Why are arguments always so black and white?

Eva Wiseman

When you publish opinions in the paper, it is not uncommon to then receive requests to repeat them on the radio, or telly, or in front of a room of people sipping complimentary wine. This week I was asked by a number of researchers to publicly debate the demise of The Jeremy Kyle Show. I said no, but without explaining why.

It wasn’t just that I prefer to stay at home. Like most people working in newspapers, I get a lot of invitations. The press launch for a bottle of gin, for example, or the unveiling of a limited-edition watch, or a photo call with a pop star about their T-shirt to end bullying. Then, the invitations to join a panel to talk about “women”, or to get up early to go on the radio to debate feminism, or to go on TV and make the case for, say, equality. It wasn’t just that the thought of voluntarily chucking myself in front of a camera, my only armour a light spackling of Maybelline, always gives me the griefy sweats. The reason I said no was my growing suspicion that the space between topical news programmes and shows like Kyle’s has narrowed to a hairline crack.

Speaking to the press, Steve Dymond’s son claimed he’d been upset by the way Kyle had “ripped into him”. Which, after his death by suicide, and the subsequent revelations about other people who died after going on his shows, resonates uncomfortably. But at the same time, it can clearly be applied to much of the TV and radio we digest, especially the clips that go viral, that “ripping into”, that brittle insistence on right and wrong. Which clearly, as humans, we appear to long for – a black and white simplicity, where the threat of grey can be shouted over.

It’s not just the method of pitting two people against each other that causes problems, treating each argument as equally valid, regardless of whether it’s over hamburgers or the death penalty. As if all points of view, including Islamophobia or climate scepticism, are legitimate. Not just that this poking and growling induces an aggressive hopelessness in audiences, with its lesson that every thought is worth a fight.

And it’s not just that nobody wins, or that minds are rarely changed. Though, these are truths that have resulted in an overwhelming feeling that all discourse remains, not so much in a bubble, but covered with its own particular sticky film, the bubble having dissolved under heat, and settled like a cheap trap. The problem is that, whether on Jeremy Kyle or the Today Programme, or online (where, as I write, a feud between two beauty YouTubers that started with the promotion of vitamin pills, enters its third stage, the 41-minute apology video), grand, complicated issues are presented as binary arguments, not allowing for nuance, or the necessary messiness of real human life.

After the death of Love Island’s Mike Thalassitis there was a call for better aftercare for reality show participants and, following Dymond’s suicide, a similar conversation is happening. A spokesman for The Jeremy Kyle Show said: “The programme has significant and detailed duty of care processes in place for contributors pre-, during and post-show which have been built up over 14 years.” Which is, well, the very least we should expect from shows that profit from strangers’ pain. But the larger problem is that this win-lose format, this fight to the death, is baked into the very base of entertainment in 2019.

Of course, on news programmes, politicians should be held to account. But many of them appear to have been invited to appear, not because of their local successes or powerful campaign, but because they make good TV – they tell stories people want to hear, and loudly. And even those with awful arguments walk away with the swagger of a man who’s won. Because they have, in a way. They’ve won, simply by being there. While it is part of a politician’s job to make their case in the face of a Marr or a Humphrys, theirs is a method of debating that has been applied to public arguments that would typically remain private, and yet, an audience is invited to take sides, daily.

Is it because we’ve come to realise there are no simple answers, that a stranger who tells us otherwise becomes famous? Is it because of our fragile understanding of the difficulties of modern life that we find black and white arguments so appealing, or the spectacle of somebody revealing themselves to be even more damaged than we suspect ourselves to be? Is it because we have become accustomed to arguments condensed to the size of a thumbnail? Though Jeremy Kyle’s show has been axed, the long-game success of the format continues to be seen, spreading beneath our feet like melted tar, from politics to pop culture.

To say you don’t have all the answers today, or to offer one with nuance, through a screen darkly, is to remove yourself from the conversation.

Email Eva at e.wiseman@observer.co.uk or follow her on Twitter@EvaWiseman