You all know the arguments against Big Brother. You all know the arguments in favour of Big Brother. I won’t patronise you by rehearsing them here, each with its own bullet point.
Of more interest is the tone that airing these arguments seems to attract to a debate. Listening on the news to some bumbling MP prissing her way through the standard “shouldn’t be allowed” speech in the Commons, I was frankly embarrassed that anyone would air such an ill-thought out load of shouting in the presence of a microphone. Then I heard Peter Bazalgette, smoothly and lispingly dismissing the criticisms. He talked first about Channel 4’s pushing of the boundaries and then calling Big Brother “mainstream” C4 output: which hangs together, just. He was the essence of rhetorical haute couture right up to the point where he mispronounced “remit.” Mean and unsympathetic as his opposition, he was; differing only in his point of view.
Neither the misplaced, stodgy compassion of its detractors, nor the postmodern dismissal of compassion, of the validity of a compassionate outlook, by its supporters, really adds to the understanding of the underlying, fundamental social catastrophe demonstrated over and over again by this series. Big Brother is greedily munching its way through this horrible mess, while trying its damnednest not to solve, nor to suggest solutions, to a major cause of personal misery. Well, would you bite the hand that fed you?
The supporters/consumers of Big Brother—you know very well who you are—start off from this very knowing stance. There’s practically an online compendium of deconstruction on the blogs, examples of how to tear down any defence that might be made for ethics in popular culture. If you’ve ever argued with a sixth former who’s discovered that particular rhetorical trick, then once you see it being employed the first few times, like some universal incinerator of discussion, then you know you’re going to get nowhere.
It’s no surprise that, facing these nimble-footed flyweights, doddering old beasties like the Mary Whitehouse brigade are being punched to drunkenness, and now look like complete fools. Ageing morality, unrevivified by internal debate and self-doubt, simply can’t plod round fast enough to mount even the slightest of defences against this swarm of stings. And so the more vocal fans have gradually overturned very modernist, stuffy, irrelevant moral judgments about cultural content, and they’re now consuming the content feedstuffs of the twenty-first century.
But what’s most surprising is where this apparently forward-pointing outlook has led to. Postmodernism was meant to be progressive yet, in this case, it’s landed us in the eighteenth century.
Why, if postmodernist stances are the future, or are even simply the nowest of now, does Celebrity Big Brother continue to unravel like a Hogarth painting devoid of that satirical genius’ compassion for his fellow man? Why are we consuming this modern-day Gin Lane while refusing to invest it with lessons to be learned or reminders of our responsibilities? Why are students and the middle classes having “hilarious” parties dressed up in Burberry with their hair scraped back and wearing tatty Adidas trackie bottoms?
Why was Shilpa Shetty, someone slightly pretentious and snobby in a middle-to-upper-middle class way, included in the celebrity house? Was it actually to provoke the precise reaction that was seen, when the series-designated dumbo lower classes reacted in the only way they could: flailing, mediocre, racist in the absence of decent intellectualist or class-discriminatory ripostes? Would it have been better or worse, if they had had the vocabulary to be simply generically nasty?
Has the decision to include Shetty succeeded in its re’mit? Is Bazalgette laughing all the way to the next series’ contract? Is this really the best our society can muster as social commentary: a multiply participative game of Whack-a-Povo? If so, then it’s to be neither lauded nor condemned. It’s just pathetic.