Celebrity dirt and cancel culture

In the early 1980s, I was in a store that sold records (vinyl, back in the day) and a friend walked in. I was telling her that I was going to buy an album by a fellow who was at the top of the charts. I said that I liked his music, but he also seemed like a good guy, a family man. “Well,” she said, “I have a friend out West who said he propositioned her after a concert.” My first reaction was disappointment in hearing this. As the hours went on after this encounter, I became a little angry at my friend, though. First, how did I know if it were true? It was a “friend of a friend” story. Second, why was it important to share with me. Granted, we’re talking about a celebrity, but sharing unsubstantiated gossip seems like it is not ethical.

I realize the standard I’m asserting is a fairly high bar. People don’t generally shy from sharing dirt on mutual acquaintances, much less celebrities. But my friend, who I know pretty well, would not want the press to print unsubstantiated rumors about someone she likes. And should we hold ourselves at least to that standard.

I don’t think we should allow ourselves to be intentionally ignorant in matters of import or benefit to others. We can’t turn a blind eye to injustice simply because it is painful. When it comes to matters of gossip about the human frailties of public figures, however, I think we can take a pass.

Here’s a challenge: look up any favorite public figure in Wikipedia and you’ll likely see some dirty laundry. Social media, especially those that serve us AI-generated curated content, is sure to show us the worst of humanity.

A couple of weeks ago, a video popped up on my YouTube feed called, “The Life and Tragic Ending of Bobby Sherman”. Since Bobby Sherman was a teen idol when I was about 10 years old, I found myself sucked into viewing this. I kept waiting for the tragic part. There was nothing unfortunate, much less tragic, except if you count the very last sentence: “Probably, right now is his worst time as his health is slowly deteriorating.” This is the tragic ending of a 78-year-old, still alive actor.

There are actually several YouTube channels dedicated to telling the story of the “tragic ending” for many celebrities. You can make more serious and disturbing discoveries about almost anyone in the public eye with even cursory research.

This raises the question of how we approach the subject of so-called cancel culture. If we learn something disturbing about an actor or singer, can we enjoy the works done by that person. For me, the answer is usually no. I realize that no one is perfect, but I just can’t shake loose the knowledge. I can suspend disbelief to be entertained by a movie about aliens, but I cannot listen to a song sung by someone convicted for domestic violence.

How, then, do we approach this? Here are the rules I have for myself:

  1. Don’t go searching for dirt. If someone has done something egregious, you will find out without digging too deep.
  2. If you find out something negative about someone (celebrity or not), there’s no need to relate that information to others (assuming they are not involved in a substantial way).
  3. Now, if you do find something highly objectionable about someone, you have the option not to associate with that person, either by what you choose as entertainment, or what you endorse with your vote or money.

I don’t like the term “cancel culture”. I prefer to believe that each of us has agency to choose how to live our lives. If you choose to avoid someone because of their actions, that is entirely your prerogative. It’s not cancel culture; it’s you being true to your beliefs.

This, though, is the most important rule:

4. Let your friends be your heroes. You know these people well. If they are your friends, you will not need to worry about most of rules #1–3 above.

Time Magazine has its annual Most Influential People. The list always has quite a few noble people on it. In fact, the bulk of the list are people of great accomplishment. That said, I could easily make a list of people of equal stature from my friends and acquaintances. For example, I would argue that my friend Hope, who has taught kindergarten for about a decade, has had more influence of the lives of others than a sports star. She literally taught many kids how to read. What could be more influential than that?

Our love for gossip and dirt is, to me, a barometer of our spiritual health. Since I was a child, and even to this day, you can see tabloids at the checkout of your grocery store with the most vile information about public figures. (And this only cost a few dollars.) As long as this is the case, I will believe we have a way to go in how we choose to judge or not judge others.

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