There’s a type of television that I really like. Morgan Spurlock’s 30 Days was sometimes dull, but mostly great. MTV’s World of Jenks is good, If You Really Knew Me is laudatory (if a little shallow and repetitive), and True Life is consistently watchable. Errol Morris’s First Person did an admirable job. The best interviews of Charlie Rose or 60 Minutes fit into this basic category, as can some assorted greatness on PBS’s Independent Lens and POV.
All of these, and certainly some others I’ve never seen, and maybe a few I forgot, penetrate some distance into what it’s like to be a person. Their formats, which almost never involve more than three people, and usually heavily emphasize conversation, require a certain frankness to be compelling. And this is typically a frankness with a wide array of people, frequently those not well understood in the mainstream. The conversations that make up these programs reach for, and sometimes achieve, a whole new kind of discourse.
The majority of TV, and at my bleakest I’d say the majority of people, depend deeply on appearances. Not merely in a beauty contest sort of way, but in a “I’m this type of person, you’re that type of person” way. That is, even when they aren’t directly making issue of the physical appearance of people, they’re making issue of the surface of them.
There’s lots of interesting programming on television about objects—appraising them, taking walk-throughs of them, seeing how they are made, sold, or discovered—but there’s little interesting nonfiction programming about people. What we get in that department is usually celebrity coverage (which is contractually obligated to be shallow) and cataloging of the sordid things that people do to each other. You have slightly better luck with people content in fictional programing, but even there a large majority of it is superficial.
But all those programs I listed above, they really go for it. They strive to ask the right questions to make people open like books. By forcing people to confront, face to face, people who disagreed with them strongly on a given issue, Spurlock’s show forced its subjects to really look at themselves and thus air that look back to us. By asking flattering questions, Charlie Rose has the ability to get people to speak frankly about their struggles. By never turning off the camera, True Life can show people at their most foolish or vulnerable.
These shows have, essentially, penetrated in an impressive way the human condition of those who appear on them. They don’t always succeed, but when they do they can achieve a magnificence much greater than the rest of television even tries for. They offer a richer and deeper understanding of others than many of us ever try to get from even the most intimate people in our lives. They foster an understanding of another that is massively valuable if we truly want the world to be a better, more peaceful and compassionate place.
In his book Being Peace, Zen monk Thich Nhat Hahn wrote:
When you understand, you cannot help but love. You cannot get angry. To develop understanding, you have to [see] all beings with the eye of compassion. When you understand, you love. And when you love, you naturally act in a way that relieves the suffering of people.
This is essentially, what makes me love these shows intensely when they succeed. When they allow us to see the deepest parts of a person, and allow us to understand them with the depth we understand ourselves, it becomes impossible for us to see their subject as “other.” The shows give viewers the gift of easy understanding, and thus easy compassion and love, for these people they might never have encountered at all.
Right there, laid out before us, is the strongest force in the world. These shows offer up for us an understanding of others that is deep and lasting. And such an understanding, if fully received, makes it impossible to hate. We cannot love someone we regard as “other,” we cannot hate someone we understand to be like ourselves. And so it is: the key to peace in our time is right there on your “idiot box.” And that is why I love these programs, these Covert Crusaders for Compassion.
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