Two recent incidents—the Jussie Smollett street “attack” and the D.C. confrontation involving high school students from Covington, KY—were disturbing in and of themselves. In the case of Mr. Smollett, it now appears that he contrived an elaborate racist/homophobic attack on himself and filed a fake police report, but we will have to wait for the final adjudication of his case. In the case of the Kentucky high school students, a racist narrative regarding the incident that was later proved to be false was spread by news organizations and millions of social media posts, and this resulted in these adolescents, their school, and their families being targeted for frightening abuse by total strangers. The New York Minute from first notice to outrage (prior to a thorough investigation in each of these cases)certainly points to the necessity for restraint and reflection before going nuclear regarding what you read or hear. It typically takes only a few days to sort out the facts, and reasonable people can be expected to wait before reacting—or at least control their reflex to viciously attack at first sight.
However, each of these situations also highlights the role that celebrities and our celebrity-driven culture now play in creating a rush to judgment and inflaming public discourse. To wait is to left behind by the howling pack, and celebrities—some of who are nominally journalists or politicians—can ill afford to fall behind in the mad dash to amass more clicks and views.
Never in human history have so many pursued fame with such unmitigated lust—and never have our standards been so crushingly low. Notoriety—not actual accomplishment—is what matters in America today. If this fame can somehow be amplified by the suggestion of the grotesque, the hint of the salacious, or a soupçon of victimization, you have hit the Trifecta of 21st century click bait. As a result, it is likely that more Americans know the name of Lorena Bobbitt—who sliced off the penis of her abusive husband—than Dr. Jonas Salk, who created one of the first vaccines against polio. So many of us—particularly the young, the impressionable, and the troubled—now feed an unhealthful hunger for the bizarre through social media and “news” that titillates the senses rather than informs the mind. Like a cat frantically chasing the elusive light from a laser pointer, we race to fill some void in our own psyches by trafficking in raw and disturbing emotion rather than careful analysis.
I suspect the secret fantasy of many who are addicted to social media is to be famous themselves because their daily lives lack the drama they desperately crave. Perhaps the rewards of honesty, sobriety, and responsibility seem meager compared to the bright, shiny lives of celebrities who apparently race from party to party while dressed in the most fashionable clothes and surrounded by the most beautiful people. If our souls are empty, it could be the case that that which has a shiny surface can be mistaken for that which sustains us spiritually. A society that lacks faith in itself or its future is especially susceptible to the lure of living for only the moment without regard for the long term consequences for either ourselves or others.
Celebrity culture is, after all, about nothing other than the here and now. Planning and introspection are both unnecessary and, quite frankly, a huge and unwanted annoyance when the focus is entirely upon yourself at this very moment. The sheer wonderfulness of being you is all that matters, and in order to keep the spotlight focused and bright, celebrities of all stripes must continue to engage in increasingly wild and potentially self-destructive behavior. Because so many other celebrities (and potential celebrities) are now vying for the public’s limited attention span, sheer shock value is sometimes needed to cut through the clutter—which only further degrades our already dismal standards of speech and behavior.
Therefore, moderation in both words and actions are quickly discarded by those seeking fame. Because celebrities by definition need publicity and attention in order to remain celebrities, they are many times the worst offenders when it comes to posting nasty and snarky comments and rushing to pass judgment before all the facts are available. Sadly, we also see many political leaders moving in this direction in order to keep their names in front of voters. It often seems to be the case that political commentary in America today follows a drearily predictable formula: Insults + Innuendo = Eyeballs.
Mean-spirited comments from actors, singers, and wannabes are obviously unhelpful; however, when those who hold or aspire to elective office go on the attack to garner attention, they call the basic fairness of our governmental processes into question and further corrode our already shaky faith in our political leaders, which is currently bumping along at historic lows if polling data is to be believed. We should be able to expect more from a Senator or President than we do from someone who once acted in a sitcom or had a hit song. Although it may be true that, as the saying goes, “there is no bad publicity” on an individual level, our nation suffers terrible harm when a politician decides to be a clever little quote machine. Those who want to lead our nation should be able to demonstrate more restraint than an eleven year old.
This being said, it must be pointed out that sane and fact-basedcommentary posted on social media platforms often provides a forum for discussions that avoid the politicized myopia that has become so prevalent in the mainstream media today. Given that we cannot expect MSNBC or Fox News to soon escape from the ideological straitjackets that stifle open and honest discussions of the many pressing issues facing our nation, thoughtful debate and discussion often falls to citizen bloggers who do not need to worry overly much about the disapproval of their peers or the annoyance of advertisers. This unique opportunity for those who live outside the hyper-partisan media bubble to inject some sanity into our national debates, which is possible only because of the internet and social media, offers the clearest possible proof that the problem is not the existence of social media itself—we simply need to learn how to use it to inform rather than inflame.
Will the downward spiral of celebrity slams ever end? Although I would like to believe that maturity inevitably triumphs over immaturity, too many have now learned to define themselves by the insults they automatically heap upon others. It could just be that lawsuits—and the massive financial awards that can follow—will be the awful chemotherapy that finally cures the vile cancer of hate that infects our online discourse and daily media commentary. Nicholas Sandmann, the Kentucky high school student most prominently featured in the recent online and media persecution concerning completely fake charges of racist behavior earlier this year, has filed a $250 million libel lawsuit against The Washington Post over their unsupported and insulting coverage—and other lawsuits are soon to follow.
Will Mr. Sandmann prevail in court? This is obviously yet to be determined, but it might be the case that fear of grievous financial harm—rather than a return of basic human decency—will be what finally tempers our outraged and outrageous urges to shock, snark, and smear rather than simply converse when the next topic of national debate presents itself for our evaluation and reaction. I am certain this will be a terrible disappointment for the many who now heighten their “celebrity” status by denigrating others, but it could be the best possible outcome for both our nation and our people.
When it comes to any of the issues and problems facing our nation today, creating a meme must not be more important that discussing a sensible solution.