Why We Can’t Take Our Eyes Off The Things We Hate

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Let’s say you go to a restaurant and find human hair in your food. You give the place a second chance, but there’s hair that time too, and the next. Yet you keep coming back — not because the rest of the experience is great, but because of the hair. Soon you’re inviting your friends to come along, all of you picking out hairs and saying, “Can you believe this shit? It was worth waiting in line!”

This is the exact weird relationship we have with all kinds of media. Take The Walking Dead, which might be the most hate-watched show of all time. My original love ripened into dissatisfaction by Season 3, which then molded into hate by Season 5. Yet I was still watching every week, and loathing every second of it. But why? Logic would say that if you hate a show, you just don’t bother with it. I can’t stand most reality shows about the lives of vapid strangers like Real Housewives or Kardashians or The Popes Of Vatican Shores, and it turns out that avoiding them is super easy. So why was I addicted to hating The Walking Dead? The answer to this question — what it reveals about our mindset these days — seems important.

Science does not yet know what percentage of media is consumed out of spite. We know that Game Of Thrones has entire forums full of book fans who despise the show and watch it religiously solely so they can explain why they despise it in extreme detail. The same goes for The Simpsons, which has now been on TV for longer than TV has existed, and has entire sites dedicated to recapping new episodes to explain why they’re trash compared to the old ones. This phenomenon usually requires a show that was either good at one point or at least should be good, so that you have a reason to be invested in its badness. Then the meta-drama of creators steering a great thing off a cliff becomes more compelling than the show itself.

The only problem is that hate-watch ratings count exactly the same as ratings from fans, which guarantees that A) the show won’t change course, and B) more shows like it will get made in the future. Every minute spent watching is robbed from something that’s actually good and could use your support. You have nearly infinite options now. But strangely enough, the phenomenon of hate-watching seems to have appeared because we have options.

I don’t remember people doing this shit years ago. No one bought a CD for a band they despised, you didn’t read books by authors you mail jars of piss to, and you never ate pies made with fruits you hated (looking at you, pear). And when you watched a show you didn’t like, it was because you had one TV in the house, it had ten channels, and your dad wanted to watch M*A*S*H and not DuckTales. But that was literally 70 years ago, and you had to hand-crank the TV to make it work in the first place. Look it up.

I didn’t hate-watch 118 seasons of Walking Dead because I was still enjoying it or because I was sure it would get better (though I did hold out hope for a while). I did it because I used to enjoy it, and now I didn’t, and that upset me. I watched to prove myself right. “Look at this fucking shitshow. Look how it doesn’t live up to my standards.” You start obsessively counting all of the ways the show failed you, congratulating yourself for being smart enough to deconstruct it.

At that point, your hate-watching validates your hate, lets you feel that fire in your gut that says you have been let down. That Carl should have goddamn died in Season 3, that Elena shouldn’t be with either brother on Vampire Diaries, and that Dr. Phil always gives advice on par with what you could expect if your dog’s butthole grew vocal chords.

And right about here, you realize how many of us are hate-watching reality itself.

I used to follow Donald Trump on Twitter solely to make fun of the shit that man said. That’s the only reason. Just to see what he pooped out onto the internet, and then compare the man to literal poop in response (and then he blocked me). A lot of our political discourse seems to be very much shaped by this kind of self-destructive impulse. We’ll follow honest-to-god Nazis on Twitter just so we can be disgusted by the things Nazis say. We’re not learning a single goddamned thing about them that we didn’t know already; we’re just hate-watching.

Platforms like Twitter should in theory be something we actually enjoy. We should be excited to live in an age in which the president can hop on the internet and just send out “Man, Better Call Saul is a pretty decent follow-up to Breaking Bad, though it sometimes lacks Breaking Bad‘s introspection.” Instead we have a guy who’s more likely to blubber, “Watched Breaking Bad. Skyler wouldn’t let Walt start a business. SAD. And I will bring businesses back to America. THERE WAS NO COLLUSION.” We can read it, then follow up with dozens of objectively disgusting accounts forming a chorus behind him — voices from Infowars and Breitbart and amateur pundits, all knowing that they have a constellation of hate-watchers boosting their signal.

At that point, it becomes a bonding ritual. The bullshit is circulated among friends on the same “side,” everyone confirming with each other that yes, this thing is awful, and we all agree on the ways in which it is awful. Meanwhile, somebody out there is creating things we’d love the hell out of, but who has the time for that? We’ve got a guy over here claiming that school shootings are a liberal plot to distract the public from the truth about a flat Earth, and we need to spend the rest of the night thinking of ways to dunk on him.

And just as with the shitty TV shows, ratings are ratings. Negative attention is just slightly less profitable than positive attention, and both are light years better than no attention. Entire movements have risen up in an environment in which we find awful things fascinating — and the more layers of awfulness there are to pick through, the better. We have created actual incentive to create the worst ideas possible.

I’m not telling you to stop hate-watching anything (though I did eventually get bored with hating The Walking Dead). Only you can say if you’re actually getting anything out of it. Is any of this making your life better in any way? It’s at least something we need to stop to ask. This is, after all, time you’re never going to get back.

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For more frustrating binge-watching challenges check out 6 Injustices Suffered by People Who Hate Popular Things and 5 Signs The TV Show You’re Watching Is About To Suck.

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