Critiquing a Critical Essay: “Friends”, Cultural Degradation, Education, and David Hopkins’ Pandering

In the Dallas Morning News, David Hopkins wrote what initially appears to be a mildly iconoclastic essay on the cultural implications of the 1990s pop-fad TV show, Friends. I found the opinion piece (this version of it anyway) thought-provoking, even if I did not agree with some of his points.

Background: In the ’90s, I quite deliberately chose never to watch a single episode of Friends or Seinfeld, precisely because they were popular with most of my 20-something, cultural-conformist, Gen-X age peers. Same went for the ’80s when I was a teen with Cheers, Roseanne, Family Ties, etc. Same applied to when I was a pre-teen kid in the ’70s (Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, MASH, etc).

There are and were exceptions, of course. As an adolescent I loved Dukes of Hazzard as unpretentiously mindless redneck entertainment and for Daisy…Dallas because of its clearly cartoonish, self-parody character portrayals, hometown scenery and of course the women who were easy on the eyes…and Miami Vice for the tropical scenery, fast action with guns and explosions, and, naturally, hotties in bikinis. Don’t infer a lustful common denominator too deeply, however; I did not watch Baywatch when it was a hit.

Regardless, Dukes, Dallas and Vice were not that popular with most of the people in my age group, in my schools, for whom I had little or no respect. Some bug in me connected the shallow, anti-intellectual, vain, self-interested, shortsighted, superficial, materialistic behavior of the bulk of those peers, poor and rich alike, with trite chatter over their favorite situational comedies, and I wanted nothing to do with those shows or (for the most part) those peers either. It was as if they were too caught up in the here and now, the herd mentality, the illusory realms of culture and fashion and “what’s in it for me” selfishness. Even non-conformity itself became conformist: pretentious, inauthentic, and obviously image-driven…to wit: punk rock, Goth dressing and Madonna.

So it is from that perspective that I found the essay most insightful. The more I learn about most of those shows, the more glad I am not to have wasted time with them. Yet the author seems to blame “Friends” or any other shows for the cultural vacuousness and degradation, when instead they were merely reflections of them. Without a demand for such material, it wouldn’t have been broadcast! While I don’t deny that pop culture influences society (that would be foolish and dishonest), the demands for the mental opiates of self-gratification, vanity and materialism are there regardless of what pop-fads and cultural media are created to satiate them.

The premise of the show as blame aside, he rightly implores people to put down the remote, stop cluttering their minds with pop-cultural fluff, and read actual books. Hear, hear! Critical thinking seems to be a skill whose commonness curve asymptotically approaches zero.

The volume of younger society wielding analytic thought fails to touch the aught line only through two saving factors. The first is a decided minority of parents who emphasize critical assessment of the world and its messages with their children, from earliest ages. This includes the notion that not every idea being pumped into one’s mind by a teacher is a valid one. Think independently! Of course, it’s up to the kid to follow through; some do, some don’t, giving in to peer pressures and worldly cultural mores out of convenience and expediency, and yes, conformity.

The second saving grace involves the perseverance of a small cadre of intensely curious young people over an educational system that has done them great injustice, and public schooling in particular. Catering to the lowest common denominator and perpetuating the glorification of personal victimhood, our educational system deprives kids of the manifest benefits of strenuous academic rigor in favor of “feelings”, “self-esteem” and slow-creep spread of sociopolitical propagandizing in curricula.

In that sense, I fully endorse this plea of the writer, who was himself a teacher, and as such bears the credibility to say this: “The public education system is broken. Educate yourself, so you can be part of the conversation.” Moreover, don’t just educate yourself on matters of agreement. Learn deeply the other side of the issues, to understand them better, and if for no other reason, so that you can more effectively battle the arguments (a fundamental concept as old as the strategic teachings of Sun Tzu).

One bit of self-contradiction did stand out: If Hopkins advocates reading and writing instead of wasting time on shows like Friends, why was he “binge-watching” it? Ouch. An inconvenient truth, methinks…

Regardless, and refreshed at having encountered a needed essay advocating imploring critical thought and intellectual involvement, a happenstance occurrence then soiled the experience. I stumbled upon a link to another version of the essay over on medium-dot-com, this one peppered with profanities.

Those who know me personally will attest that I’m not above cussing sometimes, and even have written just a few potty words on these virtual pages. However, the fact that a non-profane version can appear in the Morning News and make all the same points just as effectively proves intrinsically that the profanity was gratuitous, done for theater only, as targeted for the audience of that medium (pun intended). That’s called pandering. Yes, pandering! It’s obvious to me that this writer infused the “medium” version with cuss words solely for the sake of appearing edgy to that presumably younger and more culturally hip audience. That sounds like something a devoted pop-culturalist would do.

As such, the writer lost my respect just as he was gaining it. For the authentic iconoclast, for the essayist who truly is secure in his own skin, what’s good for one audience should be good enough for all–no weak-spined theatrical pandering. It’s too bad that a valuable message on avoiding the herd mentality, and on thinking for oneself, had to be diluted by the sideshow rubbish and self-contradiction, all of his own (un)doing. It appears Mr. Hopkins still has much growth to do as a writer. And so he gets here what he attempts to dish out to culture.



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