I don't, as a rule, watch reality TV. I can basically understand Idols or something similar - singing contests are, after all, nothing new in television. But there is an aspect to these TV shows that makes me wonder, and that is the aspect of purposefully humiliating the contestants. The Weakest Link was pretty lame by today's standards. The nastiness of the judges in Idols is legendary, but even then you can - at least in theory - hate the evil judges and feel sorry for the poor sod who has made a fool of him/herself. (Except that it is in the nature of most of us to side with the winner.) The worst I find shows like Fear Factor, where people are practically competing to shame themselves by doing disgusting things. (I admit I also wonder at the people who are willing to brave this televisioned humiliation in front of millions of watchers for their five minutes of fame. What kind of a sad person wants to be famous for eating s*t in the telly?)
Public humiliation used to be a form of punishment. Not long ago in our schools you might be told to go and stand in the corner for misbehaving in the classroom. A little longer while ago you would be put in the stocks for socially unacceptable behaviour, and other people would come to leer at you. Even in the more gruesome forms of punishment, such as whipping, cutting of the hand, or execution, the publicity of the punishment added an element of shame to it. By all accounts the public punishments tended to be great fun for the audience, though. The ancient Romans had really understood the amusement value, and made a spectacle of the executions of criminals.*
Most of us enlightened western people would probably detest the stocks as a form of punishment, not to mention cutting of body parts or throwing people to the lions. However, we seem to find other people's humiliation quite acceptable amusement. When our attitudes towards other people's psychic integrity are like this, do you really need to ask why our kids torment each other in schools? If it is wrong to humiliate another person, how can you watch it in the telly and say it is just a harmless passtime?
* I am not going to be greatly surprised if in the near future we see in a reality TV show people actually maiming each other. The reality TV survives by being shocking, and the more people see, the more they get used to seeing. And after all, who could oppose a modern version of gladiators - as long as it is between consenting adults?