In Defense of Pretty Lies

by Conor Friedersdorf

When all of life becomes transparent, and it's a natural human tendency to observe the most salacious parts of life, it's a very different moral environment in which to grow up.

-- Robert Wright

That is so true.

In some future year, when I am watching the Lakers with my son or daughter, I am going to do my utmost to make it clear that athletes aren't people whose personalities we know just because it seems that way on television. But it's inevitable that kids feel some admiration for sports stars or other public figures who achieve success in a particular realm.

It is for that reason that I want celebrities to be duplicitous with their fans. Unless humans stop sinning entirely, a welcome but unlikely prospect, public figures are going to do bad things sometimes -- cheat on their wives, get addicted to heroine, leave profane voice messages for their kid, etc. It is important that society learn about one category of sin: behavior that directly bears on the ability of a public official to do his or her job.

Otherwise, a celebrity who cultivates an upstanding image won't ever upset me by obscuring his or her depravities. I may object to their behavior. But if they're going to sin, as most people do at some time or another in their lives, I'll thank them for doing their utmost to keep up appearances. In a way, that duplicity signals their understanding that they've transgressed, and it certainly does more to protect my hypothetical kids than the alternative -- a society where more people forthrightly say "yeah, I do heroin" or "in case my commercials have caused you to think otherwise, I've had sex with ten mistresses these last several years," because a misguided public outrage permits anything so long as lies or hypocrisy aren't involved. Listening to the folks who are angry that Tiger Woods cultivated a public image that contrasted with his private behavior, I wonder if they realize that forthrightness among professional athletes would consign us to a parade of folks like Dennis Rodman bearing their sad dysfunction on endless reality television shows.

Celebrity culture isn't capable of rendering people whole, though the folks who purvey it do their utmost to create an illusion to the contrary -- "so and so is just like us." There are so many of these characters in our lives these days: Oprah, Tiger, Britney, Brad, Jennifer, Kobe, and should their stars fade, new ones are always there to take their place. Bad enough to allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking we can know these people. We've done that as long as there have been celebrities.

What's different is this newly transparent culture that Mr. Wright mentions. Far from helping us access the truth about a person -- or to form judgments about society as a whole based on the various people we've observed -- it causes us to obsess about the most salacious parts of life.

The consequence is that salacious behavior is normalized beyond what facts justify, and we're all more pessimistic than we'd be given an accurate picture of our world. To cite one example, the divorce rate in the middle class and up is far less dire than what one imagines observing the Hollywood marriages that are the ones we're most frequently told about, but hearing the stories, how could it be otherwise that divorce looms in middle class minds as a marginally more normal occurrence among "people like us"? As the parade of adulterous politicians and politicos are splashed on front pages, anchoring society's conversation about infidelity, the same phenomenon is happening with cheating.