Richard Sherman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the Power of Celebrity

A couple of weeks ago, Seattle Seahawks Defensive Back Richard Sherman ranted. What followed that rant? Someone who has never been in trouble and has a degree from Stanford (but has dreadlocks) was called a thug.

Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead this past Sunday. Many people expressed sorrow at the loss. However, others started to lump him in with celebrities who have died from drug abuse and overdoses: “He got what he deserved.” “It’s his own fault.” (Overlooked were his years of sobriety followed by a prescription from a doctor that sparked a relapse.)

The amazing thing about all of these responses is that they were made by individuals who do not know the people they are talking about.

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I am fascinated by our culture’s obsession with celebrities. When athletes, musicians, or movie stars do anything it becomes headline news. It also becomes an opportunity to insult, demean, and dehumanize people that we have never seen face to face.

Is what Sherman did wrong? Probably. On the sportsmanship scale, it definitely registered near the bottom. But does that really reveal anything about his true character? Does it tell us anything about who he is or where he came from? Does it tell us anything about the good things he is doing in his community?

With Hoffman, I find myself frustrated on two sides. First, you do not really know him. You know the roles he played. You may have learned about him by watching interviews or reading articles. But you do not know the person so why is this even news?

On the other hand, why do people feel so comfortable treating him as less than human because he struggled with drug addiction? (I loved what Russell Brand shared this week.) Addiction is a serious disease that has caused many deaths and destroyed many lives, so why should we act as if celebrities are immune?

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Celebrities are people. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? They have parents, siblings, partners, children, friends. They grew up in neighborhoods and went to schools. They have homes and community groups they are a part of. They have dreams and desires.

If you prick them, they will bleed.

But you don’t know them. Not really, anyway.

Our reactions to celebrity say much more about us than them:

When we react negatively to someone who looks or sounds different, maybe we are saying something about how we view those who are “other.”

When we put someone down for a struggle they have lost, maybe we are trying to hide that with which we are truly struggling.

When we put someone on a pedestal for those things that have garnered attention, maybe we are acknowledging something we lack in our own lives.

When we think a celebrity is a role model, maybe we are hiding the fact that we have no one in our lives worthy of respect to look up to.

When we voice our hate, displeasure, or ignorance, what are we trying to hide?

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Celebrities entertain us. Sometimes, they do great things to help those who are in need. Sometimes, they use their status and popularity to bring attention to issues that are under-funded. Sometimes, they do things that are idiotic and destructive. Sort of like every other human being out there.

Let’s leave celebrities alone to do what they are paid to do (even if they are paid too much to do it).

Let’s remember that they are humans and should not be expected to do or be anything other than you or I should do or be.

Let’s turn away from the screens and venues that bring us entertainment and turn towards the people who are in our lives every day.

Let us build and nurture the relationships with people already in our lives.

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