I have a shameful weakness for trashy Netflix-style revenge movies. The premise is always roughly the same. The film begins with some terrible act of violence committed against the hero or, more typically, his (sometimes her) family. The hero then goes on to visit bloody retribution against those who have wronged him. Think of Liam Neeson’s righteous fury in Taken.
What is especially troubling about this genre, though, is its disturbing use of morality. The initial act of savagery is there to provide a moral justification for the otherwise cruel and immoral things the protagonist goes on to do. And it justifies our Schadenfreude. Or, to put it another way: morality is dangerous. It can easily exist to exonerate great harm.
Which brings me, slightly obliquely, to Jeremy Kyle and his now cancelled TV show. I absolutely share in the moral condemnation of the programme: putting poor people on trial, holding them up to public ridicule, exposing their faults and family grievances, all for the titillation of a baying audience. The psychological damage the show did to contestants was long-ignored. And I choose the word ‘contestants’ deliberately – because not only was the show all about contestation, but also because it adopted the format of a game show, recycling private misery into the financial gold of light entertainment.
But the really terrible thing about the show is how it allowed itself a veneer of moral justification. It sought ‘the truth’ – hence its routine use of lie detectors. And under the pretext of this moral justification visited great harm upon those foolish enough to submit themselves to the cruelty of Kyle’s hectoring interrogations.
Why is punishment so popular?
Perhaps Jeremy Kyle saw himself as performing a public good. That by exposing the truth at the centre of a dysfunctional family he was bringing about some much-needed restitution. That he was the righter of wrongs. But as I said, morality can be dangerous. Here, it quickly became an alibi for bullying.
The relationship between truth and cruelty is a long and complicated one. In their brilliant little book, On Kindness, Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor chart the history of kindness from its Christian and pre-Christian roots, through a radical transformation at the end of the English Civil War, and especially through the massively influential work of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes.
“With Hobbes, selfishness and aggression were transformed from moral vices into psychological facts,” they explain.
Later with Adam Smith, selfishness was re-purposed as a moral good – a driver of the economy. By the end of the 18th century, apparently tough-minded truth-seekers understood human nature to be a form of enlightened self-interest. Kindness was just well-hidden egoism.
The historian David Wootton in his recent book on the Enlightenment has added further scholarly heft to this analysis, carefully charting the ways in which selfishness came to be justified as a basic truth of human nature. What we all really seek is Power, Pleasure and Profit, as the book’s title has it. From here on in, getting to the truth of human lives was always going to involve some kind of exposure, unmasking apparent virtues as little more than a nest of lies and self-interest. With Nietzsche, Marx and Freud – the so-called “masters of suspicion” – human nature is again variously revealed as all about (will-to-) power, pleasure (sex) or (economic) profit.
When did empathy become so dangerous?
So, by the beginning of the 19th century, as Phillips and Taylor put it:
“Kindness was steadily downgraded from a universal imperative to the prerogative of specific social constituencies: romantic poets, clergymen, charity-workers and above all women. By the end of the Victorian period, kindness had been largely feminized, ghetto-ized into a womanly sphere of feeling and behaviour where it has remained, with some notable exceptions, ever since.”
My beef with The Jeremy Kyle Show is not just with its swaggering machismo, but also – and not unconnected – with its total lack of kindness and human sympathy. It imagined working-class life as a Hobbsian war of all against all, a clash of grubby selfishnesses just waiting to be exposed by the fearless truth seeker. Kyle was never kind because kindness is a mug’s game, a sentimentalised simulacrum of benevolence that does nothing to uncover the grubby motives that are at the heart of human motivation.
And Kyle is hardly alone. With the advent of social media, we have experienced an epidemic of unkindness. The public sphere has come to be dominated by a digital swamp of Hobbesian contestation that presumes little good in our adversaries, forever seeking to expose the fundamental mischief that the other is up to.
Likewise, justified by the desire to expose, the political columnist is forever seeking to tell a grubby truth about opponents. According to a recent Nick Cohen column, for instance, The Brexit party candidate Claire Fox is “one of the most immoral people in public life”. I know her pretty well. She is clearly nothing of the sort. But Cohen just throws out this sort of nasty pseudo-exposure under the guise of a blanket assumption that he is exposing some hideous deceit. This is just flat out nastiness. As if kindness has no place in copy.
Why is the ascription of good motivations to people so often regarded as something credulous? When, for instance, do we ever seek to unmask people as being surprisingly good-natured?
I am delighted that The Jeremy Kyle Show has been axed. But there is something more to consider here than the demise of a popular daytime TV show. For so much of our public life has become dominated with Kyle-like presumptions.
Whatever happened to TV's working-class heroes?
Philosophically, we have been led into a trap. On top of the basic necessities, what most of us want out of life is kindness and fellow feeling. Yet we sabotage our own desire for a kinder world because we have all been sold the idea that human beings are all at war with each other.
It is a theme that Adam Phillips regularly returns to in his writing. We all want a kinder world, but are often just too frightened by the demands that kindness makes upon us – the demand that we expose and acknowledge our need for, and dependency upon, other people. For by admitting that we have a lack that only other people are capable of meeting, we acknowledge a great vulnerability within ourselves.
We are so frightened by this vulnerability that we prefer to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Thus we make war on the very thing that could ever make is genuinely happy: the love and kindness of others and our need for it.
So perhaps ITV should be persuaded to develop the very opposite of The Jeremy Kyle Show. Not one in which people are exposed as nasty and selfish. But one where people who pretend to be hard and unconcerned are coaxed into admitting their own need for other people, their own love and kindness. Now that would be a show worth watching.