Miley Cyrus hasn’t been a person for long time. She used to be a person, then she was Hannah Montana, and now she’s a punchline. Kanye West is a punchline that has tried to fight for his personhood, and as a result become a punchline within a punchline. Rick Santorum had his name redefined by Dan Savage. The list goes on.
Think about what pops into your mind when you hear the following: Oprah, Maddow, Limbaugh, Colbert, Bush, Obama, Gaga, deGrasse Tyson.
If you’re on Twitter or Facebook, you likely see people discussing some of these people (and hundreds others) in a variety of contexts. If you’re on Tumblr, your screen is flooded with these people distilled into few-second-long gifs. Groveling, ranting, raving, venting, praising, threatening, trashing, other-ings. There are magazines, television shows, and websites dedicated to making us feel connected to these people, and the reports are disseminated into watercooler conversation topics. But we’re not connected to them. We don’t know them any more than we know a random stranger we bump into because we’re not paying attention to where we’re walking while reading about Jennifer Lawrence’s new haircut.
We’re not connected to them, and our disconnect is never more apparent than when someone displeases us.
Really listen to the conversations and comments about hot-button celebrities like Miley and Kanye, or political celebrities like Obama, Corey Booker, and Boehner, or “why are they celebrities?” like Trump, Paris, and that poor girl who lives in a dysfunctional family and wants to be a beauty queen whose name I can’t think of right now but everyone laughs at. We don’t talk about them like they are people — people you might share a meal with, hug, or help through the loss of a loved one. We talk about them like they are products, things we own, things we have the right to criticize (they’re asking for it) — things.
We create them then destroy them. We celebrate them then eviscerate them. We say things we would never say to a “real” person. Listen to these people humorously reading horrifying things people say to them on Twitter. They have to laugh, right? Because what else can they do? They chose this life. By doing what they do, they’re asking for it.
At what point does this become acceptable?
When can we stop treating a person with basic human decency and start treating them like a public object, there for our pleasure or displeasure, to give us enjoyment or be a target for our misplaced rage? Is there a threshold?
This isn’t a rhetorical question, but a legal one. Let’s say I want to say really horrible things about someone. I order a falafel sandwich and the chef, Jon Jeffson, forgets the tzatziki sauce. WHAT AN IDIOT! Time to take to twitter: “Jon Jeffson is the worst chef who has ever lived and he should die! #yolo #tzatsucky #fml” If Jon Jeffson is just some nobody cook in a local kitchen, he can sue you and win for tweeting that. If Jon Jeffson, alternatively, is considered to be a “public figure” then he just has to sit back and take it, as dictated by legal precedent set in New York Times v Sullivan, 1964.
Yes, you’re understanding that correctly. If someone is a public figure, you can write or say whatever you’d like, even if it would otherwise be considered libel or slander. Ditto goes for things that would otherwise be considered invasions of privacy (like if the local times published Jon Jeffson nip slips or accounts of extramarital affairs with the hot dog truck person).
If someone is considered a public figure, defined here as “ anyone who has gained prominence in the community as a result of his or her name or exploits, whether willingly or unwillingly,” then there is legal precedent in treating them like an object owned by you, a member of the all-consuming, all-criticizing vox populi. Public figures, or celebrities, might be better labeled as “public objects.” You know, like a sidewalk.
All of this goes through my mind every time I read a Tweet or blog post or whatever that says something like, “The world would be better if Sam Killermann killed himself,” and each time I feel a little less human. But here I am, on the internet writing this article, removing my personhood and laying myself out as a public object, asking for it.
Can we re-person public objects?
I don’t know. But I am doing my best to not personally contribute to the objectification, because I don’t like what it’s teaching me about how I should think of people I don’t know.
This is something that has been a big personal challenge for me over the past few months. I’ll find myself saying something, starting to make a claim I couldn’t possibly know enough to stake (“I love J-Lawr” or “I wish Zooey would marry me” or “GODDAMMIT KANYE WHY?”), and bite my tongue. Sometimes it slips my tongue because I’m not quick enough to bite, or other times I’m just not cognizant enough of what I’m saying, or what it means, but I’m trying. But this doesn’t mean I’m not appreciating the things these people do. I love watching Jennifer Lawrence interviews because they crack me up and teach me about humility. The New Girl is the only current sitcom I watch regularly, thanks to Jess and Schmidt. I listen to Kanye West’s music almost every day, and think it’s some of the best hip-hop ever produced (Hey Mama is in my top 10 fav songs — listening to it now).
But whenever I say things about public celebrities, positive or negative, or hear things in my mind, I’m trying to do my best to be cognizant of how little I actually know about these people. That is, basically nothing. I don’t know Kanye any better than I know the person who is going to deliver my pizza tonight when I finally breakdown and order it and hate myself a little. I LOVE the experiences they will both provide for me, and would give them both hugs as thanks if it wouldn’t creep them out, but I don’t know them.
And that gets to my goal with all of this: I want to get over this mental conditioning that tells me how to treat someone I don’t know (who happens to be famous), and the de facto conditioning that tells me how to treat everyone else. If you’re famous, I can treat you however I want. If you’re not, you’re not worthy of any treatment.