Last night I found myself in front of the TV munching on some popcorn while chanting JERRY! JERRY! I was cheering while two midgets who were covered in wedding cake were beating each other silly on the "Jerry Springer Show". The episode was called "Attack of the Little People" and the two small men were fighting because one of them -- who had planned to get married on the Springer show -- had just found out that his best friend, also a little man, had been sleeping with his bride to be. When the affair was revealed to the bridegroom, he threw his best friend into the wedding cake provided free of charge by the magnanimous "Jerry Springer Show".
Although I am embarrassed to admit that I was even watching this fiasco, my shame is dulled by the fact that I know that everyone else was watching also. Jerry has surpassed Oprah to take the coveted number one position in the "talk show" ratings, and so although no one likes to admit it, someone has to be watching.
I was cheering while two midgets who were covered in wedding cake were beating each other silly on the Jerry Springer show.
As I was watching these midgets score blows on one another, I could actually feel myself getting dumber. The frequent camera shots of the audience cheering them on with glee were equally depressing.
The audience brought to mind the haunting image of a Roman Coliseum where people would cheer as gladiators fought to the death for the enjoyment of the spectators. Was I any better, cheering while these people were being humiliated and their lives ruined on international television?
Judaism teaches that embarrassment is, in a sense, equivalent to death. Therefore, getting enjoyment from the embarrassment of another is like getting enjoyment from watching his death. Indeed, according to the Talmud, if you embarrass someone you have an obligation to compensate him monetarily, just the same as if you injured that person or damaged his property. (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama)
The Talmud cites a specific example in which a man embarrassed a woman in the market place; the rabbis declare that his behavior was tantamount to a grave sin and that the man was required to make restitution.
As I was watching these midgets score blows on one another, I could actually feel myself getting dumber.
This is what we TV-watchers tell ourselves so we won't feel guilty when we are sitting on our couches at home munching popcorn and laughing as two midgets throw each other across the set of the "Jerry Springer Show".
Now, I know what most people probably think -- these poor fools who go on the Springer show are embarrassing themselves voluntarily. They want to get in fights with one another and have their wigs ripped off before Steve, the off-duty Chicago policeman/enforcer comes to break up the fight. They want the question-answer segment of the show to turn into the "audience insults the guest until he cries" segment. They want to be the subject of talk at the water cooler the next morning, when people all around the world are asking each other, "Did you see what that lunatic did on Springer last night?"
However, the same story from the Talmud mentioned above addresses this rationalization.
The man who embarrassed the woman in the marketplace was sure that she was on such a low level that she would be willing to embarrass herself voluntarily for a little money. So, he waited for an opportune moment, and sure enough, she willingly embarrassed herself in the same way that he had embarrassed her previously.
So he went back to the rabbis who had ordered him to make restitution, and presented them with the above evidence, arguing that this woman didn't deserve to be compensated since she doesn't even have enough self-worth to realize that she was embarrassing herself.
However, the rabbis disagreed with the man's assessment and forced him to compensate her nonetheless. The rabbis rejected the notion that -- just because someone is less educated, or is willing to embarrass herself voluntarily -- this means that others can embarrass her, or get enjoyment from her embarrassment.
Perhaps the rabbis were also implying that, although though some people may not have a problem with embarrassing themselves publicly, they should. Furthermore, it is detrimental for anyone else's well-being to exploit or laugh at that person's actions regardless of how a person behaves.
The Jerry Springer Show might be just as damaging for those of us watching at home as it clearly is for the guests on the show. As much fun as it may be to watch Steve break up ten fights per show, while wondering if you're watching a talk show or a World Wrestling Federation match, perhaps it is harmful to us all.
The next time I have some spare time, instead of watching people pick up chairs and throw them at each other, I think I'll just pick up a good book.