I catch episodes of "Jersey Shore" on MTV whenever I can -- because it's hilarious, that's why -- and during a recent episode a powerful realization came over me.
I'd heard a friend complain that this show signaled the fall of Western culture due to its brainless, shameless exhibits of hedonism. Wondering about the validity of this critique, I started thinking back over various episodes and trying to catalog the instances of shameless hedonistic behavior I could remember. Here's what I started thinking of:
- Snooki and the Situation mugging for the camera.
- Pauly D. playing his music in a nightclub.
- Pauly and Vinny trying sincerely to fall in love.
- Sammi and JWoww fighting the best boxing match since Tyson/Douglas in 1990.
- Everybody dressing up, fixing their hair, checking themselves out in mirrors.
- Big communal meals, everybody cooking and cleaning (or not cleaning) for each other.
- Not much sex, lots of "smushing".
- Angelina having a full-scale freakout after the group ostracizes her, and leaving.
- Sammi having a full-scale freakout after Ronnie cheats on her, creating a drama that goes on to consume about ten hour-long episodes.
- Ronnie having a full-scale freakout after Sammi pretends to get revenge, and tearing all Sammi's possessions to pieces in an insane roid-rage, followed by Sammi leaving.
"Jersey Shore", like much of life, is about people working hard for little pleasure. There is a lot of drinking, eating, dancing and lazing about, but the behavior in this beach house is never shameless. In fact, shame is the currency that drives most of what happens on this show. The worst punishment is to be ostracized, and the worst insult is to be called fake, because the most important ingredients for survival in this rough party town are trust and friendship. Those who temporarily lose standing with their peers become instantly immobilized, confused, violent, helpless, desperate. Grasping for peer approval, it turns out, is the essential, endlessly repeating plot of this show.
Maybe two of the characters in "Jersey Shore", Snooki and Mike (the smartest two, the ones who figured out how to play the game), typically manage to keep their emotions in check and their heads above water. The others stumble and step on each other's feet as they try to negotiate their daily routines, needs and relationships. The common thread that drives all the activity in this show -- and here, "Jersey Shore" greatly resembles the real world -- is the search for validation, connection, approval, respect, love.
This realization, once it hit me, seemed to resonate strongly with a few different conversations I've been having about ethics, psychology and human motivation. We've spent the past three weekends on this blog discussing and dissecting the Ayn Rand doctrine of rational self-interest, and I've pointed out that the idea of a harmonious society built upon mutual recognition of each other's selfish needs just doesn't seem to ring true with the way we live, because our actual needs are the opposite of selfish. The needs that consume and drive us in our everyday lives are, in contrast, almost always "group-ish".
It's never easy to pin down exactly what we're talking about when we try to discuss happiness, or pleasure, or desire, or need. We often define pleasure in the narrow sense -- physical or sensual stimulation, a feeling of comfort or luxurious satisfaction -- and I think many of us like to pretend (to ourselves and to others) that we seek this type of pleasure exclusively, because it makes our lives and motivations appear simple. But even the most hedonistic among us are lying when we claim that we seek pleasure in this narrow sense.
A fabulous meal in a fancy restaurant is not nearly as much fun unless there's somebody at the table with you. Wealth is great, but the first thing somebody does after they buy an expensive new sports car or widescreen television set is find somebody else to show it off to. The doctrine of rational self-interest is revealed as a phony front as soon as we reflect upon the fact that few things are interesting when they only involve ourselves.
More than we crave pleasure, we crave connection. We crave identity. We can do without Dunkin' Donuts, but we can't do without the approval of our best friends or lovers.
This blog post began with a commentary upon "Jersey Shore", but it's meant to be the fourth of five entries in a series that might be called "Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong". I hope readers will agree that I've conducted this inquiry into popular ethics in a fair and open-minded way so far, and I hope I've managed to put down a few persuasive points (I've collected a few persuasive points in all your great comments to previous entries too). Throughout this series, my goal has been not to dismiss or belittle the Ayn Rand doctrine of selfish ethics, but rather to treat it as a serious doctrine with wide appeal, and to give it the serious rebuttal it deserves.
Next week I plan to wrap this mini-series up by presenting a positive alternative to Ayn Rand's approach to morality and psychology. If this 20th Century philosopher provided an ethical point of view that, I believe, leaves us stranded in a moral cul-de-sac, then which philosopher can we turn to for greater enlightenment? I'll spend next weekend's post describing what I see as the constructive philosophical alternative to the doctrine of selfish ethics. Till then, again, please let me know what you think of this argument's progress.