Lately I have become more and more aware of a growing trend in our culture. The average American is, to some degree or another, a tabloid junkie. Many of us are obsessed with following the lives and dramas of Hollywood stars, and it’s easy to see why–we can’t get away from it.
We cannot stand in line at the check-out counter without being sucked in to the latest Hollywood scandal on the magazine covers. Every time I went to cnn.com these last three weeks, I saw countless stories of Paris Hilton, sometimes displayed more prominently than stories like the war in Iraq. And as my mom perused the newspaper yesterday, she suddenly announced to me, ” Well I guess you heard that Reese and Jake broke up.” (For those of you who have no idea what she’s talking about, kudos to you! She’s referring to Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal)
And if all of that weren’t evidence enough of our tabloid addiction, we have “news” shows and tv channels that are almost entirely devoted to following the lives of the rich and famous. I’m not quite sure how that constitutes legitimate news, but whatever sells, right?
What is remarkable about this trend is that we often talk about the famous as if we know them. But even more remarkable is the freedom we feel to judge and slander them. If we were to make such comments about someone we know, it would clearly fall under the category of gossip, so why is it ok to say such things about people we don’t know? Why is it ok to make fun of the people we see on tv, but not the people we work with or go to school with?
Or say you’re not even making fun of these famous people, but you follow their lives, read the tabloids about them, talk about their dirty laundry with your friends–why is that ok? If we were to pry into the private lives of those around us, that would be inappropriate, but we do it all the time to strangers. So what is the difference?
There are a variety of factors that have contributed to this gossip culture in which we live, but there are two in particular that I want to highlight. The first factor gets to the very heart of gossip. Sometimes gossip is masked as a kind of concern for people, but no matter how you dress it up, gossip always makes someone look bad.
With that in mind, the basic motivation behind every act of gossip is the desire to tear others down so that you can feel better about yourself. We want other peoples’ dirty laundry to be aired because it makes our often mundane, imperfect lives seem just a little more desirable.
And this temptation is especially great when it comes to the rich and famous, because they have the life that everyone else in the world wants–they are beautiful, wealthy, and successful. Their lives look perfect, so it is hard not to be envious. But, if we can find a way to knock them off their pedestals, then we don’t have to feel quite so jealous or dissatisfied with our own lives. Why else would people have taken such sick pleasure in seeing Paris Hilton carted off to jail as she sobbed and cried for her mother? Because if we can’t have that perfect life, then we don’t want her to have it either.
But there is a second reason we are so addicted to the tabloids while feeling such a freedom to slander those we don’t know, and that is our inability to see all people as being made in the image of God. We refuse to put ourselves in their shoes and treat them like human beings, and this is very easy to do when you don’t know someone. You can make sweeping generalizations about them that are based first and foremost upon rumors, rather than upon their identities as children of God.
A couple days ago I was at a water park, and as I waited in line I saw an extremely overweight man trying to maneuver his way into a tube for the ride down. It was a very difficult task for the man, and it took him several tries to balance himself on the tube because he was so large. Finally he found a way to stay on, but it was still very precarious looking, and I was uncertain as to whether or not he would even be able to stay on it the whole ride down.
Now while this entire scene transpired, standing behind me were two girls who watched and made fun of him the whole time. They kept making jokes about how the tube probably wouldn’t make it, and they continued to do so until he was out of sight.
Fortunately, I think the man was too far away to hear them, but if he had even looked in our direction he probably could have seen them snickering at him. At first, I was tempted to laugh myself, but then I wondered how I would feel if I were in his position and saw people doing the same to me. I can’t imagine how painful that would be–to feel so overweight, and insecure because of it, and then to have people overtly making fun of you in public–that would be humiliating! But those girls were not looking at him as a human being with eyes and ears and a heart that can be hurt. They only saw him as an anonymous fat man.
When we don’t know people, we put them into boxes. We categorize them rather than personalizing them. We don’t witness their humanity firsthand, so we forget that they are just like us–God knit them together in their mother’s womb, God knows their innermost thoughts and fears, and like us, they live in a fallen world, so they probably suffer because of it, just like we do.
Thus these acts of subtly tearing others down and belittling the image of God in them–both these sins take place when we feed into the gossip of tabloids. We may not even be guilty of talking about the tabloids with our friends, but are simply reading about them, watching them on the news, or buying the magazines–but these are all forms of gossip. The end is still the same: We are secretly making ourselves feel better about our own lives by relishing in the failure of others, and we become addicted to that feeling of perverted glee.
For that reason we must resist the temptation to take part in our gossip culture, because every time we do, we give into the temptation to find satisfaction in someone else’s pain, rather than satisfaction in Christ. When we read those articles and watch those gossip shows, we allow our contentment to come from knowing our lives are better than another’s, rather than being content with the life God has specially designed for us. That is the danger of our gossip culture, and just like anything else that threatens the glory of God, we must resist it with equal might.