Ever had a sitcom moment?

posted 16 April 2002

Have you ever had a sitcom moment? I think you probably have.

It's a strange phenomenom of feedback from our own imaginations. Everyone already knows that humans learn primarily -- despite our best efforts at abstract education, almost exclusively -- from example, or at least practice. What we tend to forget is the range of things that we CAN learn, both consciously and unconsciously. We know we can learn facts and figures, we vaguely acknowledge that you can learn sports and other mechanical skills, and also that we can learn social skills. But we ignore that we also unconsciously pick up our entire repetoire of emotional and social responses to a very basic level; not just table manners and when to say please and thank you, but also subconsciously when it is appropriate to laugh and to cry, our sense of humour, our morals and our values. We tend to think that these things are very intrinsically personal, but this is just not the case. Racism, fundamentalism, egalitarianism, and democracy are all social habits that are not at all or at least not entirely instinctive, and we learn them.

And in America and cultures heavily influenced by American entertainment such as my own and, increasingly, the rest of the world, the continuing replacement of social interaction with televisual entertainment means that we learn our emotional responses not from other people, not the way people REALLY behave, but from television, specifically sitcoms which traditionally have dealt with interpersonal issues. These are emotional responses as we -- or rather, as the still religious-fundamentalist, puritanical and still heavily-censored American script-writers -- think they SHOULD be. This can make things very odd indeed: we have "sitcom moments" where how we act consciously conflicts with the way we want to.

For instance, I have witnessed a number of times the strange way Christmas has become treated. Previously, Christmas was a heart-warmingly hypocritical event, where family would sing hymns of peace and love and goodwill towards men while unendingly engaged in the same family feuds and squabbles that occupied it the rest of the year. Gifts would be given and rejected out of pettiness, and it all sounded, well, REAL. You can see people doing that. It's not nice, but it's believable. With the advent of sitcoms providing us with social cues, everybody tries to be friendly and peaceable and puts their grievances away, toasting each other and inventing traditions and like making eggnog for midnight. And the result is that everyone is miserable. We begin to dread Christmas and all our other holidays as dreadful constricting ordeals to be endured rather than a bloody good fight that everyone thoroughly enjoys as we used to.

And I think that's a shame. These "sitcom moments" are an insidious form of moral propaganda imposed upon us by fundamentalists and they rob us of our natural enjoyment of our lives. The next time you think "ooh, musn't say that, it's not the way to act really" examine it and make sure you REALLY think that, and not your TV.


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