by Matthew Arnold Stern
This is speech six from the Basic Communication Leadership manual, “Works with Words.” I originally gave it on October 11, 2007.
What does Britney Spears and ancient Rome have in common? Sure, she has a lifestyle that would make Caligula blush, but there is a similarity that says something about human nature and the state of our society.
I’m really not surprised that celebrities like Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and Paris Hilton get into the trouble. You take young people with little life experience, shower them with obscene amounts of cash and acclaim, surround them with sycophants who will say “yes” to their wildest whims, grant them easy access to alcohol and drugs – and you have a recipe for disaster.
What has amazed me is the industry that has emerged for tracking celebrity misdeeds. We’ve always had tabloid magazines, but now we have tabloid television shows on 24-hour cable networks and Web sites such as The Smoking Gun and TMZ. There are journalists who have built careers by covering celebrities who ruin theirs.
Why are we so fascinated by watching celebrity lives implode? It’s for the same reason the ancient Romans went to the Coliseum to watch people die violently.
To our twenty-first century sensibilities, the bloody spectacles of ancient Rome seem like mindless violence. But as I learned in a History Channel special, the Romans saw these as morality plays. The arena was where evil was vanquished, and the greatest good was to show courage in the face of death.
The slaughter of people by wild animals especially slaked the Romans’ desire for justice as well as gore. Those who were devoured by the lions were condemned criminals or a certain group of heretics who followed a carpenter from Judea. To the Romans, such behavior was unnatural, and when the lions bared their claws and teeth, it seemed that nature itself was setting things right. The Romans cheered knowing that the immoral got what they deserved.
Today, we get the same moral satisfaction when we watch celebrities destroy themselves. When Britney Spears shaves her head, performs sloppily on national television, and loses custody of her children, we can cluck, “Tsk, tsk, tsk. Britney used to be so good when she did those cute pop songs. She hasn’t been the same since she went, well, trashy.”
Even though much has changed in the past 2,000 years, ancient Romans and modern Americans still have the same basic needs. One of them is a desire for structure in life. We want to know that there is a right way to live and a wrong way. We want to know that we will be rewarded if we do right and punished if we do wrong. With the changes in society in the past 40–50 years, we’ve lost a sense of having a common standard that we can point to and say, “This is the way you should live your life.” So, we turn to our celebrities to provide the moral instruction that we need, just as the Romans turned to their blood-stained theatrics.
Unlike ancient Rome, we offer our fallen celebrities a second chance. (You can’t redeem yourself after you’ve been eaten by a lion.) When they make a sincere, contrite apology, usually on Oprah or David Letterman, and they prove that they’ve cleaned up their act, we let them back to our collective bosom. This also offers us a sense of moral satisfaction. “They’ve learned their lesson.”
With this in mind, I hope Britney Spears cleans up her life. I also hope for something else: That our diverse society can establish a standard of morality that we can agree to and follow, so we don’t have to depend on tawdry spectacles of degradation to learn right from wrong. Perhaps 2,000 years from now, our descendants will look at our obsession with celebrity with as much disgust and disdain as we do at the bloody spectacles of ancient Rome.