Life's laundry cleansed in a public pantomime

July 21, 2006

I've a confession to make. Last Friday I took part in a recording of The Jeremy Kyle Show , perhaps the most strident example of daytime television's rapidly burgeoning portfolio of chat shows in which ordinary people discuss intimate details of their lives before a studio audience. Don't get me wrong - I didn't give an airing to any of my own peccadilloes. Academics are notoriously self-obsessed, but even I accept that there probably aren't many viewers who would enjoy listening to me agonising over whether my research assessment exercise submission is up to snuff, or whether I should have Xeroxed my party invitations on the departmental photocopier. No, I merely sat, disgruntled, in the audience.

One thing's for sure: that audience didn't behave sympathetically towards the guests or have an interest in working through the fine details of their moral dilemmas. What we have here is a pantomime in which the central players are everyday people. Whipped up by the crew, the audience enters a state in which it fails to notice that its simplistic "advice" may wound the vulnerable people at whom it is targeted.

When informed of the items comprising the show (a woman who thinks her husband is gay, a mother who suspects her partner was unfaithful while she was pregnant), the audience's response was not one of sympathy, shock or even outrage - it was excitement and titillation. While I cringed, around me people cheered, whooped and shrieked. Clearly, they had taken on board the "simple rules" printed on the back of their tickets (which include: "Don't be afraid to ask personal questions... it makes much more entertaining viewing!" and "This is your chance. Make yourself heard!").

Obviously, an audience looking for laughs should not be confronting vulnerable people with whom they have no connection. Their failure to see this could just be because The Jeremy Kyle Show attracts the coarse and the cruel as horse manure attracts flies. But there might be more to it than this, as some people struck me as neither coarse nor cruel, just misguided.They took their attitude towards the guests to be harmless, if not beneficial.

Perhaps the source of such bad faith lies in a contemporary (mis)construal of the idea that each of us should pursue the goal of authenticity. Kyle's mantra was that his guests should be "open and honest" about themselves and, no doubt, a life lived true to the principles one holds dear is to be prized. But it is easy for the pursuer of such an ideal to fall prey to the idea that it is always therapeutic to indulge in self-surveillance and self-expression, whatever the context. Committed to such a take on the slogan "to thine own self be true", and spurred on to behave mindlessly by the producers of cheap television, it is easy to see why The Jeremy Kyle Show would fascinate its target audience and why, once in the studio, that audience would behave as it does.

Bertrand Russell once said that we should spend less time trying to get in touch with who we really are and more time getting on with "objective business" in the world. We could do with a bit more Russell and a lot less Kyle.

Julian Dodd is professor of philosophy at Manchester University.

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