So yea, I met one of my idols, Conan O’Brien, today and the experience was perfectly whelming. Every once in while on his podcast he talks about interactions with fans out in public and how sometimes people expect him to be exactly the person they see on TV. As a person who can at times be hypersensitive to the impression I leave on people, I can only imagine what that pressure must be like for a celebrity. Though as expected he seemed like very normal, down-to-Earth guy and I very much wish I had to courage to ask to sit and chat with him for a bit (even if he had said no), but my excuse for not doing so is social distancing and plus I didn’t want to be a bother. That being said, Conan in the miniscule chance you’re reading this, I’m from the area and would love to be your friend; we can talk about books and documentaries and childhood trauma… but we’d have to move quickly because I’m moving to LA for medical school at the of July.
Anyways, the idea of celebrity is interesting to me. From the perspective of most people, celebrities are kind of like the epitome of social acceptance, something we as humans are hardwired to seek. To our more primitive senses, social acceptance means insurance and security, which translates to survival and fitness (i.e. reproductiveness). If you weren’t accepted, you were left lonely and abandoned with lower chance of reproducing. While technology has evolved drastically over the past 100,000 years, humans have virtually remained the same. So while our desire for acceptance hasn’t changed much, our base fitness is much improved and so has our chances of acceptance (there is a larger number and diversity of individuals to potentially be accepted by).
At the dawn of man, if you knew someone, chances are they knew of you as well. Nowadays you can religiously follow someone on social media with them having zero awareness of your existence, which in some ways makes today’s celebrities more akin to gods of the old world (from a conceptual standpoint).
Human are somewhat unique in our ability to believe in things without any physical basis. “Celebrity” in those days was reserved for concepts like gods, spirits, and other fictions; people knew all about them, believed in their existence, and told stories about them, but there was usually no direct interpersonal or physical relationship with them.
Today famous people and people “in power” fill a similar role, and so it can be easy to forget that they are human beings just like the rest of us, albeit often with different life experiences and perspectives. But forgetting that can be dangerous. Once we start creating our own narratives about other people or things, just as humans once did with gods and spirits, we use these fabricated beliefs to explain reality, rather than letting reality speak for itself.
There are deities which have the power to make it rain, and when the gods are angry there is no rain.
This person is behaving strangely because they are possessed by an evil spirit.
This person has a lot of followers and looks happy all the time in pictures, so they must have the best opinions and tastes.
The president didn’t mean that racist thing he said because he is the best president ever and has done more for this country than any other president.
All of these are stories that people have told themselves at some point in human history to explain phenomena around them. Overtime though, the truth usually wins, even if it’s a long and highly inefficient process. We’re all human, we all have flaws, and we all make mistakes. Because of the way our world is currently set up, some people’s mistakes have much larger impact than others. Keep that in mind the next time you mentally imbue someone with more power and influence than they actually deserve.