Jennifer Baumgartner

Jennifer Baumgartner Psy.D.

The Psychology of Dress

What's Scarier Than Halloween?

The culture of cruelty

Posted Oct 31, 2012

On the spookiest night of the year, we embody that which terrifies us to ultimately conquer our fears. Although explored on Halloween, fears of death, dying, hauntings, and evil spirits have not possessed our everyday lives as much as the culture of cruelty. Shaming and humiliating others was once part of the fringe of our culture. Watching exploitative talk shows, reading celeb tabloids, or collecting rag mags was limited to the checkout line, sick days in bed, or late hours of the evening. If we did admit to its consumption, it was only to friends or family who also revealed their dirty little secrets in covered whispers.

Oh, how times have changed! Just last week, an entire episode of Katie Couric was dedicated to addressing the culture of cruelty, primarily that done through all forms of media. From a sociological perspective, three major factors contribute to the increased incidence and prevalence. First, “everyday” people have become comfortable with exposure. We can see those like ourselves in their most private vulnerable moments…and they are able to make a very lucrative living doing so. Additionally, the greater their exposure, the greater their reward, especially if it involves self-humiliation or other-humiliation. As part of their new celebrity, these reality stars are open to as much anger, hate, and bile that their audience can inflict upon them…making for an even greater celebrity.

Second, we are able to participate in conversations that were once limited to reporters, experts, notables or other celebrities. Through various forms of social media, we can shape the course of a cultural conversation, and even become an overnight celebrity through our commentaries. As with our reality stars the more outrageous (often cruel) our contributions, the more likely we will get noticed. Our wide range communication, coupled with our ability to remain anonymous, has allowed us to vent our frustrations, irritation and hate with little to no concern for the feelings of the recipient. We not only depersonalize ourselves in the virtual world, we depersonalize the target of our rage making our cruelty responsibility free.

Third, we are living in times of struggle and strain. Sometimes finding an outlet for our stressors, whether on a celeb that is doing better than we are or another blogger, feels like an incredible relief. Our scapegoats are available to us at all times, they do not know who we are, and we can walk away from the conversation at any time. The relief from this outlet of cruelty can take on an addictive quality. We seek relief from something, we search for a quick fix that takes us away from our pain, and we feel reduction in pressure after we use. Sadly, the long-term consequences are likely to destroy us.

The impact of participating in and being exposed to this negativity seeps into our psyche. I have noticed that viewing or reading verbal or physical insults in the media, social or otherwise, has left my heart racing.  Like an attendee at a coliseum, I become enraptured, taking sides, angered, and experience a vicarious fight or flight response from just seeing, hearing, or reading the filth.  

If like me, you need to cleanse the emotional palette of ugliness, begin by examining if you are part of the culture of cruelty. Take inventory of your week's activities as they pertain to your media consumption or participation. How much of the negativity are you consuming mindlessly? Second, identify your triggers for seeking out these outlets. Has the consumption become part of an innocent habit that you were not even aware of? Or do you actively seek out these outlets to feel better about your own situation? Third, begin to examine the effects of consuming the cruelty. Like me you may find that you have an immediate response, like a racing heart, increased breathing, headaches, clenching, or disrupted sleep. Or you may find that the effects are slow acting, your anger increases or your tolerance decreases. Finally, if you are unable to remove this guilty pleasure from your life entirely, try balancing the scales. Increase the positive incoming information. For every negative item you read or see add on something inspiring or uplifting. If you find that the increase of positive media creates a ripple of happiness, add more each week to create a life full of joy. Then begin to remove the negative influences, you won't miss it as you have filled the gaps with the good things. So on this day of death and doom remember All Saints is just a day away! 

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