Playing with Fire

*Posted by Barry Creamer

Last week Mel Greig and Michael Christian impersonated British royals in a prank call to a hospital as they pretended to seek information about Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge. Since then there have been a lot of condemnatory and inflammatory statements, and a few conciliatory ones. It seems clear the radio hosts were as surprised as everyone else that the hospital actually did provide them with some information over the phone. And it is certain they were as stunned as everyone else to learn that the nurse who received and forwarded their call died three days later. Speculation that the prank call indirectly spurred her suicide appears to be justified.

 Picture taken from of the reactionary comments confuse distinct issues, including things like patient privacy, the paternalistic sense of Brits for a pregnant royal, the popularity of edgy radio programming, “innocent” actions with tragic consequences, corporate responsibility for employee actions (hospital and radio station), and last but most definitely not least, deception for fun not harm (pranking).

Each issue deserves fresh discussion in light of what transpired in the story. But the last one in the list is one which simply begs for the application of a proverb: “As a madman who throws fiery darts and deadly arrows, so is the man who deceives his neighbor, and says, I was only joking” (Proverbs 26:18-19).

The pragmatism of this culture has blinded it to flatly moral obligation. Drunk driving is regularly overlooked with a fine or community service until the driver actually kills someone. Then, suddenly, an act identical to the one which was only fined earlier merits years and sometimes an entire lifetime in prison. In moral terms it is not reasonable that neither the character, motivation, or behavior of the actor changes, yet the judgment changes radically.

The same mistake arises in this story. The problem is not that two radio hosts brought about this one, tragic result. The problem is a population which tolerates, overlooks, or even rewards this type of behavior. Specifically, deceiving people for the sake of a joke is an abuse of and wrongful exertion of power over them.

It matters little whether Greig and Christian lose or keep their jobs at the radio station. It matters little that people found out about Catherine’s state of dehydration (else the British media would not have replayed the prank call).

But it matters that this culture adulates those who play with fire and lynches those who burn things down.

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5 Responses to Playing with Fire

  1. Kirk Spencer says:

    Dear Doctor…

    Another great post. I’m glad you wrote something on this. I think it is an important window into our voyeuristic culture. I had started a post on it (even had a title “Punkification”) but I didn’t finish. I’m glad you did… and the reference to Prov. 26:18 is very appropriate.

    The surprising thing to me was that one day the shock jocks are bragging and the next day their apologizing to royalty and at the end of the week (because of the death) they are themselves shriveling in the humiliating “eye of Sauron” known as the worldwide media. In one week they went from boasting to roasting. However in terms of the details of the action, everything remained the same. The difference is that the wounds which are usually kept inside came to the surface. The transition occurs with the recognition that what we learned as a child is wrong: Not just sticks and stones, but words also, can “break bones” too. “Words hurt!” Its just that the wounds are inside (most of the time). And often times the pain of words and such humiliation of being punked increases with the spread of the story through the media, and this story spread far and wide. Even I heard it and that’s saying something. When I heard the Australian shock jocks ridiculous, overly-posh, hackneyed impersonations it was so over the top it was hilarious and I said to my wife, “Who would actually believe that was the Queen and Prince.” But there are still trusting people out there who are not as jaded. Their souls are much softer and thus more vulnerable to the wounds of punking and spreading the humiliation around the world. I suppose hospitals might have a higher concentration of these people who really care about other people. Not sure if the concentration of such compassion is as high among Shock Jocks. However at the end of the eventful week the shock jock’s mia culpa’s seem to be heartfelt, although I think that the “culpa” is much more far reaching than just those two. (As a matter of fact I have heard several other “stunts” on the radio that were much much more humiliating.) I think that media itself, with its carelessness and callousness, are also to blame. And even a world population (including myself) that derives pleasure from others humiliation and pain is to blame. The Germans call it “Schadenfreude” (Harm/Joy) which is now an English term and an English (and human) condition. Being entertained at the expense of others. It’s all in good fun until someone gets hurt (or their wounds come to the surface). Shock Jocks make their living off humiliating themselves and others. And they get away with it (most of the time) because we are so good at hiding our pain and because making people laugh pays in an entertainment culture, even at the expense of others.

    I also believe that the anonymity (pretending we are someone else while performing) that media and especially social media allows us to not only “reach out and touch someone” but also to “reach out and punch someone.” This is just one aspect of the “punkification” of our nation (and others). From trolling, to “reality” TV, to both adolescent and adult bullying… It’s April Fools all year around. This event also shows the impractical side of practical jokes with strangers. We have not earned the right to punk strangers and there is no relational capital to draw upon. Nor do we know if strangers “can take it.” Such hardness and schadenfreude that comes with popular entertainment is nothing new. Seneca spoke of it almost two thousand years ago:

    “You ask me to say what you should consider it particularly important to avoid. My answer is this: a mass crowd… Nothing is more ruinous to the character as sitting away one’s time at a show—for it is then, through the medium of entertainment, that vices creep into one with more than usual ease. What do you take me to mean? That I go home more selfish, more self-seeking and more self-indulgent? Yes, and what is more, a person crueler and less humane through having been in contact with human beings. I chanced to stop in at a midday show at the time of the lunch-hour interlude, expecting some light fun and witty entertainment when men’s eyes take rest from the slaughter of their fellow man. It was just the reverse. All the earlier contests were charity in comparison… In the morning men are thrown to the lions and the bears, at the lunch hour they are thrown to their spectators. The spectators insist that each, on killing his man, shall be thrown against another to be killed in his turn; and the eventual victor is then reserved for some other form of butchery; the only exit for the contestants is death. Fire and steel keep the slaughter going. And all this happens while the arena is virtually empty. “But he was a highway robber, he killed a man!” And what of it? Granted that, as a murderer, he deserved to suffer this punishment, what have you done, you wretched fellow, to deserve to watch it?… Come now, I say, surely you people realize—If you realize nothing else—that bad examples have a way of recoiling on those who set them? Give thanks to the immortal gods that the men to whom you are giving this lesson in cruelty are not in a position to profit from it.
    Seneca c. A.D. 50
    From Moral Epistles
    Adapted from trans. By N. Lewis

    Thanks for the excellent post…


  2. JL says:

    As a self proclaimed connoisseur of humor, jokes and all things likened unto, I am interested in this post. Pranks (defined earlier as deception for humor not harm), like anything else, should be weighed individually and not as a whole. You used as an example the drunk driver whose actions should merit similar judgments despite final outcomes on the merit that drunk driving has the same root – namely an individual chose to drive intoxicated. Agreed. A step further down that trail would be that each instance of drunk driving is attempted manslaughter or felony negligence since each act of drunk driving puts other individuals at great risk of injury or death.

    But not all “deceptions for humor not harm” are created equal. The wife that goes far out of her way to throw a surprise birthday party for her husband by the use of clever ruses would not be measured by the same standard as these radio DJ’s. Similarly, the family that insists in pretending in Santa Claus for the sake of their children’s excitement is not committing espionage. The focus on the neighbor’s ‘joke’ in the Proverb above should be that they were ‘fiery darts’ by their nature. The DJ’s did cross the line on this one not because of the final outcome but because their darts were fiery. But what if the DJ’s were calling to award someone for winning a contest they had entered, but initiated the call with a clever diversion prior to letting the person in on them winning? Perhaps it would depend on the nature of the diversion.

    My point is minor here. Your overall knowledgeable that we, as a culture, fail to use clear measures of judgment based on our particular feelings at that moment – spot on.

  3. Nice point, JL. In the broadcast where I speak about this post, I’m a bit more precise, making the point that the thing which makes the darts fiery is the “abuse” of another person for the benefit of the laugh. That’s why the proverbial person has to be consoled with the words, “it was only a joke.” I agree with your observations–and I don’t say that every day! JK. No, wait, really.

  4. Listener says:

    Hello Dr. Creamer,

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. My heart goes out to the nurse’s family.

    The excerpt from Proverbs 26 was helpful. As secularism increases, the virtuous living that is a result of loving God and loving neighbor is less prevalent. Take the bullying epidemic in schools right now. Youngsters are thinking about the pleasure they derive in bullying other students and they are not thinking about the pain they inflict on their targets. People need to be more considerate, period.

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