Can Hating on Charlie Sheen Make You a Better Person?
I picked up Phyllis Rose’s book “Parallel Lives” reluctantly, but when I started reading about the intimate details of the love lives of famous Victorian writers, celebrities of their time, I couldn’t resist the pleasure. Apparently the art critic John Ruskin never had sex with his wife, and she left him for an artist who did, while John Stuart Mill spent 20 years in something like a “virtual ménage á trois” with Harriet Taylor and her husband. I wish I were that excited when reading “On Liberty.”
Rose, however, eased my guilt, and perhaps hers as well, by saying that “gossip may be the beginning of moral inquiry, the low end of the platonic ladder which leads to self-understanding. We are desperate for information about how other people live because we want to know how to live ourselves.”
While most people can choose to expose their personal lives to only a small circle of friends, celebrities are constantly in the public sphere. Chances are that the barista in your favorite coffee shop knows little about the private life of your friend — but he or she has probably heard about the latest celebrity scandal.
That’s because secrets and the reactions to them are no longer whispered at tea parties, but openly discussed in the media. Last year, when Tiger Woods gave a press conference about his infidelity, TV stations interrupted their regular broadcasting to air his apology. The Google search traffic for Tiger Woods was 7.5 times higher than average that day, according to Google Trends. This year, Charlie Sheen’s drug abuse and open relationships with prostitutes created a similar public frenzy.
These scandals gave people a common topic to discuss and an opportunity to voice their own ethical standpoints; they fueled a variety of conversations and caused many to examine their own morality. A lot of comments on the Internet started with the scenario “If I were him…” When Woods’ and Sheen’s stories became public, they were no longer about the characters, but about the actions themselves.
In the spring of 2000 philosophy professor Emrys Westacott published a paper on the ethics of gossiping in the International Journal of Applied Philosophy. Contrary to the familiar notion that gossip is a petty waste of time, Westacott claimed that it “is a basic human activity that enhances our understanding of human nature and the world around us.” While Phyllis Rose did indeed draw admirable conclusions about the nature of marriage by delving into the private lives of individuals, she also examined the moral judgment that comes with that knowledge.
People use gossip to learn more about themselves, but experience shows us that they can also use it to punish the transgressors by public shaming. It happened during the Victorian era, when George Eliot had an open affair with the married George Lewes, just as it happened today with Tiger Woods. But the desire to punish entails self-reflection and assessment of one’s own ethical beliefs. Disapproval of others’ actions is a result of one’s understanding and questioning of his or her own morality.
Today it’s easier to live in opposition to norms and traditions. Society has disintegrated into so many factions that if one faction rejects us, another will welcome us. We don’t have to adhere to the rules of the majority to live our lives. But the public continues to punish the ones it can — celebrities. Corporations, for example, are dependent on the audience’s approval of the celebrities they endorse; the reputation of the famous figure is associated with the brand he or she represents. If the public disapproves of the personal life of the celebrity, the corporation will join in the condemnation and, in order to please its consumers, withdraw its sponsorship.
Woods lost many sponsors after the revelations about his private life, just as Michael Phelps lost his Kellogg’s endorsement over his bong hits. Sheen, however, seems to recognize something that other celebrities don’t. People’s desire to know about the lives of others is greater than their eagerness to judge. While Sheen lost his job at “Two and a Half Men,” he is now profiting off of the public’s desire to know about his life. Information is the catalyst for our self-examination, and it’s therefore personally rewarding. It’s only through the quest for our own ethical truths that we are able to make a moral judgment about others.
It doesn’t matter whether we gossip about Sheen, Woods, or someone else — we want to know about others in order to know more about ourselves. When we learn about scandals and unusual lifestyles, we have the chance to reexamine our own beliefs. Through the self-reflection gossip induces, we get closer to discovering our own ethics and determining how we want to live.