The public tends to be fascinated with celebrities, their personalities and activities. I know it has something to do with living vicariously through their beauty, success, talent, or whatever. If I wish to adopt those qualities, I can mentally associate with that celebrity or sports team. It’s not just a sports team. It’s my sports team. Their victory is my victory. OK, harmless enough.
It’s interesting then when a celebrity has a coup de grace. The celeb du jour on the falling star (or rising, as some may argue) is Miley Cyrus. Seems she’s the gal that we love to criticize, despise, scold, or feel contempt for this month. Similarly in our personal lives, there is often a person we love to gossip about. It’s deliciously sinful and indulgent. It’s so much fun to focus on someone else’s bad judgment, mistakes, and faux pas.
Scandal is so much fun because it elicits our feelings of contempt. Contempt is so gratifying because it allows us to feel morally superior without any responsibility (Jonathan Haidt, Happiness Hypothesis). For example, if I criticize someone at work, then I have some sense of responsibility to do something about it – either fix the problem or elicit constructive discussions about the problem so that we can fix it together. The same is true in my personal life. Any problems are my responsibility, either directly or indirectly.
Have you ever been the subject of scandal or criticism? When we’re criticized, we feel it is unfair, unfounded, and they just don’t understand. Yes, it’s easier to judge than to try to understand or empathize with someone else. So when we are feeling contempt for others it’s because we are indulging in a gratuitous exercise in judging, failing to empathize or understand.
In addition, we’ve probably made similar kinds of mistakes in our own past, since we’re more likely to be bothered by the things we hate about ourselves when we see them in others. We are, in fact, hard wired for hypocrisy (Haidt).
I know, I hate to be a killjoy. All the fun we’ve had gossiping and feeling contempt truly reflects more poorly on ourselves than it does the person we’re complaining about. For me, it’s a lot like eating a bag of French fries. I can’t really enjoy them since I know they’re so bad for me and will likely make me feel sick later. Feeling contempt for others is pretty much the same thing for me. It makes me feel sick to my stomach to be such a judgmental hypocrite. Now when I eat French fries or gossip, I indulge in one or two bites, then move on. I’m human, after all.
Good thing there are so many other ways to have good, clean fun. How about complimenting someone or expressing gratitude for one of their good qualities or good deeds? Their reaction, especially if the compliment is unexpected, is way more fun than even complaining about Miley Cyrus and her growing pains.
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