For the past two weeks, the airwaves and internet have been buzzing over the deaths of Michael Jackson and now Steve McNair. Just as with the death of Princess Diana, commentators have marveled at the extent of the public emotional outpouring over complete strangers. Celebrity gives the impression of familiarity, they tell us.
For those of us in Nashville, the death of McNair seems to have hit especially hard. People on the screen as well as the average person on the street have done all sorts of verbal gymnastics to try to maintain the McNair-as-hero image in spite of the very sobering facts surrounding his last months. Perhaps part of it is due to the coupling of words “sports” and “hero.” We do this pairing way too easily in American society in spite of the fact that we have more than enough evidence by now to realize that high-level, high-paying sports are just as likely to bring out the meaner part of human nature as they do the heroic and noble. Secondly, we seem to have a hard time accepting that people can be both mean and noble. It reminds me of a friend of mine who had an affair. She once said to me despondently, “I still want to be Gandhi, but people only think of me now in terms of this one mistake.” But in our sound-bite culture, we often find it hard to take the full measure of a person.
But perhaps the real lesson to be learned here is the reminder that, despite the number of times we see celebrities on television and online, despite the number of interviews they give, and despite the number of articles we read about them, we don’t know them. Most celebrities spend a great deal of money to hire people to ensure that the public image is the only one we see. We need to take a step back and remind ourselves that the fact that someone is cheerful in an interview doesn’t tell us much about the real person. (In fact, it only tells us that he/she knows how to give a good interview.)
Recently, I read an article by two philosophy professors who said that instructors of critical thinking have traditionally spent their time on critically reading texts, which, of course, is important. Still, for most people now, the main mode of garnering information is not through text. People need to know how to critically evaluate what they see on the screen as well as what they see on the page.
Despite the gossip and publicity, to me, it all comes down to this. Three lives are lost, and families are grieving. Let us hope that we the public will give them the space to mourn in private.