Vicarious Living and the Deification and Demonization of Celebrities

Michael D. Stark

Student of Philosophy at Denver Seminary

I have recently finished Soren Kierkegaard’s seminal tract, The Present Age. While Kierkegaard discusses a variety of subjects in this short book, none of which ought be overlooked, one that specifically remains pertinent for our present age is his exposition on talkativeness, or, in a more contemporary word, gossip. Kierkegaard defines talkativeness as “the result of doing away with the vital distinction between talking and keeping silent.”[1]  Kierkegaard states that the inner life, one of silence, is what teaches one how and when to talk. More importantly, the inner life narrows one’s thoughts so when words are then manifested they will speak with authority on a pertinent issue instead of engaging in nonsense which culture defines as valuable.

Talkativeness, is the opposite of this life of silence and reflected speech. Talkative people, or people who gossip, always have something to say regardless of whether or not the communicated words are true. Kierkegaard further states that the inner life of silence reveals the emptiness of talkativeness.[2] Talkativeness is fearful of the revelation of reflective silence; it knows what it is – destructive, shallow, desperate and worthless. Yet, it does not want to shed light on its own vicariousness. To do so makes one aware of the unimportance of their social status and shed light on the vain attempt to find self-worth in the lives of others, or worse, in blatant, useless lies.

Oh how relevant this is for our current society. One can easily take Kierkegaard’s words of talkativeness and relate it how one ought not blaspheme another person. While such a teaching is both virtuous and important, I want to relate Kierkegaard’s concept to the Western fascination (and mesmerization) of celebrities and transparent pseudo-realities (better known as reality television).

Often (sadly), when I watch a movie with friends I am not just placed in front of an enjoyable film; I am forced to listen to the inner-workings of celebrity lifestyle. I too, at times have partaken in this nonsense. With gossip, the distinction between one’s private life and public life is obliterated.[3] Take notice tabloid readers and viewers of celebrity “news” programs. Why do we care if a celebrity receives a DUI? I work with DUI offenders and they come in plenty but none of them get the attention that a celebrity offender would. I do not wish to undermine the severity of such an offense, but why is it that if a celebrity is charged with an offense that the crime is worsened? What differential value do they have that makes them a worse offender? In many ways, the celebrity offender becomes a victim to gossip and public prying. Their profession, while in the public spotlight, contains no leadership, no more existential value than the professions of most other individuals.[4] There is no need to speak on these matters in which we have no relation. To engage in this type of celebrity gossip is to also engage in bullshit – the willful act of speaking on something in which one has no authority or knowledge to speak upon.[5]

Worse, the demonization of a celebrity because of a personal failure is worsened by the previously deified status of their career. Lamentably, the public opinion of someone is so quickly shifted due to news slander (or libel). A prominent example is Michael Jackson. Jackson was deified as a fantastic musician. His life was very public. The inner-workings of his daily, personal life became exposed. He was then demonized by alleged sexual scandals, which I am clearly not advocating. However, his private life was even more publicized during such a trial – broadcasted for millions to see, and perhaps to the disadvantage of the legal system. When Jackson died, major news stations had non-ending coverage of his death, infiltrating his family’s right to privacy and right to mourn the loss of a loved one. The public, however, had to get its voice. They had to place “RIP” notes all across the internet. They had say goodbye to a man they most likely never met. Jackson was reinstated to a class of celebrity deification, as if his sexual scandals never transpired. People had to vicariously live through this man’s life, and worse, take part in his death. Furthermore, engaging in this scandalous exposing of a celebrity places a false dichotomy between the person and the celebrity. Western fascination with celebrities allow the celebrity status to transcend the actual being of a person, thus exposing what the viewer finds entertaining instead of knowing the actual, personable individual. One’s being is ignored at the hands of the merciless viewer for the sake of entertainment.

The gossip takes even worse forms in the representation of reality depicted on what is called reality television. We cheer for the person we find attractive, slander the prodigal whore, and become jealous over the supposed love that transpires – all witnessed by millions on their sofas.[6] Why do we subjugate ourselves to this? Why do we encourage debauchery and scandalous living as so depicted on these programs?[7] Why do we get envious of the people on these programs? The lives depicted on these shows are fake. They are, at best, a poor representation of parts of reality and at worse are butchered, erroneous portraits of love. Why is this form of “entertainment” undertaken? People have existential value and are worthwhile beings. Why do we expose them, their successes and failures, whether real or otherwise? And why do we, as people ourselves, allow ourselves to succumb to such tasteless forms of entertainment? Each individual has an intrinsic and existential value. There is no need to live vicariously though celebrity pomp and circumstance. There is no need to know countless amounts of trivia on an actor or athlete. Instead, what ought be emphasized is so often ignored. The need for silence and reflective thought must be noticed. To continue to evade this need is only to worsen the human condition of wallowing in his or her own insecurities and to further engage the misguided pursuit of self-worth.

Pure, wretched gossip and one’s own insecurities and envious yearnings are at the heart of celebrity fascination. Such gossip is a vice, slanderous and unbiblical. Better yourself in the search for your own passions. Do not engage in the superficial, trivial and trifling disillusionment with celebrity lives. To do so not only encourages the continued obscuring of the appropriate boundary between private and public, but also neglects the need for silent thought and reflection that one needs to speak essentially. Do not engage in talkativeness about someone you know personally nor anyone seen represented on television.

[1] Soren Kierkegaard, The Present Age, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: Harper Perennial, 2010), 43.

[2] Ibid., 44.

[3] Ibid., 47.

[4] Note the public servants, such as politicians, or religious leaders ought be held to a higher standard because of the intrinsic nature of their profession to lead and represent. They are held outside (and to a different standard) of the cultural paradigm in which I am scrutinizing.

[5] “Bullshit” here is not meant to be derogatory. Rather, I am using the term as put forth by Princeton philosopher, Harry Frankfurt. See Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton, 2005).

[6] It is worth noting that these programs often expose and encourage the media’s definition on beauty and talent. This can subject the performer to redefine the definition of beauty and love to how they are perceived on television.

[7] Also note the confusion of sexuality and sensuality that entertainment programs often portray.

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