Almost everyone I have a casual conversation with these days is experiencing anxiety of one sort or another, including the threat of nuclear holocaust courtesy of United States president Donald Trump, climate change, chronic economic insecurity or the housing crisis.
Every month features an article somewhere in a North American journal about the “epidemic” of anxiety.
Some of this we bring on ourselves, or at least feed the anxiety when we do not have to. We binge on Trump and hurricanes and the horror of the Las Vegas massacre, and every news cast has at least one report about wars in the Middle East.
But beyond the exposure to actual violence in the world, we also watch some of the most violent and dehumanizing television ever produced. A couple of series come to mind, including House of Cards, which never allows any positive sentiment to prevail, or even appear, except as a reflection of weakness and naiveté. The show is all about varying degrees of ruthlessness and we are clearly supposed to admire its star, Kevin Spacey, as a masterful practitioner of the Machiavellian arts.
House of Cards is not the only television series people binge on. Breaking Bad is another popular series praised for its high production values, writing and atmospheric tone. Its "hero" is a high school chemistry teacher who starts dabbling in crystal meth production and then gets deeper and deeper into the murderous methamphetamine business. He is one of the only television heros who is also a psychopathic killer.
But it is not only in television dramas where psychopaths have become fashionable. Quizzes on the internet tell people how many essential characteristics of psychopathology they have, and people boast about how many they can identify.
Boasting about your inability to empathize with fellow human beings is a form of madness itself. Do people really think immersing ourselves in this kind of culture has no consequences?
We know from dozens of studies that watching violence affects children who may become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others and may be more fearful of the world around them. Do we adults think we are immune?
Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh dealt with this issue while focusing on the notion that we consume this stuff and said, “What we consume every day may be highly toxic.”
We would not consume toxic food if we had the choice, yet we consume toxic television on a daily basis. If we are serious about our health we pay attention to what we eat.
Hanh suggests we need to do this with the media we consume. Does it feed anxiety and despair or promote kindness and compassion? He also poses a profound question for our society: “Is it right to allow people to get rich producing products that are toxic? They cannot in the name of freedom poison us with their products, films, magazines, books and computer games.”
Murray Dobbin is a Powell River freelance writer and social commentator.