Several summer moons ago, at People’s Light and Theatre, Kathryn Petersen, one of my favorite actors there, performed in a short play, July 7, 1994. She portrayed a physician in an inner city clinic hearing stories of suffering and offering what healing she could. Meanwhile, the whole world was transfixed on O.J. Simpson’s SUV lumbering along a freeway somewhere in Southern California.
I thought of this play as the American culture again gets transfixed: this time, not by a story of violence enacted by a celebrity, but by sexually aberrant behavior played out by a semi-powerful politician. At least one could say in the former case, there was a crime unfolding. In the latter case, I would say, it’s more a matter of our prurient interest in another’s fall from fame if not from grace.
Why do public figures do such dumb private things? First of all, we the public aren’t the ones meant to be privy to their privates. Nevertheless, their immature antics might be interpreted as a little too much power having gotten to one’s head (pardon the pun). Power (and wealth, mind you) can corrupt and it corrupts by the person getting inflated with a grandiosity, that rules don’t apply to them—they are entitled. That might be one psychological spin on inappropriate sexual behavior of high profile people. Another psychological spin may be that their sexuality is an outlet for their own anxiety. No, this is not the healthy way to handle stress; but stress may precipitate an acting out of some ego inflation.
Okay, done with my psychology of public figures. My concern is less about what they do and more about what the rest of us do in response to their foibles. We can’t get enough of the jokes and the news about someone taking a dive off the proverbial pedestal. A bit of schadenfreude here to be sure. Schadenfreude is the term given to our delight in another’s demise. We project our unlived hopes for wealth and power on those who’ve “made it” and then take demonic pleasure when they’ve succumbed to their frail humanity.
But more important than our schadenfreude, or their awakening to their fallibility, is the fact of the play July 7, 1994. There is a huge world out there that is suffering, there are really momentous and important life and death decisions to be made, there are crucial issues to be faced; and, instead, we wrap our brains around the shallow matters we can, if not understand, laugh at. To my mind, it is another bread and circus moment in America.
The Roman emperors used to keep the peons mindless by occupying them with circuses and casting bread to them. Our media does the same to us. Don’t consider climate change, or how to handle numerous natural disasters (which might, in fact, be aggravated by unnatural events, such as man-made climate change).
We all need levity, but not to the point where we’re not attending to the literal (as well as figurative) levees that are breaking. Recently, The American Psychologist, the journal of the American Psychological Association, dedicated its entire May-June issue to the psychology of global climate change.
Many of the articles addressed the disconnect between scientific evidence and U.S. public opinion. I’ll put their research simply: Because climate change is a complex issue with many different ways of dealing with it, because climate change means we have to change attitudes and behaviors, denial has become our modus operandi. And the corollary? Much easier to laugh at a public figure’s disgrace than attend to complex matters that will affect the planet and future generations to come.
Our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren have little interest in photos on a cell phone. They will care whether birds will fly and whether there will be water to drink and air to breathe.
[The play referred to is: July 7, 1994, by Donald Margulies, Dramatist Play Service, Inc., ISBN: 0-8222-1568-3 (1994). It was performed at People’s Light and Theatre, Malvern, PA, in 2005.]
[You might also enjoy “Men we’ll pass on the crotch shots”, Lisa Scottoline’s Chick Wit Column, Philadelphia Inquirer (June 12, 2011).]