A husband and wife are out for an after-dinner walk in their neighborhood. It's a little late -- about 10 p.m. on a Friday night. A car pulls up. Just a couple of guys asking for directions. They look college-age, harmless enough save for the plastic cup of beer the passenger is holding.
As the husband steps near and starts pointing them the right way, the passenger flings the cup at them.
Turns out it wasn't beer in that cup. It was urine.
The couple did what any of us might do if we were the victims of a drive-by pissing: The husband stood there dumbfounded and the wife screamed obscenities. She gave chase, trying to get the license plate. They then called the police, who were sympathetic and angry, but because she'd gotten only a partial license plate number, the police couldn't do more than keep their eyes open for a car matching the description they'd been given.
"It might have been a fraternity prank," says the woman, who understandably prefers not to be identified. "They looked about that age." Recalling the incident months later, she still gets rattled.
"It's sick. It's totally sick."
These kinds of jokes aren't funny to anyone but to the perpetrators. What's with all the meanness out there? Cruel, aggressive, hostile behavior has long existed, but probably not since Roman times has it been so prevalent, not as a means to an end, as in -- I don't know, war, maybe? -- but as an end in itself.
The economy is healthy, unemployment is low, we survived the dreaded Y2K Bug, and still our entertainment is dark, our kicks low and rude. It's like the higher our species goes up the technology ladder, the lower our threshold for entertainment. We asked a few pundits why.
There is ample evidence pointing to our collective penchant for cruel, curt, catty, cretinous, crusty, cranky, curmudgeonly, unconscionable and generally crappy behavior, and few clear explanations as to why it exists.
Some experts believe our collective hostility, aggression and increasing depersonalization might stem from environment, an inability to connect with other people, feelings of being trapped, lofty testosterone levels (hello, boys), socialization, poor mental circuitry, brain injuries, and the GOP favorite, family values -- or the decline thereof.
Take your pick. Much has been made in recent years of the decline of civility. Peel back civility, and you have a pretty good view of our dark, collective mean streak. It's there, heaving and sucking wind, black as a coal miner's lungs.
This darkness is reflected in all aspects of media, particularly television -- comedy shows like South Park, where the character Kenny dies each episode and returns each week, a cartoon thumbing his nose at those old critics of Roadrunner cartoons. Then there's The Tom Green Show, game shows like MTV's The Blame Game, "reality-based" shows like COPS. Then there's Jerry Springer, who not only belongs in a class by himself, but should probably be expelled. In radio, Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh are still going strong. And in pro sports, athletes fight, talk trash, spit on fans.
And it seems like all the time our threshold is reaching new highs. Commercials for the movie Gossip tell us, "You know you love it." 7-Up has turned the phrase "up yours" into a clever marketing campaign: "Make 7-Up Yours." On MTV's The Blame Game, couples attack each other for their annoying little idiosyncrasies, like drooling in their sleep, while a peanut gallery whoops and hollers. A recent Adidas commercial features Los Angeles Lakers' guard Kobe Bryant, repeatedly whacking back the shots of a boastful kid half his size. And it's funny. It's entertaining. It's marketing.
It's just that there's something a little bit mean about it, too.
Mean-streak entertainment has become our spectator sport supreme, our equivalent of Roman gladiators killing each other for entertainment. Some psychologists believe that, whether on TV or in real life, seeing the other guy get pounded, dissed, ridiculed, dumped, you name it, appeals to something primal in us.
We find the suffering of others comforting, says psychologist Robert R. Butterworth.
"There's a thing called Zeitgeist," says Butterworth. "It's the way things are." (Literally, it's a German word that means 'time ghost.' The spirit of our times.)
"There's something in our society, what happens when being mean and nasty is cool, that's a problem. So if it's cool to be mean and nasty, we're gonna see more of it."
"We have to remember," says Butterworth, "In the old days we lived in a society where people kept track of one another, so if you had a kid who flipped you off, and you lived in the neighborhood, you could knock on the door, and say the kid flipped you off, and Mom would smack him one. Try doing that now; Mom's not going to smack them because he'd be taken away. You're not going to knock on somebody's door because people don't do that anymore.
"We're all fragmented. ... when we're not all linked together, there's no social consequences."
Kids don't have to be cruel to be cool, but it helps. A recent pair of studies cited in The New York Times found that, along with the athletic, well-dressed, intelligent and gregarious, cruel kids were often the most popular. Mean and athletic boys fared particularly well.
Psychologist M. J. Hurd credits a lot of the free-floating negativity in our culture to cynicism. Meanness, he says, is a lot like cynicism. "Today's culture is one of disillusioned idealism," he says. "People have given up on idealism, and so as a result, don't expect much from others -- including the others in their entertainment."
There is a yearning, he says, for heroes, romance and drama, as evidenced by COPS and the tremendous popularity of ... Titanic. Yes, James Cameron's turgid opera above (and below) the Atlantic.
"Titanic, while not a perfect movie by any means, did have elements and remnants of the old romanticism; and look how spectacularly popular it was. People yearn and crave it like you wouldn't believe. Only most do not fully realize that this is what they want, and as a consequence don't demand it. The recent movie October Sky comes to mind as a beautifully done, heroic story, completely out of place in today's America."
Hurd, the author of several books including the forthcoming Grow Up America! doesn't see the lack of viable heroes as the only reason for our mean streak. Some credit goes to political correctness.
"It's a general sense in our culture that we can't and shouldn't make judgments -- not merely that we shouldn't be irrational or prejudiced, but that we shouldn't make judgments at all. This, of course, is impossible. We all judge. We all need to judge in order to survive -- to judge what career you should have, to judge what kind of people it's good to have in your life and it's not good to have in your life, and so forth.
"This sense that we shouldn't judge -- even though we need to judge and, deep down, want to judge -- creates a cultural climate of hypocrisy. In this social context, people like Howard Stern can become appealing. Howard Stern is one of those people who says, in effect: 'So you say we shouldn't judge? Just watch me!'
"Howard Stern becomes the escape hatch. It's like the person who retreats into sexual pornography when he's been sexually repressed for too long."
Meanness is a manifestation of our collective cynicism, says Hurd. "Meanness increasingly appeals to people simply because they've been led to feel that they must be nice no matter what the circumstances and what the price. If people felt more like they could be honest, though still rational and benevolent, in their judgments -- then you wouldn't see such a widespread appeal for meanness."
Like Hurd, Butterworth believes the hostility and aggression in our culture may be a result of political correctness.
"On the one hand you're saying that people are meaner, but on the other hand, people are still afraid to be mean, says Butterworth. "By that I mean ... being politically correct. Your behavior has to be so confined, and you have to be paranoid about saying anything, that it has to come out somewhere. It's like when you squeeze the tube of toothpaste, if it doesn't come out the front, it'll come out the side. And I think that's one of the reasons Howard Stern and Jerry Springer do so well: because they're opposite this sort of political correctness."
You can't talk about mean streak entertainment without talking about schadenfreude. It's an inescapable German word meaning, as Dennis Miller put it in The Rants, his 1996 compilation of monologues from his HBO show: "The malicious enjoyment of another's misfortune" (adding, "Leave it to our Teutonic friends the Germans to concoct an intricate glossary of pain terminology.")
Schadenfreude certainly explains the popularity of The Three Stooges. But it is also what allows us to watch COPS and other reality-based programming, from The Real World and its annual cast of back-stabbing, irrational idiots, to shows like Who Wants to Marry a Rich Potential Wife Beater. Schadenfreude is what makes us laugh like hell -- admit it -- at America's Funniest Home Videos, where the more pain inflicted, the better. Or when we read about the goings-on in rural America in the Enquirer or watch people air their foul laundry on Jerry Springer.
And who can forget the phrase heard 'round the land a few years ago: "I've fallen and I can't get up." Were we were making fun of the poor acting and cheap production values of the commercial, or the fact that an old lady had fallen and potentially broken a hip?
Closer to real life, in professional sports, don't you just love it when someone on the team you loathe fails to score, fouls out, maybe even sprains an ankle?
Or when you see Tom Green, on one of MTV's most popular shows, haranguing oblivious strangers by trying to sell them pizzas they don't want or trying to get them to take a bite of a sandwich made from his chest hair. Or when he brings bagpipe players into his parents' bedroom for a pre-dawn concert.
To better understand schadenfreude, we must look to another 50-cent word: catharsis. (Yeah, shrinks are smart -- that's why they get paid the big bucks.)
Catharsis is defined as "a technique used to relieve tension and anxiety by bringing repressed material to consciousness." it is also, says Butterworth, what makes us feel better about ourselves.
"When we see things happen out there, we feel better inside. I'll be doing a thing for E! on car crashes. I mean, people go and watch these car crashes happen, like in a stadium. There are shows that show this stuff. Because in a sense, when we see other people getting it, it relieves our own stress. We can sit there and yell and scream at sporting activities as well."
The gladiator games aren't the sole domain of celebrities. Gossip, pranks, office politics, ridiculing others and generally instigating trouble -- we're all guilty.
And if you've ever been the brunt of a practical joke or innocent prank, you know there is practically nothing innocent about "innocent pranks."
Dania and Bryan met two years ago. Dania had recently moved in with him, but his company sent him to Atlanta, so they now see each other only on weekends, leaving plenty of time for mischief in the interim.
Says Dania: "I wake up Saturday morning, April first, hung over, and the first thing I do is call my boyfriend to say good morning; forgetting the date. We hardly say hello and with this serious low tone he says, 'Dania ... there's something I have to tell you.' Of course I get defensive right away and say, 'What?' I knew something was coming that I wasn't going to like. I've expressed to him a couple times how I feel about men who cheat. I have told him that if he is ever unhappy or unsatisfied, to let me know so we can work on it or call it quits. But ... don't ever cheat on me. If you do, at least have the respect to tell me so I can make my own choice to stay or leave.
"He then says, 'Well ... last night while I was out with the guys, I ran into this girl I used to date ... and we kind of hooked up. I said, 'What do you mean you kind of hooked up?'
"He said, 'What ... do you want details?" Of course by then my eyes are tearing up, and I get choked up as I try to ask, 'Did you fuck her Bryan?!'
"He says, 'Dania ...'
"I asked again, "Did you fuck her Bryan!?'
"Once I heard that 'yes,' all he was going to hear was a dial tone. He couldn't even sit there for a second to milk this anymore and began cracking up and said, "April Fool's!"
"There will be payback ... one way or another, sooner or later, but I will get revenge! That was sooo not funny!
"He could have come up with something else," she says. "It may not have been as good but this was just plain cruel!"
Of course, Dania (pronounced Don-you) has cooked up something even worse for him. She has a friend who is five months pregnant. Dania says she will wait about a month, "then buy the old faithful E.P.T. pregnancy test and have her tinkle on it for me. I'll plan this for a weekend he's coming home, have the box on the counter and all. I'll have those tears rollin' off my face and milk this for at least 30 minutes. Make him go through the conversation about what we're going to do. Just to make it worse on him, I'll disagree with whatever he wants to do, which I'm sure will be termination.
"Once I feel he's suffered enough, then and only then, will I bust out laughing my ass off, like he did, and spill the beans."
It must be love. Or schadenfreude.