The teen-ager’s tone suggested he was sharing really big news.
“Did you hear that Bob Saget died?!” he asked me breathlessly.
I told him I’d heard that, but he apparently didn’t think I was suitably impressed. He added something about who Saget had been — that he had been a comedian and a big television star.
“And he died,” he said again, as though giving me another chance to be shocked or upset.
“Almost 8,000 people die in this country every day,” I said. “I didn’t know Saget, so his death doesn’t really affect me any more than the deaths of those other people.”
“But he was famous,” the teen repeated, confused. “He was on television.”
I’ve had variations of this conversation with many people over the years, and it still confuses me. I feel the same way almost every time a “celebrity” dies. I experienced the same thing last week when former actress Betty White died.
I don’t typically have negative feelings about such people, but their deaths rarely mean anything special to me. And every time I hear the loud outpouring from those around me — people who also didn’t know these celebrities — I’m baffled that our culture has trained us to feel something special about random celebrities.
We’ve been subtly brainwashed into believing people are special if they’re famous.
When I was a child, I used to be confused when my father would mention that he liked some television personality, especially if he asked me if I liked the person, too.
I remember telling him that I might like or dislike the persona the celebrity played on television, but that since I didn’t actually know what the person was like in real life, I had no way of knowing whether I liked him. This annoyed my father, but I thought I was just being fair and rational.
I’m baffled that so many people “loved” Betty White. Did they just happen to like characters she had played on television shows? Or something else? Nobody has ever been able to explain this to me. For some people, the attachment to such well-known people is deeply emotional.
In a lot of ways, it seems as though a lot of celebrities are simply famous for being famous and for surviving in the public eye for a long time.
This is a modern phenomenon. Until photography came along and became advanced enough for use in newspapers, most people didn’t even know what famous people looked like. Even a stage actor would be seen by relatively few people — and in a relatively small geographic area.
Before the electronic age, people were famous — if they were well-known at all — for their deeds and their ideas. People might talk about a writer’s ideas. They might debate the actions or policies of a politician. But if a U.S. president passed someone on a street in the early 1800s, few people would have known who he was. It didn’t matter whether he was handsome or fat or sloppily dressed. People might have opinions about his ideas, words or actions, but not about his appearance.
Today, electronic media have quietly trained us to believe that image is everything. By the time my father’s generation came along, people already liked or didn’t like celebrities because of the act they projected on television or in movies. The public came to believe — without being explicitly told — that what a person looked like and how he acted in front of a camera was about all that really mattered.
Imagine someone from 150 years ago being told that “everybody loved Betty White.” That person might ask why. What had this person done to merit such praise and admiration? What were her ideas or important accomplishments?
Those questions would strike a modern person as crass. Today, we don’t “love” a celebrity for having done anything special or for his or her ideas or words. We simply decide we are entertained by what the camera shows us. We believe that this person is our friend or maybe someone we would want to know — completely based on an act which is performed for cameras.
The media that we consume teach us what to believe. Beyond that, they teach us how to evaluate the world. And everything that we consume today — television, film, social media — teaches us that image is everything. Substance matters very little, if at all.
I have nothing against Betty White or Bob Saget. I know very little about either one of them. I never met either of them and know nothing of substance that would lead me to have strong opinions about either. (White was a vocal champion for animals, I guess, but so are half a dozen people who I know personally.)
My point isn’t to tear down any specific celebrity. It’s merely to make it clear to you that our culture trains you about what you should believe — and the media which you choose to consume shapes your mind and your opinions and your emotions, in ways you often don’t see.
Just in the last week, there’s been news that should make you strongly question what you believe about celebrities and make you question your media consumption. A new study suggests there is a strong correlation between high interest in celebrities and lower cognitive performance.
In other words, those who are obsessed with celebrities have a strong tendency to be the stupid people among us. Brighter people are less prone to caring about these people who they don’t know.
Even without a study, though, I know that celebrity worship is worrisome. It’s an indication that a person has put his or her mind on auto-pilot. It’s a sign that media consumption has shaped the person’s beliefs and emotions.
You might think this is harmless fun, but I know it’s dangerous. It’s not dangerous because you care about the deaths of Betty White or Bob Saget. It’s dangerous because the media brainwashing which taught you to care about such people is also teaching you other things which you don’t notice.
And it’s those other unexamined beliefs that you’re absorbing from your culture which are controlling you in ways you don’t even realize until they’ve destroyed you.