, a task that at times felt Sisyphean. This required me to give away what clients I had left and take a leave of absence from the practice of law. To dramatically adjust the standard of living to which I had become accustomed over the previous 15 years, To give up the 50/50 shared parenting time I had with my kids. To put myself in the hands of my family physician, my Ontario Lawyer Assistance Plan (OLAP) social worker and peer counselors, my therapist. To do what they said, when they said it, and how they said to do it. Not such an easy task for someone used to being his own boss for more than 15 years. I pushed myself physically, mentally, emotionally. I did the 12 Steps. And the pain of getting clean was like nothing I have ever experienced before or since. In the early days I thought I would never be free.
I know of what I speak because I also volunteer as a peer counselor and board member with OLAP. I have counseled numerous lawyers and paralegals suffering the same fate and been able to reassure them they weren’t alone, help them find the right place to turn for professional assistance, and advise them on how to deal with the inevitable practice-related issues that are often present in such cases.
I know of what I speak because I devote a certain percentage of my annual billable time to pro bono cases. As such, I regularly represent lawyers at Law Society discipline hearings, as well as indigent clients in the criminal courts. In my experience, the vast majority of lawyers in front of the Law Society Tribunal are not, as the Toronto Star would like you to believe, vile, immoral crooks. Most are decent men and women who suffer from addiction or depression and often both. And contrary to public perception, most accused in criminal court are not bad people. There too the system is burdened with a disproportional number of defendants who would not be there but for their substance abuse issues.
My friend C and the Mayor were the same. Ford’s current stint in rehab smacks more of political opportunism than a genuine attempt to heal himself. While the Mayor may come back from rehab somewhat better, I predict it will not last. His behavior, and that of his family since he went in, does not indicate a serious attempt at rehab. I hope I am wrong but as I noted thrice above, I know of what I speak on this subject. The Mayor’s family and political aides do him no favour by either explicitly or at a minimum implicitly condoning his actions and his refusal to get serious help. By contrast, my friend C’s family and friends rallied around to try and push him to get the help he needed. However, like the Mayor, my friend didn't want help (or believe he needed it). C put on a charade of wanting and needing our help, of seeking treatment, only to run back to the bottle when we went home. Or he out and out lied to us and told us he wasn’t drinking and we needn’t worry any longer. Of course, the one really being lied to by C was C himself. Some he knew may believed him. Yet, even on the phone listening to him earnestly trying to convince me he had been sober for 5 days, that he was going through serious withdrawal, that he was intent on getting through it and on staying sober, I knew he was lying on all counts. Yet until the addict stops lying to himself, no amount of outside help will benefit him. But to ignore the addict's lies or to turn away rather than to keep trying to help is akin to buying them the drinks or holding the needle.When my son asked me a few weeks ago how C was doing, I said I feared he was going to drink himself to death (not deliberately, but the end result is sadly the same). I was expressing a fear, not actually intending that my words would be prophetic. Unfortunately, I know of what I speak in these matters.
Which brings me full circle to what originally upset me about the tabloid style coverage of Rob Ford’s obviously alcohol and drug fueled antics these last number of months, and the “Where’s Waldo” game that the media began to play as soon as word spread that Ford was in rehab in an undisclosed facility. It may be entertaining to the masses, and sporting for the journalists, to treat Ford as just another celebrity punch line. Sadly, the major media outlets once again put entertainment and spectacle above real journalism and the chance to educate readers, possibly recapturing even a modicum of the public trust that they lost as they trailed behind another movie star's limousine. For addiction is not like some reality show you can watch for fun with your mates to satisfy your basest lowbrow desires at the feast of others’ misfortunes. Addiction is a disease, one which kills just as surely as cancer. Everyone knows at least one addict in their life. You may not know you know an addict but you do. Too often we look the other way. And to be fair, you can’t police everyone you know. And the addict must ultimately take responsibility for his own situation. Oh sure, many addicts blame their cycle of devolution on some sort of triggering event like divorce, job loss, financial stress, and the like. But the addict is the only one who can change his behavior. As a society we need to talk about these issues when they are staring us in the face as opposed to using them for political gain (as the Mayor’s foes have done) or treating the events like the circus has come to town (as did every major media outlet in Toronto and many around the world). The Rob Ford saga was a perfect opportunity for those who had a political or editorial bully pulpit to engage the citizenry in a serious dialogue about a serious issue which affects us all. The addict has family, friends and work relationships. All of those individuals are emotionally affected by the addict, and since they don’t live in a vacuum so are those around them. One addict can negatively impact dozens of lives. All of this leads to decreased productivity, higher divorce rates, more kids without involved parents…are you starting to see a pattern developing? It takes an addict, and only one, to destroy the village.
My story of addiction has a very happy ending. I have been clean of narcotics since January of 2010. The depression I suffered for years also magically disappeared mere months after the drugs were permanently out of my system. Four and half years later, I am now in touch with deeper feelings than I have ever known. I am happier and more content with life than I ever imagined. I am more engaged with my children, have a keener appreciation for the little daily things that make life great. I am a more focused and better lawyer than I have ever been. I try new activities and push the boundaries of my comfort zone. The anger and insecurities I carried for years into my addiction are no more. I am confident and secure. When people ask me how I am doing I almost always answer “never better!” and I mean it. I may look like a short, thin, bald, middle aged Jew, but I FEEL like Adam Levine!
The book on C’s addiction had a much sadder ending, the saddest ending of all. He leaves behind many people who loved him including his six year old son.
So, Mayor Rob Ford, you are the narrator of your own biography of addiction. As things stand, it appears you may only have a couple of chapters left to write. When I read the last page of your book, will it be you, standing proudly with your family, having overcome your addiction and discovered a genuine joie de vivre unmediated by drugs and alcohol? Or will the last chapter of your book be a eulogy read by your children? The choice is yours Mr. Mayor. I think you are likely a very good man who loves his family and entered politics for the noblest of reasons. The Rob Ford we have seen is distorted by his addictions. Will we see, and you rediscover, the REAL Rob Ford? Only you can decide. I mean really decide once and for all to make a clean break and get well, not like this present attempt, which is layered with a startlingly disingenuous veneer. Should you choose the right path, and there is only one right path lest you end up like my friend C, I only hope your “supporters” have the good sense to keep quiet and the media the decency to leave you alone to recover in peace and quiet. Remember, I know of what I speak in these matters.
Friday, 23 May 2014
Ever since Facebook started cluttering our daily news feeds with paid placements, there has been one product genre that seems to muscle out all the other ads. I am speaking about ads promoting products, seminars and business selling what I shall call “success without effort”. I speak,for example, of invasive ad placements for trifle such as The Millionaire Mind; The Secret; seminars for how to buy real estate with no money down; various weight loss fads; and online diploma mills masquerading as legitimate colleges. This is in addition to the dozens of books and courses purporting to teach one how to find and maintain the perfect relationship or teach you how to raise your kids like a Tiger Mom. And let’s not forget updated versions of the old Amway and water filter multilevel scams with juices and vitamins instead of household products.
While the ads themselves seem almost cartoonish in their simplicity, and the actual products for sale appear benign, I cannot help but be disturbed by two particulars of note: (a) that people I might otherwise have respected for their intelligence and good judgment clicked the “Like” button, or even worse, shared the ads on their own posts. This, of course, is exactly what the advertisers are hoping for, which is to create the patina of legitimacy as a result of peer endorsements; and (b) these ads are really aimed at the most desperate amongst us. And what better way to market to people’s insecurities than through Facebook- that great new social media platform where everyone else’s life appears more exciting and successful than your own. If ever there was a place where the putative cool kids shine and the insecure are driven insane by the constant bombardment of their insufficiency, Facebook is it. Facebook- where the cliquishness, one-upsmanship, and passing of judgment continue long after high school can no longer be seen in one’s rear view mirror.
These ads are in addition to the hundreds of re-posts of articles, videos, photos and the e-version of those old success posters, which like the ads seem to suggest that the key to success is just the right mindset.
The ads and the underlying promotions are not new. It is only the method by which the message is disseminated. Tom Vu had jiggly ladies on a yacht and fancy cars in front of a mansion on late night infomercials 25 years ago. Television shopping channels would never have gotten off the ground but for the various exercise and weight loss fads. Amway, the granddaddy of the success without effort school of sales, has been around for generations now, having recently changed only its name but not its insidious sales tactics. Self-help gurus are nothing new. Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, perhaps the template for the tens of thousands of self help books since, was first published in 1952. A generation earlier, in 1937, the “imagine untold riches and they will follow” school of thought was firmly established with the publication of Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich.
It’s hard to blame anyone for falling prey to the twin temptations of fame and fortune. The desire for financial success is ingrained in our first world capitalist mentality. Even in Canada, our greatest socialist thinkers were more often than not the scions of wealth. Speaking frankly, money does matter. It provides one with options and allows for a certain freedom. To those on the outside of the fishbowl, all that money and fame sure looks like fun. Celebrity culture has increased the pressure on women (and increasingly men) to look a certain way. All the while, those of us who are parents are all motivated by the desire for our children to grow up to be happy, independent, financially successful adults. We are equally terrified we will screw them up and as such yearn for any competitive edge that will give our kids a leg up.
Even as a young barely pubescent boy mesmerized by the charlatans on late night TV (amazed at their unmitigated chutzpah, yet grudgingly respectful of their oration skills and rhetorical flourish), it has been a mystery to me that any seemingly intelligent adult could fall for this clap trap. And just when it seemed that the dawn of the 500 channel universe and the rise of the Internet giants would quell the self-help beast as people pacified themselves with all that the e-universe had to offer, Oprah helped turn The Secret into one of the bestselling books of all time.
A quick search of Amazon.com reveals thousands of books on parenting, many of which offer conflicting advice. The same can be said for books on romantic relationships. As for self-helping your way to money and power, it seems that sadly with each new generation, the expectations go up in direct correlation to the decline of the work ethic. Factor in the immediacy of social media, the pervasive influence of reality TV, and an era in which advertisers often control the production of seemingly innocuous entertainment like puppets on a string. The result is a society where everyone wants to be rich, famous, thin, glamorous and live out what Robin Leach called their “champagne wishes and caviar dreams”. The difference today is that in the 1980s when Leach’s show aired, those lifestyles were looked upon with wonder and amazement, but always for entertainment purposes only. Today, too many people devoid of genuine talent and/or work ethic feel entitled to that lifestyle as well. Sadly, what is left is left out of the narrative of the rich and famous today are the years of toil and dedication, the sleepless nights, the financial peril in which they existed before the big time hit. Of course, with the advent of Youtube and reality TV, some people really do become overnight successes with little or no effort. But such success is fleeting. Real enduring success, be it career, relationship, parenting, business or financial, cannot be constructed in an afternoon like a 7 year old’s Lego creation.
Just today I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, a comedy podcast that often takes listener calls. At least twice a week someone calls in and asks how to “make it” as a stand up comedian. When pressed by the host, the caller inevitably admits that he has never even so much as done an open-mic amateur hour, and often has not even developed 5 minutes of material. A brief conversation ensues that makes it abundantly clear the caller isn't even funny. But that doesn’t stop the aspiring Seinfeld from seeking advice on a shortcut to the top of the comedy world from one who has made it.
The Secret, my friends, is that there is no Secret. There is no shortcut. There is nothing that will come merely by hope and prayer. Financial success will come with hard work and by being smart with your money. Education that will actually yield dividends will not be found on the Web; it will be found in a respected educational institution where entrance standards are high and getting through to graduation requires effort. At least in this country, one cannot buy real estate with no money down, and our foreclosure laws do not allow for below market value sales. Real estate investment is a long game replete with risking your own money and credit. And losing weight is, at end the of the day, simply what every doctor of repute will tell you- take in less calories daily while burning out more calories through exercise.
There are no magic beans, potions or secrets that will allow you to achieve your goals, be those goals personal or financial. Every one of us is able to achieve certain goals we set for ourselves. But we must be willing to work for those objectives, to persevere even in the face of the most Sisyphean challenges to our long term goals.
If there is one thing that I am trying to instill in my three children, it is the concept of grit. I want them to understand that they can achieve almost anything they set out to do, provided they are focused, driven, work not just hard but also smart, keep going when the chips are down, and never, ever, expect to achieve merely because they dream. And depending on the goal, they must actually possess some basic aptitude. I will make sure they know that they will not become rich by joining a multi-level marketing program, nor will they achieve their ideal “look” by ingesting some special formula. They will not obtain a career-making degree without going to school- real school and studying long and hard.
As for me, I will not be a better parent merely by reading a book. Parenting is the most challenging job of all. It requires time and much thought to do it correctly. I will not be a better husband for my next wife than I was for my last merely because I pick up some sound bites about communication from the Dr. Phils of the world. I must truly make an effort to listen with an open mind to the needs and wants of my partner. My future career success will not be an automatic merely because I have the momentum of past success. I must continue to dedicate the time and effort going forward that I have in the past.
So I guess what I’m taking 1400 words to say can really be summarized in 7: The Secret is there is no Secret.
Thursday, 27 March 2014
For the first time in the history of the paralegal profession in Ontario, the Law Society of Upper Canada (“LSUC”), the Ontario regulatory body which governs the legal profession, is permitting paralegals to stand for election as directors (known at the LSUC as Benchers). This LSUC board of governors is made up of 53 members- 8 non-legal or lay members appointed by the provincial government, 40 lawyers elected by all lawyers in Ontario, and now soon to be 5 paralegals elected by their membership. This is an illustrious event in the annals of the paralegal profession. Were I a licensed paralegal, I would at the very least be concerned with which 5 members were going to assist in governing my profession on everything from scope of practice to discipline. The particular 5 to be elected are all the more important on a board with significantly more lawyer members, many of whom, from the get-go, dislike, fear, and disrespect paralegals.
The voting for this election could not be any easier. All of the more than 6000 licenced paralegals in the province need simply log on to the website to cast their votes (each voter can select 5 of the two dozen or so candidates in the mix). I am one of those lawyers who has always benefited from a symbiotic business relationship between lawyers and paralegals. I regularly teach paralegal courses, write for their publications, and speak at their conferences. I was honoured to be selected to moderate one of the two major election debates between the paralegal Bencher candidates last month. So it saddens me, and it should terrify the paralegals themselves, that according the LSUC, with only a few days until the close of voting, that less than 1000 of those eligible to cast their votes actually did so. The actual proportion to have voted as of this writing is 13%.
My lawyer colleagues didn’t fare a whole lot better. In the 2011 Bencher election, there were over 100 candidates for 40 seats. There were over 50,000 lawyers eligible to vote by mail. At the end of the day only 37% cast their ballot.
This particular apathy towards voting within a fairly insular self-governing profession is not only disturbing; it could have profound results. The more interested and informed voters there are, the most likelihood there will be of actually achieving a governing body that is truly representative of the personal, business and geographic diversity within the profession. The more people involved in the debates and dialogues over issues of the day, the more voices will not only be heard but listened to by those in power. And most importantly, an active electorate is the strongest bulwark against the tyranny of the minority in power.
Regrettably, this voter lethargy is not unique to the legal profession. It is in fact merely a symptom of the endemic atrophy of voter interest in the public at large.
There will be shortly a provincial election. In the last such election, the 2011 vote which sent Dalton McGuinty back to the Premier’s office, only 48% of Ontario voters showed up at the polls. Federally, Stephen Harper secured his last majority government in May of 2011 with a respectable but we-can-still-do-better 6 out of every 10 of registered voters bothering to leave their homes or offices to do their civic duty.
Next to self-governing regulatory bodies for the professions, the single most direct impact any level of governing authority will have on an individual is at the municipal level. And yet, municipal elections have abysmal turnouts. In the last province-wide municipal elections of October 2010, less than half exercised their democratic right to select their local government. While I would not expect anything nearing the 100 percent voter turnout in sham elections run by the likes of Saddam Hussein, a turnout of three-quarters of eligible electorate would be more in line with what one would hope for in a vibrant, active democracy.
Not that any of this is new. I recall with a mix of humour and sadness knocking on doors in the 1984 federal election with the late Solicitor General of Canada Bob Kaplan, and us being greeted again and again at the doors with stunned residents who, upon looking at the pamphlet I handed them, would exclaim “oh, there’s an election on?”
I have heard all the excuses- “I don’t know anything about politics”; “I don’t have time to go vote”; “They’re all the same so why waste my time?”; My vote doesn’t count anyway” And every conceivable variation on these and many other excuses.
We live in what is, despite Americans’ claim that they are it, the most free and democratic nation in the world. We are able to elect governments from our small town local council up to our federal government. There are dozens of professional regulatory bodies in the province representing hundreds of thousands of hard-working, tax-paying professionals. For the most part, those in the professions get to vote for their leadership as well. Even the condo I live in has annual elections to ensure the board of directors is democratically elected. But we should not take this democracy for granted. Democracy ignored can turn into democracy denied. We must take to heart our democratic right to vote and when presented the opportunity, we must educate ourselves, involve ourselves and motivate ourselves to be aware of the issues and to cast an informed vote.
Tuesday, 25 February 2014
Whenever I think of reality television, I can’t help but laugh at the old Robin Williams line about Fox TV’s Celebrity Boxing show back in 2002: “It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there”. Oh, how prescient Mork was a mere dozen years ago. Today’s reality tv programming still has not brought us to the end of the world, but that brink is perilously closer than ever. I cannot fathom any redeeming value in Duck Dynasty, a show which glorifies such down-home “values” as literalist Bible thumping, homophobia, and passing off poorly spoken ignorance as “wisdom”. I have special disdain for Honey Boo Boo, which was a spin-off of a child abusing showcase entitled Toddlers and Tiaras. Survivor is barely a cut above the not long enough ago cancelled Joe Rogan/NBC venture Fear Factor, where contestants would eat live insects for a chance at winning an amount of money insignificant enough to underscore the fact that pride can be bought very cheaply indeed. But I wring my hands in migraine-inducing frustration at any reality show that involves dating, the Beauty Myth, or which plays into the wedding industrial complex. The Bachelor; Bachelorette; Say Yes to the Dress; Real Housewives of (insert city here); The Swan; Dr. 90210; Extreme Makeover; and the rest of their ilk, are not only devoid of any positive values but actually perpetuate dangerous stereotypes about women and relationships. Indoctrination through repetition of these negative representations will make it difficult for children, teens and women (for the ratings show that teens of both genders and women 18 to 49 make up the majority of these shows’ viewership) to be satisfied in real relationships with real people, living real life.
The Hollywood romantic ideal peddled to little girls through Disney fairy tales and as reinforced to those women as they mature through movies such as Bridget Jones, Pretty Woman, Love Actually et al have long fuelled the fantasies of many of their female audience. Fantasies where they will be swept away by the tall, handsome stranger across the room, taken from a working class life into high society, only to be romanced and ravished daily for happily ever after. (I note that the “prince” in these roles is never a short, lean, middle-aged Jewish lawyer. But I digress). The fairy tales and movies are just that. The youngest fans, the least discriminating viewers, and even those of questionable intelligence understand they are watching an artificial creation- that these are stories disseminated in cartoon form or by actors on a screen playing a role. Sadly, the current crop of reality shows- which by all accounts have spectacular ratings- combined with the constant advertising bombardment and in-show product placements, are selling something different. Not fantasy, but a carefully crafted misogynistic and often racist narrative. All women can be happy if only they are young enough, thin enough, pretty enough, white enough, and have a man who will lavish them in designer baubles. Is it really just mere entertainment? The constant message of reality dating and makeover shows is to reinforce the fact that our lives and relationships must always be exciting, perfect, fairytale like. That we must always buy the newest styles in order to be glamorous. Moreover, according to a steady diet of reality dating and marriage shows, why ever settle again? Arguments? Money troubles? Sexual dysfunction? Kids? Parents? In-laws? Mortgages? Careers? Homework? Dance lessons? Hockey practice? No, no, no and nope. Every woman can and should have her Prince Charming, and he will handsome, rich (maybe famous too). She will have lots of immigrant domestic help. Her friends will be lovely and glamorous. No nights at the local pub or watching movies, but a constant schedule of galas, vacations and fancy restaurants. Don’t have that perfect man yet? No problem. The underlying theme is that you shouldn’t settle. Instead, trade in your current shlub for the Prince Charming who is surely is just around the corner.
This is not to mention the subtle and not no subtle forms of racism in these shows. The contestants are almost entirely white. When women (or men) of colour are part of the cast of these shows, they are almost always there as some sort of token. And rest assured their on-camera antics will be manipulated by the producers to slot these token characters into any one of many of (white) society’s most blatantly offensive personifications.
As the father of three children, 2 boys and a girl, I worry about the effects of this media on my kids and their generation. I am concerned with how my daughter will value herself and what she will find important as she grows up. Will she focus only on her natural beauty, which is what everyone compliments her on, and end up basing all her happiness on her partner and her relationships? Or will she use the fact that she does well in school, is smart, curious, much too well traveled for a 9 year old, and has a preternatural ambition, to carve out a life for herself where she finds happiness in her inner self and her achievements, where she will look for a man (or woman) to enhance her already full life?
Even more significantly, I am worried about how these mediated images which portray women as only worthy for their beauty (although even that is held to an unrealistic standard), and who we are constantly told are backstabbing bitches, gossips, and gold-diggers, will impact my sons’ views of the opposite sex. My greatest fear for my boys is that they would grow up to be like the men who appear on the Bachelor or similar shows; men whose ingrained disrespect for women is exceeded only by the shallow veneer of faux chivalry that is trotted out at key turning points in the “plot” of the series.
I worry my children, who are growing up blind to the differences in skin colour and religious belief, will be influenced by the racist archetypes of reality tv producers.
My children see me surrounded by strong women who I respect. They see me surrounded by a group of ethnically and religiously diverse friends and business associates. They see how I treat women and people who may look different than I. I only hope I set the right example by making sure that I behave respectfully toward all of the women I encounter, as well as those whose cultural identity differs from my family’s. I hope they see this not just in terms of my relationships with those who are a regular part of my life, but also in my daily interactions with strangers. As parents, it is important to instill values by leading as opposed to just paying lip service. This is paramount because we all know the damage that can be done to young minds by media images and the influence on kids by friends whose own views are warped by the misogyny of advertising and reality tv.
Notwithstanding my vigilance in this regard, even I fall prey to the insidiousness of the beauty ideal. It has been pointed out to me twice in the last few months that when I talk about my boys, I mention their scholastic and athletic achievements, their genuine maturity, intellect and kindness. Yet when describing my daughter, it appears I often lapse into describing her first and foremost as “gorgeous” or “stunning” (which she is, but she is also brilliant, a competitive dancer, well mannered, excelling in school, kind, compassionate, and way too ambitious for her age).
All of this was recently driven home again as I am reading journalist and feminist Jennifer Pozner’s excellent 2010 polemic Reality Bites Back, a detailed analysis of how reality tv reinforces notions of the Beauty Myth, the subjugation of women, and the impact of how these views shape the expectations of women and men in terms of real relationships with real people.
To those parents, who like me, thought these shows were just harmless, mindless entertainment for our teenagers to chill out to at the end of a long day of studying, extracurriculars and part time jobs, I would implore you to read this book and reconsider. I am not suggesting the shows be banned. Television producers have a right to produce whatever they wish. They are neither educators nor governors- they hold no special place in society that should require them to adhere to any particular feminist or other ideology (as we know too well from history that is a slippery slope). Quite frankly, to expect some sort of communications laws to control the television producers is just an abdication of our parental responsibility. Nor do I suggest we restrict our children from watching a particular show because of our own aversions. But as parents, we owe it to ourselves, our children, and other parents, to be aware of what our kids are watching; to combat the negative effects of those shows with serious discussion; and to live our lives in a way which reinforces the values we want our children to develop. Only by making such a concerted effort will we ensure that these shows are relegated to mere entertainment with no ability to instill a misogynistic, racist, anachronistic value system on the next generation.