On empathy and celebrity

Wil Wheaton reblogged a comic on Tumblr earlier.  This is it:  

It got me thinking about celebrity -- which is something I think about a lot, for these and other reasons: (a.) I used to want to be a celebrity, and I still want to do things with my life which, if they go right, will put me in the public eye. (b.) I'm interested in cultural narratives, and celebrities are a major way that we build cultural narratives in American culture. (c.) I think they're necessary, or at least inevitable, in some form or another.  There are always going to be people disproportionately admired, because humans aren't designed to sort out massive societies into sensibly scaled orders.  That means political leaders, god-kings, regular royalty, or, in America, actors and musicians.

I often think of celebrities as being a generally good thing, because I think they offer people a consistent opportunity in life to practice empathy, and loving and caring about people you don't necessarily have anything to gain from.  But comics like this one remind me of the unpleasant reality that not everyone uses the function of celebrity in society for that purpose.

A lot of people don't think of celebrities as being people.  I'd say that they think of them as being somehow less than the people they're close to, but I suspect that a lot of these -- let's call them non-fans -- probably don't imagine the people around them very complexly, either.  This isn't a failure of narrative, though.  It's a function of it.

It seems to me to be very tragic, but I frequently notice people who don't consider other people distinct, separate entities.  Rather, they habitually project their entire lives onto them, and they imagine those other people have exactly the same minds and experiences that they do.

It's easy to do that.  I do it, sometimes.  It is, in fact, very hard not to.  But the situations in which I do that most make up some of the worst relationships I have.  It's impossible to relate to another person if you think of them as a failed version of yourself.

But for a lot of people, that's the role celebrities fill.  Sometimes we care about the lives of other people because we use them as the basis for a fantasy about what our own life would be like, if we weren't in the circumstances we face.  So when a celebrity does something we don't like, or feel we wouldn't have done, we heap on criticism.  Celebrities we don't like at all, we treat as the lowest point on the meter stick by which we judge ourselves.

That's one narrative, anyway.  I prefer the narrative in which people in the public eye share their lives with more people, more broadly, to offer the world bridges of commonality and community -- to bring people together.  Ideally, this definition focuses more preference on community-building celebrities, like Felicia Day, John and Hank Green, and Wil Wheaton, rather than celebrities whose jobs put them in path of public scrutiny against their will, like Tom Hanks or J.D. Salinger.

We do have choices, about which narratives we favor.  And people like the one in this comic are responsible for their choices.