Kathleen Parker / Politics

Changing Channels

WASHINGTON -- No one forced me, but I finally decided it was time to discover what all the business was about Honey Boo Boo.

Even though I've made reference to the show featuring a former beauty tot, now 7, and her family, I'd never actually watched a full episode. I still haven't, but I watched enough to need a jaw adjustment.

Alas, a few minutes with "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" confirms that even mindlessness has its limits.

It gives me no pleasure to add to the ridicule of Honey, whose real name is Alana, or her family. That they have willingly participated in this spectacle -- and, one hopes, are getting filthy rich in the process -- is of little consolation. Far more offensive than the show is the fact of an audience.

Obviously, people watch because it is so awful. You can't believe it and so you keep tuning in. But is it right to watch? Only to the extent that it is acceptable to accompany strangers to the restroom.

Such diversions are reminiscent of carnival sideshows of my childhood -- the bearded lady (who perhaps suffered hormonal excesses) or the fat lady (whose rolls of adipose were spectacularly offensive and, for her, no doubt tragic). Responsible parents steered their children away not only to protect them but also because, we were taught, it wasn't right to enjoy the misfortunes or disadvantages of others.

No such lessons seem to prevail today. If we don't revel in the hilarity of poor, uneducated people, neither do we protest their exploitation. Our silence conveys approval while ratings disprove objection. Culturally, we are all complicit in the decline of community values.

Whereupon, we reluctantly praise free speech.

I, too, argue -- mostly with myself -- that we tolerate the worst in defense of the best. We don't need a First Amendment to protect the sublime or the popular, but to protect what is unpopular and, in collateral damage, the grotesque.

Of course, such notions originally were aimed at unpopular political speech. The goal was to liberate ideas, which is not the same as exploring man's basest instincts. One needn't be a scholar to infer that our nation's Founders were little interested in sharing the details of their ablutions or such bodily bloviations as are aired on so-called reality TV. Reality, after all, is what civilization attempts to mitigate.

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