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Emily Bennington Headshot

Does Reality TV Make Us Stupid?

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I remember when the first season of MTV's The Real World debuted in 1992. I was 15 at the time and completely captivated with the true story of seven strangers living in New York.

It was rich with dialogue - that's right, dialogue - on heavy issues like gay rights, ethics, virginity, family, and race relations. (Remember Kevin a.k.a. "black people cannot be racist" Powell? Yeah, he's running for Congress now.) As far as I knew, none of the castmates were having sex - with each other at least - and, while the show was truly entertaining, it was also pretty... normal.

Almost two decades have passed since The Real World first aired and - incredibly - it's still on, albeit unrecognizable by comparison. Somewhere along the way, the dialogue took a backseat to hot tubs, public intoxication, fist fights, getting laid, and - the coveted end result - drama.

And it's not just MTV. Every channel, it seems, is lining up to showcase the very worst of human behavior. You know it's reached epic proportions when Bravo TV (home of the notoriously cerebral Inside the Actors Studio) splashes its home page with a sneak peek of "Vicki's meltdown" complete with a shot of Vicki - whoever she is - looking like she's ready to spit nails.

I can't even get through an episode of Celebrity Fit Club without watching Sebastian Bach about to get his "f- - -ing ass kicked" in a string of profanities that sounds oddly similar to Morse Code. Speaking of VH1, they did a decent job of playing down the fact that someone they cast in a show actually killed his ex-wife. Last time I checked, Megan Wants a Millionaire wasn't supposed to be called Megan Wants a Murderer.

So what's going on here?

And, more importantly, how much of this do we have to see before we all lose the ability to respectfully disagree with each other? Think about it: We live in a time with so little courtesy that it's okay to show a young woman get punched in the face on TV (ahem, Jersey Shore) and where people will give politicians more money when they yell at the President of the United States on national television. (Note to Kevin Powell: I think you have a shot at Congress.)

As much as we'd like to think we can tune it out, the true reality is that we are all cocooned in images of ever-decreasing boiling points. Since college is considered the height of the "formative years," how much of that is seeping in? In other words, when you enter the workforce, there's a good chance you won't actually put your boss through a wall. But even a strong desire to want to (reinforced by years of "seeing it on TV") can affect your behavior - hence your career - in very damaging ways.

As an author, I am often told to write with the best reader in mind. I view this as more than just a sign of respect for my audience, but as the ultimate benchmark. How great would it be if television networks took this approach and suddenly rose up to program with the best viewer in mind? I can't help but think they would, eventually, if we all channeled our new-found collective anger right back at the stations and forcefully demanded more from our networks.

But, then again, that wouldn't be very civil would it?