It’s a difficult thing to admit your mistakes. Even more so when admitting them is an acknowledgement that you are not in all ways the evolved, progressive, compassionate thinker you fancy yourself to be. Truthfully, it’s never a state you should consider final; it’s a level to which you should continue to aspire in each moment. The instant you get complacent about it is the instant you begin to backslide. But I find myself wrestling with this in light of having read Amanda Palmer’s post about Justin Bieber. If you haven’t looked at it yet, you should, and you should also note my friend Ksenia Anske’s top-rated comment. Without question there has been an Internet-wide pile-on given the Biebs’ spate of recent misdeeds – if there were such a thing as schadenfreude overload, we’d be teetering precipitously on the brink. As Amanda says, we don’t have to sympathize with or condone how he’s behaving – far from it – but at the same time, we don’t have to erupt with mirth and glee at his failures as if they provide justification for our existing dislike of him. If we want to pretend we’re better than he is, sharing photoshopped memes of Bieber subjected to prison rape is hardly the way to do it.
Social media has propelled water cooler conversations into the public sphere. Where we once just chatted about the news with our family, friends and colleagues in casual encounters over coffees, now our opinions are projected via digital loudspeaker for the entire world’s indulgence, whether wanted or not. With this ability has come a new compulsion to weigh in on everything (I’m not unaware of the irony here). Politics, sports, literature, entertainment, global warming, theories of parenting and what we really think of the guy at the post office counter are all fodder for discussion, reflection and ultimately, massive amplification. Spurred by the appetite we perceive out there for our opinion, we try to top ourselves with outrageousness, to grab our share of the increasingly limited human attention span. Whose hilarious “Bieber Sucks” comment will be retweeted and favorited the most? It’s a game for the insecure, a race to the bottom of a well of validation for the basest instincts we possess. And it is a depressingly seductive game at that – quick to sweep one up in the fervor of the fleeting moment.
In The West Wing episode “Bartlet for America,” we find a troubling discussion of the limits to empathy. John Spencer’s Leo McGarry is an alcoholic and drug addict who has been sober for about a decade and finds himself having to confront an occasion when he relapsed. You can only be forgiven so many times for the same thing, McGarry suggests. There comes a moment, it seems, when the Rubicon is crossed and we no longer see the human being, but only the sin, with the possibility of redemption lost. Look at Toronto Mayor Rob Ford – a man with ongoing substance abuse problems, who, enabled by his brother and a sense of entitlement, refuses to seek treatment or even acknowledge that there is anything wrong with him, instead turning his enmity outward at what comes off as the cast of a paranoid’s conspiracy: chattering intellectuals who can’t abide the idea of him wearing Toronto’s chain of office. The week the infamous “crack video” was confirmed, Ford became the subject of a biting takedown on Saturday Night Live and ongoing fodder for comedians and talk show hosts. Where does he compare with Justin Bieber? Is Ford a more or a less tragic case? Is he held to a different standard because he is a politician? Are they both considered, in a way, to be role models who have let their admirers down? Is that the magic trigger, the idea that there was an implicit contract, that they owed us a certain standard and now they’ve reneged on it? At what point is it deemed “okay” to ignore the soul and engage the satire? Where is the line, and how do we know when we’ve passed it?
It’s not difficult, if you try, to empathize with Justin Bieber, with the soul behind the façade. Ksenia points out in her comment that we do stupid things in our adolescence; it’s part of the deal. The vast majority enjoy the privilege of not having a worldwide lens pointed at us while we do it. Bieber was fed into the fame machine when he was still struggling to figure himself out, I’d argue not entirely of his own free will, but chiefly through the questionable machinations of parents too eager to live failed dreams through their offspring. He’s suddenly gifted with millions of admirers and dollars, and surrounded day and night by sycophants eager to praise even his bowel movements as the Second Coming. He cannot move, cannot make a simple comment without it being dissected by countless professional op-eds and layperson critics. (On Twitter, Bieber’s most innocuous statements – “good morning” even – get shared over a hundred thousand times, and replied to with an equal number of requests for marriage.) Faux pas in a moment of weakness that you or I could laugh off with our significant other instead foretell the end of civilization. How does living in that scrutiny day to day not go to your head? How do you not wake up one morning realizing that despite having everything you could ever imagine you’re still desperately unhappy, and wanting to tell the world to piss off, to prove to it through a series of immature and even illegal antics that you’re not as wonderful as these legions of obsessive fangirls think you are? That someone as terrible as you think – nay, you know you are – doesn’t deserve admiration or even attention. How do you like me now, bitches, you can imagine his thoughts screaming at him as he tore drunkenly down the streets of Miami in the middle of the night. How did he feel then? As much as the world might revel in hating Justin Bieber right now, we can assume it doesn’t come close to equaling the hatred he feels, deep down, for himself.
The argument back is always, he doesn’t have to stay in the public eye, he could walk away. Maybe that’s true. I don’t believe Justin Bieber thinks he has that option. There are too many other vested interests, depending on his album and merchandise sales to fund the purchase of their own Ferraris and country club memberships, to ever let him go. He is a mere cog now, mandated to grind out one drywall-deep pop song after another until his star fades away and he ends up on a “Whatever Happened To…” special, or dead of an overdose, whichever comes first. He is the puppet dancing for the amusement of millions, and because he’s flubbed the steps we’ve turned on him with a vengeance. One or two slipups might have been okay, but he’s obviously passed that point with society where continued empathy is possible. He has transitioned from person to punchline. And I guess that last point is what interests me the most in this conversation. When do we get the societal OK to commence the attack? What defines what makes one person an incorrigible miscreant worthy of our collective hatred and another a poor kid who just messed up?
It is as if there is a scale of schadenfreude, from the most unimpeachably virtuous saints ensconced at the top, forever undeserving of slight, to I don’t know, Hitler, one supposes, at the very bottom, where it’s always acceptable to dump endless reserves of scorn and mockery, and to find suffering and fault laughable. Everyone else falls somewhere in between, and there’s a line below which you’re a legitimate target and above which you can still garner your fellow human beings’ empathy. The location of that line remains a matter of personal opinion and choice, for forgiveness is for the most part, as “Bartlet for America” posits, not a renewable resource.
I made Justin Bieber jokes in private and in public, I bemoaned the notion that his celebrity status and wealth made it likely he would not receive much in the way of punishment for his illegal behavior, I belittled the judgment of those who set this irresponsible kid on a pedestal and yes, in the moment, I was glad to see him knocked off it. What does that make me, though? I’ve reflected on it since reading Amanda’s thoughts and Ksenia’s response, and I’ve realized that what it doesn’t make me is better. My life and my standing are not ameliorated by crapping over the misfortunes of a famous stranger.
Schadenfreude means “shameful joy,” emphasis on the first word. And even the religious notion of hell is predicated on the idea that it’s comforting to the living to know that evildoers are being punished without end in a horrible place – schadenfreude taken to a supernatural degree. But believing that doesn’t change our lives, nor does it provide us any true comfort. We can agree that what Justin Bieber did in Miami was illegal, dangerous and endangered lives. We can agree that we don’t like his music or how he comports himself or having to see his face on every product under the sun. We can agree that he is no role model or someone to be emulated in any way. What we don’t have to do is cast stones at him with reckless abandon in the expectation that “that’ll learn him.”
When we become a person who is quick to mock and slow to try to comprehend, what we’re really doing is presenting ourselves to the world as fundamentally not a very pleasant sort, and pushing ourselves down that dreaded scale. Before you know it, one day we’ll tumble below the critical line and find ourselves on the receiving end of the world’s outrage. The problem with being so down on that scale is that it’s too far to pull yourself back up, and moreover, no one’s going to want to throw you a rope – unless it’s to hang yourself with.