Pop culture’s quest for nihilism leads to desensitization and inability to recognize evil

Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld by Thomas S. Hibbs (Spence Publishing, $23.50 paperback, 202 pages)

Nihilism has poisoned our culture and perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than in how we choose to entertain ourselves. The emptiness and nothingness of recent Hollywood films and television shows threatens to stain reality if we continue to ignore the warning signs.

Thomas S. Hibbs, an associate professor of philosophy at Boston College, uses a secular approach in his book Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld, to emphasize what’s wrong with popular culture. While Hibbs discusses the philosophies of historical figures such as Nietzsche, Descartes and Hobbes, he clearly demonstrates that it is Nietzsche’s nihilism that society has adopted as the norm.

Shows About Nothing illustrates how society visually absorbs evil through the medium of film and television. Hibbs says the desensitization of society toward evil since the late 1930s continues to get worse. He suggests that the social view of evil is not projected seriously enough and this has permitted Hollywood to interject heinous and perverse crimes into film and television to the point where people accept, even at a comedic level, evil as a normal and ordinary occurrence.

Having seen many of the movies and shows outlined in the book, and not recognized the subtlety of evil and nihilism so pointedly noted by Hibbs as prevalent in blockbuster films and award winning shows, I now realize that I too have been duped by Hollywood.

Hibbs gives adequate descriptions of the movies, and an accurate analysis of the main characters in each. The formula he uses for distinguishing the flawed characteristics of evil in each character is similar from film to film. It is the weaknesses of characters that make us want to love and hate them in films such as The Exorcist, Silence of the Lambs, Cape Fear, Pulp Fiction and Seven. The evolution of movies from films such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1938), where virtue and dignity are found in the hero of the story, to a film such as Silence of the Lambs (1991) where the element of evil (found in the character of Hannibal Lector) is seen as a sub-hero, a protagonist assisting the FBI in finding a killer, is a subtle progression that forces society to overlook evil in anticipation of something more depraved to come but which inevitably never does.

Our indifference to the overlapping of good and evil, found in both types of characters leaves us hesitating in confusion at where our sympathies should lie. Who saw Silence of the Lambs and did not love Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector? The mind of Hannibal Lector was brilliant and evil and was portrayed impeccably by Anthony Hopkins. We loved to hate him. To this day the name Hannibal gives me the creeps, yet I will not deny that it was Hopkins’ playing Lector that made the movie a success.

Seriousness and stability, while portrayed with humour in shows like I love Lucy and M*A*S*H are transcended in sitcoms like Seinfeld and Ally McBeal. The lack of depth, complexity and mystery once known to television has been lost. Work ethic and honesty have been traded for insecurity and self-doubt. Personal security is never achieved, self-love never attained yet we find no fault in this because we are lost in the seemingly unlimited humour offered. Some of us may even be grateful that for 30 minutes or an hour, that a fictional character is less than us, and that makes us feel real. Therefore the need to excel as individuals in the human race becomes unnecessary.

As a society we have stopped looking for the cause of evil and nothingness in film and television. We are satisfied with the superficial analysis, whether accurate or not, made by critics or movie makers, or worse by how we feel or are made to feel by the projection of evil and emptiness. Hibbs strongly conveys that it is the godlessness of our times, that makes evil so conventional, rendering the ridiculous so appealing.

Hibbs says that we celebrate evil as a society, otherwise why would our “democratic culture breed demonic characters?” We watch evil, absorb evil, accept it, and it is lessened in our minds, despite being (ostensibly) funny at times. The tragedy is that we call it entertainment, and are entertained by it. Our desensitization toward evil makes us less human. This frightening fact should force us to question our virtue as people. Where evil is accepted, virtue and righteousness are negated. Nietzsche would be proud.