In the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink, the titular character prides himself on creating theater for “the common man,” unlike the many writers who “do everything in their power to insulate themselves from [them].” He’s ranting to John Goodman’s character, Charlie, an insurance salesman. During Barton’s ramblings, Charlie agreeably interjects, “Hell, I can tell you some stories,” before Barton interrupts him. His hypocrisy and lack of self-awareness is clear, and at the end, Charlie yells, “You don’t listen!” Set in 1941, the Coens pepper the film with references to fascism, most explicitly with Charlie saying “Heil, Hitler” before murdering a detective. Watching the film now provokes reflections on the recent election: The “common man” has been painted as the prototypical Donald Trump supporter, “fascism” stands to be Merriam-Webster’s word of the year, and the campaign revealed the depths of our echo chambers’ insularity.
We don’t listen. We don’t want to listen. The satisfaction derived from obtaining confirmation that we’re right and they’re wrong swaddles us like a mother does a newborn. It’s not just having a strong, clear set of principles that we rely on to guide us through life, but an unwillingness to consider opposing views that challenge what we hold as truth. Based on our views and the status attached to them, we carve out space in the social hierarchy, placing the rest of society in corresponding slots. Then, we search for those we determine to have similar worldviews, thus confirming our own. Everyone seeks to connect with like-minded individuals: Liberal or conservative, we default to our constructed intellectual safe spaces. We don’t like it when too many infiltrators shake our political, intellectual, and emotional foundations. (Yes, that’s right, conservatives: You want to be coddled as much as those whiny college students.) How do we patch up our punctured bubbles? We survey our personal versions of the grand social hierarchy and ask, “Who do I have to eviscerate around here to preserve my safe, superior worldview?”
Eviscerate verbally, that is. Merriam-Webster (writer’s note: this is not a Merriam-Webster-sponsored post) defines “eviscerate” as “[removal] of the entrails from; disembowel” or “[depriving] of vital content or force.” Week after week, magazines and websites write and tweet headlines about the latest left-leaning late-night host “eviscerating” our political figures when they do or say something perceived as corrupt or violating liberal ideologies. The hyperbole of the headlines transforms a critique into a verbal massacre. Evisceration is not just reserved for comics and satirists, either: In September, Sen. Elizabeth Warren “eviscerated” Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf in a hearing regarding the creation of more than 1.5 million unauthorized Wells Fargo bank accounts. Justifiably, Warren told Stumpf that he should be fired—he later chose to retire—and be criminally investigated. The clip went viral. Warren said to Stumpf what the average citizen could not, and enacted that fantasy of cursing out an elite figure for his or her wrongdoing.
Log on to Facebook in the morning, and if your feed is predominantly liberal like mine, you’ll see whatever the previous night’s “evisceration” was shared all over your feed—creating the illusion that we’re holding those in power accountable. Making mean jokes about Donald Trump, sharing John Oliver videos, and @-ing Trump on Twitter are not effective forms of social activism. (Clearly, as he’s now the President-elect.) Still, people continue to quote Trump’s tweets with sardonic or critical remarks for an audience of their like-minded followers. What is the point? Venting, sure. Communal grieving, okay.
Ultimately, though, change requires two sides—one to express dissent and protest, one to listen and change. The Clinton campaign’s failure to win in the “Rust Belt,” where nearly a third of the counties that went for Obama in 2008 and 2012 went for Trump in November, demonstrated the consequences of condescension (real or perceived) to those whose political views differ from our own. Framing political debates as a series of “eviscerations” or “destructions” guarantees a perpetual lack of nuance in national debates: For all their merit as late-night hosts—including their willingness to treat politics as more than an excuse for lame monologue jokes about Trump’s scotch-taped tie—John Oliver and Samantha Bee offer viewers a (generally) one-sided point of view. And so, we forego common ground for self-affirmation, only what we affirm through this rhetorical strategy is not our civil liberties or individual rights, but rather our superiority. We need comedy and satire, just as we need to preserve our freedom to express and publish dissenting political views without suppression, but as Jon Stewart admitted on The Daily Show in 2015, before handing the reins to Trevor Noah, “All my years of evisceration have embettered nothing.” More than a year later, the eviscerations haven’t embettered anything, still.
Roasting and mocking other people for entertainment is nothing new, of course. Just as we want to undermine those of high status to both bring them closer to our level and, in turn, bring us closer to theirs, we like to shore up our position in the social hierarchy. Competition shows, for example, enable us to indulge our critical side unfiltered: Judging is how we build ourselves up. That’s one reason why people fell for Simon Cowell back in the glory days of American Idol. Cowell was brutally honest, especially compared to the other judges. People ate up his frank, merciless persona. He said what we were thinking, but wouldn’t feel comfortable saying out loud in front of millions—most infamously and offensively, perhaps, when he told contestant Kenneth Briggs, “You look like one of those creatures that live in the jungle with the massive eyes. What do they call those? Bush babies. Re-watching that era of the show now, Cowell would probably seem tame, especially compared to the crassness of much reality television in the time since.
The public loves watching regular people put themselves in the spotlight and fail. Consider the fame of Gordon Ramsay. In season after season of Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen—it’s currently in its 16th, with Seasons 17 and 18 already planned—Ramsay berates the cooks in ostentatious and vulgar ways: .In between censored swear words and punching overcooked salmon, he calls them donkeys and stupid cows. The cooks often behave brutishly themselves, so you don’t feel too sorry for anyone. It’s the contrast between the British and American versions of Ramsay’s now-concluded Kitchen Nightmares, however, that may be most telling. In the U.K. version, Ramsay never screams or gets in anyone’s face; everything’s quite pleasant, and when he curses, it’s in lowkey, very British, fashion. The U.S. version, on the other hand, is loud, hectic, and ridiculous. “My Grandmother can do better than that,” he once yelled in what’s probably his finest moment, “and she’s dead!” Hey, if the participants didn’t want to be humiliated, they shouldn’t have gone on television, right?. At least, that’s what we tell ourselves: If we were in their position, we wouldn’t screw up or act like a buffoon.
If you’re tempted to label Cowell and Ramsay’s brand of evisceration mere entertainment—to suggest that, even at the peak of their popularity, the two men made no impact of note beyond reality TV—consider the orange elephant in the room: From a Home Alone 2 cameo to The Apprentice’s much-quoted catchphrase, “You’re fired,” Donald Trump deployed this lowbrow vernacular to win the highest office in the land. (In fact, MGM has announced that Trump will remain an executive producer on the series, now hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger.) This year’s presidential election is the logical, horrific endpoint of evisceration as American entertainment, and as such the next four years are unlikely to be a renaissance of bipartisanship and fruitful disagreement. So, what’s the solution?
As Vulture described it, The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah “thoughtfully confronted” Tomi Lahren, a millennial conservative commentator, on racism and Donald Trump when she appeared on the show recently: No evisceration, no destruction, no body-slamming. When you read “thoughtfully confronting,” you expect a level-headed, even constructive dialogue on an important topic—which is, in the current climate, a step in the right direction.