Wednesday, November 28, 2012

It's Not Just Celebrities Behaving Badly

Lately, everyone's been talking about celebrities behaving badly. From the Tiger Woods scandal to Lindsay Lohan's drunken criminal mischief to Mel Gibson’s racist rants and insane behavior, it seems as though there's never a shortage of celebrities behaving badly. of course, the reason for this is less scandalous and shouldn't be all that shocking: celebrities are imperfect people just like everyone else, acting in imperfect ways of their own unique types and varieties.

Whenever a celebrity reveals a less-than-noble side of themselves, parents scoff; society pounces, and their misdeeds become the fodder of news and talk shows. Yet everyone seems mysteriously quiet about another form of bad behavior broadcast all across television: the despicable ways in which society and the media at large tends to respond to such un-admirable behavior.

From a perspective rooted in psychological science, the bad behavior of people responding to such incidents often seems a whole lot worse than the transgression in question. We scoff. We snub our noses. We point fingers. We call names. We apply our own moral standards or personal beliefs to the lives of others. We self-righteously claim the high road and pretend that we would never make hurtful mistakes ourselves. We talk about how evil/horrible/nasty/stupid the person in question is. What's worse, such responses have become so normalized that people almost expect it.

There are a couple notable things about such responses. First is the hypocrisy. You might fool your neighbor with such finger pointing, but the research on human behavior exposes the charade. Do we really need to pull the statistics on how many of you cheat on your spouses? Yell at your kids? Get divorced? Hit your kids? Maintain dysfunctional households? Use (or have used) drugs? Have drinking problems? Drive drunk? Are verbally abusive? If one takes the time to tabulate the prevalence rates of bad/ hurtful behavior of various types, it exceeds 100% of the population dozens of times over. Obviously, each of us struggles with our own unique problems.

Aside from the hypocrisy, the more concerning issues is how these attitudes impact the absorbent minds of children. What does all of this blaming, finger pointing and condemnation really teach our kids? That when someone errs, the proper response is to joke and laugh and shame and humiliate the other while telling ourselves that we're good and they're bad; we're better and they're worse. Is this what you want your kids to be learning? that when someone messes up you're supposed to make a spectacle of it? that it's OK to be nasty and mean-spirited and spiteful, so long as you think you have an excuse for why the other person deserves it? This is what our kids pick up by watching news and talk shows. No wonder bullying in schools is such a widespread problem.

Amidst this sea of negativity, the only thing kids learn is that others will use your failings to hurt you, and you should use the failings of others to hurt them in return. Who's going to tell our children that shaming and humiliating someone tends to impede their progress towards prosocial behavior? That it only serves to alienate and divide people, rather than reconcile them? That people do imperfect things, and so will they, but what matters is not ones failures but how we try to correct them and what type of person they are overall? Who will point out that verbal abuse and social scorn is often more destructive than any other type of abuse, and so engaging in such behavior is abusive and every bit as wrong as what the other person might have done?

Who's going to tell our kids that when someone messes up, the right thing to do is to help them understand how their actions have hurt others, not rub the offenders’ nose in the sand? Who's telling them that reveling in the failings of others doesn't exactly make one righteous (only self-righteous: and that such behavior is itself injurious, and therefore wrong? Pundits in the media certainly aren't taking this approach. Rather, they are modeling behavior that is even more despicable than the sex scandals or drunken escapades of celebrities. This makes it all the more important for parents to aggressively combat this influence.

Forget for a moment your worries about what bad habits or unhealthy messages your child is picking up from watching celebrities. We're more concerned about what children learn by watching society's responses to these scandals, and you should be too. People are always going to be imperfect souls who make many, many, many mistakes over their life. This isn't news, nor is it even really a scandal. Yet if we continue to model such hypocritical and condemning reactions, the lessons our children learn from this is a threat to the very fabric of society. We're teaching our kids how to create divisive communities in which a Jerry Springer-like bully culture is the way of life; one which thrives off the hurt and humiliation of others. This is not a culture we should want any child to inherit.