Responsum: Relating to the “Reality” Culture

Media and television culture has become one of the most significant influences shaping identity in 21st century society. Most people, especially young people, spend hours watching television and surfing the Internet, and they absorb the messages delivered by the various media outlets, morning and evening. While this culture brings with it the blessing of exposing us to a variety of subjects, enriches our knowledge, sharpens our moral sensitivity, and expands our experiences, it also presents a danger of trivializing messages, preferring ratings over quality, transmitting harmful violent and sexual content, and more. We are not opposed, in principle, to exposure to this culture, but it must be tempered by moral and halakhic boundaries.

Of late, center stage in the ratings has been taken by reality programming that is seriously harmful to society, primarily to young people, especially such programs as Big Brother, Survivor, and others. These reality shows include, among other things, competitions that involve physical challenges, food, social interaction, singing, and more. They are referred to as reality programs because they are meant to reflect unscripted, unedited reality, in situations created as the programs unfold. We cannot specifically address all the types of reality programming. They cannot all be painted with a single brush, and some have positive elements. However, our main criticism is aimed at those programs that are based upon negative values, such as: competitions in which the audience is meant to root for the contestants for their deception and rivalry, as we will explain below.

Programs such as these often give legitimacy to moral weaknesses and to the unbridled expression of negative inclinations. These programs reinforce flaws and deviations that chip away at the boundaries and norms of society. When a large percentage of society is regularly exposed to the messages of these programs, it may undermine public order by trampling numerous moral and halakhic values. This is what we wish to point out in this article.

Modesty, Privacy, and Intimacy

Modesty is one of the central values of Judaism. Modesty concerns codes of dress and of conduct, externalization of characteristics, and more. The purpose of modesty is to teach us to seek the inner world of the other, and not to be blinded by outward appearances. Programs that, by definition, neutralize every element of privacy and modesty, like Big Brother, mortally harm the possibility of educating toward modesty. Young people are regularly exposed to shallow culture in which the most important element is self-promotion, for which it is deemed legitimate to do anything and everything in public, including repulsive and demeaning acts that deviate from accepted norms. Encouraging voyeurism and the camera’s intrusion into situations that should remain intimate leads to humiliation, and is contrary to the Jewish conception of modesty, which is intended to preserve a person’s dignity and privacy. The mechanism of embarrassment that is meant to help a person maintain dignity is entirely neutralized by the producers of these shows.

Moreover, one of the values of Jewish tort law is that of “hezek re’iyah” [“damage by viewing” = invasion of privacy]. When we intrude into a person’s intimate space by looking or watching, we inflict a measure of harm. The moment the viewing public takes part in the cynical exploitation of the competitors by the television networks, it is party to inflicting that hezek re’iyah upon the competitors, because it increases the ratings of the program and its continued existence.

Sexuality and the Objectification of Women

Judaism attributes great importance and sanctity to the relationship between a man and a woman. Many reality shows deal with “love”, and reduce it to the basest level. Programs that match up couples exclusively on the basis of external compatibility, programs that are accompanied by vulgar sexual language, sexual harassment and morally questionable behavior between the sexes all undercut the deep concept of true love.  A large number of these shows actually deal in objectifying [=turning women into sexual objects] women under the guise of love. Such objectification can also seep into society and harm the status and dignity of women.

Culture of Discourse and Speech

Speech is another of Judaism’s central values. Judaism treats extensively of clean speech and of watching one’s language. Man differs from beasts in his ability to control his speech. Some reality shows permit and even encourage low, coarse speech in front of the camera, while exploiting the weaknesses and distress of the competitors. In some of these shows, one is hard pressed to find even a single episode that is free of obscenities and crude language. It is difficult to find any examples of true conversation or civil discourse, in the sense of real dialogue, attentiveness and listening. Continued exposure to such base language and shallow discourse undermines a person’s gentleness, and imparts moral and spiritual harm to society, and to young people in particular.

Friendship and Fairness

Some reality shows present a direct competition between contestants who are called upon to deceive one another and to succeed at the expense of the failures of others. The producers of these shows do their utmost so that the viewers will see “more blood” in the contests among the participants, and thus achieve higher ratings. From a moral perspective, this is no different from the coliseum culture of ancient times, in which the audience enjoyed watching bloodthirsty battles. There are, indeed, some reality shows that exhibit consideration and the values of friendship, and as stated earlier, we do not wish to tar all reality shows with a broad brush.

Greed and Materialism

Many programs are built around the idea of giving the winner a valuable prize. The contestants are not embarrassed by the fact that they are participating in a program that is entirely devoted to winning a large amount of money. They invest considerable amounts of time and effort, confront impossible challenges, and are often willing to trample a rival just for money. The continuing intrusion of this culture upon our consciousness is damaging to society as a whole.

Commercialized Truth

Truth is a supreme value in general society and in Judaism, in particular. The mitzvah of repentance is premised upon acknowledging the truth – confession. Diametrically opposed to this, confession serves reality shows for everything but the truth. Confessions are scheduled and commercialized. Producers of reality shows exploit confession, which is supposed to be a truly intimate concept, for entertainment and ratings.  The testimony of contestants about their feelings and emotional states while carrying out their tasks, the intimate conversations with them, and revealing their regrets before the camera are all commercialized and lack any element of truth.

Infringing Fundamental Jewish Values

Some reality shows directly infringe fundamental Jewish values. Watching programs in which contestants are forced to eat insects as part of the competition’s challenges, or competitions in which contestants prepare non-kosher food, legitimizes such conduct and abets sin. For thousands of years, Jews sacrificed their lives to preserve kashruth. We are not naive, and there are certainly many elements in other programs that are not consistent with Jewish values, but in the case of reality shows, each viewer is an active participant in promoting the shows by contributing to the viewer ratings, and in the satisfaction derived from a competition based upon something that infringes a basic Jewish value. As stated, this comprises harm to values and morals.

Conclusion

Reality programs erode innocence and educate us to cynicism and cruelty. The shallow level adopted by reality shows, and their aggressive marketing strategies, constantly introduce immoral and un-educational content into the social agenda. When every empty utterance in the house of Big Brother becomes a media item, and every elimination from The Voice becomes a turbulent focus of the week’s discourse, no less important than events in the Knesset, the educational system or on the northern border, social discourse becomes shallow and empty. The nonsensical aspects of the reality genre come at the expense of depth and values.

The viewing public must be made aware of the educational and value issues raised by this article. The matter should be discussed with youngsters who watch such programs that may harm their souls and values. They should be afforded instruction and given the proper tools to contend with these influences, and to understand the negative aspects of reality programming, and should be directed to the more positive cultural offerings of television, movies and the internet.