Over the last six years, I’ve lost a fair number of friends because the hill they died on was attacking me while they defended a rich and famous person, who doesn’t know they exist.
Last week, it was two people I had known for years who rode in to defend Gwen Stefani’s honor over her long history of gross cultural appropriation. Before that, it was a dozen folks, men and women, who couldn’t stand the fact that I found Amber Heard’s allegations of rape and domestic violence against Johnny Depp credible. Twice as people walked out on me for pointing out (always on my own social media pages) that Dave Chappelle is a raging transphobe, and a similar number couldn’t have me in their lives if I called Elon Musk an incompetent wanker.
Why would anyone choose a celebrity over a person they actually know?
There’s some science on the matter. The nature of celebrity and social media means that it’s fairly easily to analyze natural experiments. That’s what the University of Cambridge did last year with wrestler Logan Paul. Paul bought a ticket to Cancelvania in 2017 after mocking people who committed suicide in a forest in Japan. The study analyzed 36,464 posters on Paul’s YouTube page before and after the incident.
It found that 77 of people who left affirming or supportive messages on Paul’s channel before the incident continued to support him, with only 20 percent expressing anger or disgust. On top of that, 12 percent of posters were more likely to keep supporting him despite the morally reprehensible act.
“People often use celebrities in the construction of their social identity,” said senior study author Cambridge social psychologist Prof. Simone Schnall to StudyFinds.org when they wrote about the findings in November. “A threat to the standing of a public figure can be perceived by fans as a threat to their own self-identity – something we may feel compelled to defend.”
This matches my own experiences. This level of fanatical celebrity worship is closely linked to the same consumer-based rage that helped fuel GamerGate and other online culture wars rooted in fandom. As people shore up their identity with what they consume rather than what they produce, they begin to treat being in a fandom as a simulated ethnic identity.
Attacks on films, games, music, or those who produce those things become attacks on self, and people respond in kind without knowing why they do it. As content creation becomes more and more about parasocial relationships with media figures, defending those figures resembles fighting for a person’s faith.
The defense of the celebrity can also be a proxy for someone’s own perceived social sins. In the most recent case involving Stefani, a lot of seemingly well-meaning but very, very angry non-Asian Americans wanted to know where the line was drawn between appropriation and appreciation. All the ones I talked to had a stake in Japanese culture as part of their identity, and the fervor they used to dissect the question felt like deflection.
Social justice concepts like privilege, appropriation, and benevolent racism, are not supposed to be used to drive sinners from our midst. They’re supposed to be handy ways of examining our behavior and altering it to be better if called upon to do so. The background radiation of bigotry and oppression is everywhere, and no one escapes the programming unscathed.
You can whine about how everything thinks you’re an asshole, or you can do better. Defending celebrities who commit clear social transgressions won’t put off that reckoning any. All it does is cost you people who would otherwise be invested in your growth and happiness.