In the socio-political realm, we have numerous examples of this kind of winnowing activity – particularly in politics. The United States has a long history of deciding who can stay and who can go, dating back to the tar-and-feathering of Tory enemies of the newly formed state, and the ongoing expulsion of Native Americans from their ancestral homes. Senator Joe McCarthy kept the entire nation on tenderhooks, destroying lives in the process of the Red Scare. And most recently, arrests of undocumented U.S. residents have risen dramatically, because they don’t have the proper authorization. Americans routinely demand to know who is friendly and who is not… who the Real Americans are, and who’s a terrorist threat. Within Democratic and Republican party ranks, additional fissures have opened up. Are Democrats for Hillary or for Bernie? Or have the dropped their affiliation? Are Republicans for Trump… or for anyone and everyone else, even a Democratic nominee? What about the Libertarians and the Greens? Where do they fit – if at all?
In terms of popular culture, too, we have plenty of examples of groups closing ranks on “unfit” members, deciding who stays and who goes. Going back to the personal narrative earlier, some of the most popular television shows your co-workers watch and discuss are steeped in the ritual of including and excluding individuals for the sake of collective cohesion.
The perennially popular show, “Survivor”, centers on weeding out the weakest and most undesirable members from the group. Each participant has their chance to prove they are a worthy group member, and that they can fend for themselves, if need be. All who are neither fit nor capable of living up to the group’s standards are “voted off the island” by the others. Not just anybody can stay. You have to prove your worth – and that’s policed by the group itself.
On a smaller scale, “The Bachelorette” features individuals pitted against one another for the ultimate and most intimate sort of selection (mating) by the lead character. A gaggle of eligible young men show up and are put through their paces to prove they’re the most worthy mate for the lady in question. Sometimes everyone plays by the rules, sometimes they don’t. But infractions (like the Bachelorette sleeping with one of the hot young suitors) are almost forgivable, considering how high the stakes are. It’s such a publicly compelling spectacle, that each season’s ultimate pairing becomes lucrative fodder for tabloids lining supermarket checkout lines for months (if not years) after a season has ended.
In a perhaps less arbitrary and more merit-based scenario, the show “Project Runway” also gathers people together and then winnows them out. In a ritual paralleling classic heroic journeys followed by ancient sacrifices to the gods, contestants are given equal chances to perform a challenging design-and-construction task, and then they’re judged by representatives of the fashion industry as worthy to remain – or not. Decisions are based on their craftsmanship, their ability to be a part of the team, whether they can come up with creative individual solutions, and other criteria (often invisible to the viewing audience). Tim Gunn, as a surrogate “high priest”, acts as a go-between mediating the dynamics between mortals and gods. Long story short, contestants have to prove – week after nerve-wracking week – that they have something valuable to offer to the judges and the fashion industry as a whole. Or, in Heidi Klum’s words, they’re “Out!”
In terms of individual action, the show “American Ninja Warrior” is an excellent example of rewarding meritocracy based on individual skill and prowess. Selected contestants, who train for months beforehand, are put on display to show whether or not they get to advance in an already competitive and demanding field. Their athletic training routines, the sacrifices they’ve made, and sometimes deeply personal backstories are aired prior to their competitive runs, investing the audience in their success (or failure). When they succeed, there’s great rejoicing. They earn the right to be called American Ninja Warriors – perhaps the highest complement you can pay an American athletic contestant in the current cultural climate. When they fail, they’re just like everyone else watching. Make no mistake, their failures are every bit as important as the successes, since they reminded us that not just anybody can navigate a grueling obstacle course, then run up a 14-foot wall and hit a button to stop the clock. It takes a special person to make it that far.
All of these shows continue to get top ratings and have multi-year persistence. They entertain hundreds of thousands of viewers every week, and although some of them have changed over time, they show little sign of disappearing from the landscape. Other shows centering around competition, such as talent shows, are popular not only in the United States, but internationally as well. The Eurovision Song Contest gets hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide each year, bringing the widely distributed and diverse European community together – to have a good laugh at each other’s expense, or to truly appreciate the talents that the contestants bring to the competition.
Ultimately though, the goal of each of these television shows is to discriminate between the losers and winner(s) and crown the most capable victor(s). It’s classic “Othering” behavior, pulling people in and then taking people out. The criteria can be every bit as arbitrary and confusing as our prejudices and biases and bigotry in the wider world. Why did the judges choose __?! Why wasn’t that person voted off the island? What? The bachelorette chose which guy? The point is not to apply consistent criteria which fairly treat all, but rather to go through the extended discriminating process, as a group.
No matter how awkward or painful the “Othering” process may be, we love those shows. We share the hopes of the contestants, as well as the pain of those who fall short. We relish the exclusion on some level, both desiring and fearing it. Indeed, we love to “Other”. We prize the chance to distinguish, discriminate, define our boundaries and communal standards, and to protect them from interlopers. Perhaps separating the proverbial wheat from the chaff is one of the most human things we can do.