Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Why does celebrity online behaviour affect ordinary people?

In a recent article on the Yahoo website, Marie Claire Dorking claims that when so-called celebrities – the contemporary kitsch counterparts of ancient Greek Olympians – ‘behave badly’ online, their behaviour has a recognisable impact on the behaviour of ordinary people, including children. In other words, the bad example they set has consequences when it comes to children’s informal education – what they learn about how to act as human beings from the world around them. Which is hardly surprising, considering that most adults are generally impressionable when it comes to ‘celebrities’ (in a culture that valorises the latter), and children are understandably more so.

Dorking relates how celebrity Rob Kardashian (we just can’t get away from them, can we?) recently launched a disturbingly graphic onslaught on his former fiancée Blac Chyna on Instagram, which led to the suspension of his Instagram account. No matter; he simply transferred his assault to Twitter, to be witnessed by millions of ‘followers’. She further reminds us that this kind of online ‘bad behaviour’ has been going on for some time between so-called celebrities, including Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj – nothing unusual, except that it has consequences. Dorking continues:

“OK so celebrities behaving badly is nothing new, but the way we learn about it is. Somehow social media has created a whole new platform for the naughtiness to be witnessed, shared and then interpreted in a series of funny memes.

“But what effect is all this virtual naughtiness having in the real world? At home children are consistently told that calling people names is unacceptable. At school a verbal attack on a classmate would result in punishment, bullying is not tolerated. Online, however, celebrities who slam other celebrities are rewarded with a trending hashtag and global attention. Go figure.”

Dorking also cites several psychologists, who agree that such behaviour goes against the supposed educational consensus, that children should be taught how to behave decently:

“‘Over time, the attitudes and behaviors that we are concerned with right now in social media will bleed out into the physical world,’ Karen North, a psychologist and director of the University of Southern California’s Digital Social Media Program told Associated Press.

“We’re supposed to learn to be polite and civil in society. But what we have right now is a situation where a number of role models are acting the opposite of that… And by watching it, we vicariously feel it, and our own attitudes and behaviours change as a result.

“Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of ‘The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age’, believes the effects are already being witnessed.

“The psychologist says many of her students are confused about why celebrities and politicians can engage in name-calling and other unacceptable behaviours on social media without the punishment they would ordinarily receive.”

No one should wonder why this is the case. Nor why celebrities’ shenanigans should influence them as much as they do. As both Plato and Aristotle already pointed out more than 2000 years ago, people characteristically imitate; although these two thinkers evaluated imitation differently, they agree on humans being what they called ‘mimetic’ beings. Interestingly, they distinguished between ‘diegesis’ (telling, narrating) and ‘mimesis’ (showing, embodying) – two concepts used to this day in literary and film theory. (A useful summary of the differences between them is found in the New World Encyclopedia)

The interesting thing about these two concepts is that, while they do so in different ways, both have effects on people – the first one (diegesis) indirectly by ‘indicating’, through narration, and the other (mimesis) directly by ‘transforming’ the onlooker. Just as important is that they entail different temporal modes: diegesis implicates the past in its connectedness with the present, while mimesis functions as if in a suspended or continuous present.

Does all of this seem familiar? How many of us have viewed a favourite movie or series several times, if only for that vicarious thrill one experiences when your favourite character(s) performs actions that one can, and does, identify with? I’ll bet that many people do this. Why? Because it is a mimetic enjoyment – when I see the character of Sun Bak (a superior martial arts exponent) defending one of her cluster of sensates in the Wachowskis’ superb television series Sense8 against the people who are hunting them just because they are ‘different’ from other human beings, she ‘embodies’ the ‘difference’ that I value in people, and ineluctably I identify with her. Diegesis also comes into play in any cinematic artwork that has a ‘story’, of course, but the image of one’s hero/heroine constitutes a locus with which one identifies in a more-or-less ‘direct’ manner.

But this does not only happen in movies; it happens when we read novels (at the level of diegesis, with one’s imagination supplying the iconic site of identification), and also in real life, where one identifies with an older sister or brother, or with a good chess player, or sports personality. The latter brings us back to the (largely) virtual sphere of (sports) celebrities, because few people today identify with the captain of a school sports team, or the school’s top academic scholar. Our lives of what Castells calls ‘real virtuality’ – the fact that virtual reality, or cyberspace, permeates our otherwise ‘real’ lives’ – are shot through with the images of celebrities engaging in all kinds of actions, mostly intended to bring them the sustained attention of their ‘followers’ on Twitter and other media. And as we know from Aristotle and Plato, for better or worse, being mimetic creatures, most people ‘identify’ with, and worse, actually and actively imitate them, no matter how questionable their behaviour might be.

That ‘celebrities’ – or rather, their mediated images – are the ones with whom people, including children, identify these days, leading to a kind of ‘cognitive dissonance’ on the part of those who identify with them, is highly ironic, considering what a ‘celebrity’ is. Contrary to what many people think, celebrities are not a very recent phenomenon – celebrities go back to at least the middle of the previous century.

This much is evident from the work of Daniel J. Boorstin, in whose classic study The Image – A Guide to Pseudo-events in America, he defines a celebrity as follows (p. 57; in italics): “The celebrity is a person who is known for his [or her] well-knownness.” Needless to stress, this is tautologous, but deliberately and unavoidably so, because, as Boorstin shows, unlike people who have become famous for their deeds, discoveries, literary, scientific, philosophical, cinematic and/or other cultural achievements and contributions – such as Plato, Shakespeare, Mary Wollstonecraft, Einstein, Amelia Earhart, Laurence Olivier, Gandhi, Mandela, Luce Irigaray, and many others like them – the only thing that a celebrity is well-known for, is that they are well-known, and not for any concrete, lasting (constructive) contribution to society. (Paris Hilton probably exemplifies this best, by the way.)

In correspondence with a Polish friend and fellow academic, Longina Strumska-Cylwik, about this phenomenon, she made the following telling observation: “Why is behaving badly acceptable online but not in real life? This is a very intriguing issue. Sometimes I have the impression that events watched in media/or online are kind of like the Ancient Olympics in Greece organised/created for people. However, with the basic difference – in the past they probably played or served more complex functions. They were not only a form of cheap entertainment for the ‘masses’ but they also fulfilled sport-cultural, ritual functions.”

Indeed. I believe Longina is right, that the ‘bad behaviour’ in full view of the ‘following’ public, is precisely a form of ‘cheap’ entertainment, as the sustained attention to celebrity antics demonstrates, with the corollary that the ritual that accompanied ancient Greek Olympics – and still attaches to contemporary Olympics – is largely absent. Unless one could see actions like the kind of ex-fiancée-bashing on the part of Rob Kardashian as being itself a kind of pseudo-ritual that celebrities perform repeatedly in order to keep their followers’ eyes glued to them.

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