Celebrity Gossip and Moral Reasoning (part 1)

If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to serve as a horrible warning.”

The preceding quote from Catherine Aird is always good for raising a laugh, and there’s a certain ring of truth to it. Having read the Bible, I’m well aware of the kind of role horrible warnings can play in human history. But any real estate agent will tell you that location is everything. Translation: context matters – a lot.

Ty Burr wrote an Ideas piece published in the Boston Sunday Globe this past weekend that I found quite disturbing. The basic premise of the piece was that Mr. Burr thinks his two young daughters are learning important life lessons – moral lessons – from watching the travails of celebrity starlets. At the root of this mistaken belief is the evidence that his children watch, with thorough (and probably dramatic) disapproval, the predictable flame-outs of their popular heroines, and are therefore able to stitch together a kind of cause-and-effect moralism that links either certain behaviors, and/or perhaps celebrity itself, with eventual failure – moral and practical.

There are at least three fundamental flaws in this line of reasoning. The first stems from a lack of understanding of the quite central role of “flame-out” in the ongoing spectacle of merchandised gossip, commonly referred to as “news,” that I like to call “Celebrity Psychopath of the Week.”

My term is intended to be understood very broadly, as a sarcastic mockery of the marketing that propels the product (and it is nothing if not a product). It doesn’t require an existing “celebrity,” it can create them, and the almost ritualized debasement of these unfortunate souls takes place through an ordeal that can take considerably less or considerably more than a week. The point is that they are held up before the public eye to be the object of gossip, the object of projected psychological needs for both attention and punishment, and, ultimately, the object of ridicule and contempt. They are, in a nutshell, scapegoats.

Not all celebrities fall into the scapegoat trap, and as I mentioned above, you don’t need to be a celebrity to become a scapegoat (becoming one will grant the celebrity, however fleeting), but it does seem to be a fundamental characteristic of the notion of celebrity in liberal society, and existing celebrities make excellent scapegoats – especially ones that are most successful in attaining the power of “stardom.” Our culture loves to see the successful fail – and fail miserably (especially those whose success is rooted in sensuality, as opposed to, say, hard work).

The truth is, we build them up to tear them down. This thought is by no means original to me, nor can it be seriously challenged. We couldn’t tolerate the failure of all our celebrities – our social fabric would collapse – but let’s be very clear: we require a steady diet of falling out, of failure, of those people, who make us feel insignificant, losing their marbles and getting their comeuppance. Celebrity Psychopath of the Week. I don’t know if OJ Simpson or Michael Jackson had the longest running tenure starring in this ongoing ordeal du jour, but there is always somebody starring. Always.

Why is this not a good moral classroom for Ty Burr’s daughters (or for mine)? If it’s behavior that adult society engages in routinely, shouldn’t it be considered appropriate for girls (OK, that line is a setup for a forthcoming post!)? Even at the level of common sense, the answer to the question should be obvious. I’m dumbfounded to realize that anyone might think that engaging in celebrity gossip can build up the moral fiber of a young woman – or anyone else.

However, I’m willing, for the sake of argument, to provide a brief argument as to why celebrity gossip cannot provide a genuine moral education. In fact, I can state it extremely briefly: gossip is sinful, and sin is immoral, not a means to moral growth. Some may find that explanation overly brief (and too similar to the argument from common sense – let’s call it the argument from common decency), so I will (briefly) extrapolate.

The voyeuristic obsession with celebrity in and of itself is grounds for serious moral criticism, but to focus specifically on the judgmentalism that Mr. Burr seems to think represents a moral victory over the implicit threat that these fallen starlets might by poor example lead his children over the precipice of moral doom, I have to point out that the soap opera of Celebrity Psychopath of the Week is psychologically rewarding because it allows the (paying) audience to satisfy both envy’s lust for vengeance, and pride’s appetite for contempt. It lacks any semblance of charity, and it uses the troubles of other wretched human beings for self-satisfaction.

For as much as it might satisfy certain human desires, and provide what is undoubtedly some kind of a framework for developing moral norms, it must be said that scapegoating is morally repugnant, and spiritually devastating. Cynicism is not morality.

I will follow up on this post, to address the other two major flaws I see in Mr. Burr’s evaluation: the problem of subjective objectivity, and the problem of defining morality without reference to virtue.