Crime and Punishment

Since everyone else seems to have an opinion on the Paris Hilton in/out of jail saga, I thought I should weigh in with my bit of ill-informed reaction too.

I’m not going to say anything about whether or not Ms Hilton deserves to serve time, beyond noting that, from a European perspective, the US justice system is ridiculously punitive, and there is no evidence that short jail terms serve any rehabilitative purpose. Rather I’m going use the fact that so many people are interested in the story to expand on a point made in my last post.

I was writing last time about virtual intimacy, and how this can work best when the object of the supposed intimacy acts as a blank screen upon which a person’s desires can be projected. The whole phenomenon of celebrity culture is one big example of this.

It’s hard, even for sceptics like myself, to maintain a realistic perspective when it comes to celebrity stories. I first really noticed this a couple of years ago, when I was standing in line at the supermarket checkout, and I happened to glance at a magazine cover, which carried the story of Angelina Jolie’s pregnancy. I experienced a feeling of sympathy, which on reflection resolved itself into the thought “That must be hard for Jennifer Aniston”. (If you have no idea what I am talking about, don’t worry. In fact, count yourself lucky). It wasn’t until a few hours later that I realised how strange that thought was. I wasn’t close to Jennifer Aniston. I had no way of knowing how she would react to that event. Yet I had experienced an emotion in relation to her that was indistinguishable from a feeling that I would have had upon receiving troubling news about someone that I did know well.

Now I’m someone who hardly ever watches TV and only reads serious newspapers. I do try to avoid frivolous stuff on the web, though not always successfully. Yet, despite this, I have managed to pick up an amazing amount of trivial celebrity information – I recognised a picture of Perez Hilton the other day, without having to look at the caption. It must be some kind of cultural osmosis. No one can escape it.

It’s hardly original, I’ll admit, to note that people experience vicarious emotions in relation to celebrities, and I’m sure there has been some work done on identifying personality traits that predispose to extreme forms of this – I remember reading a paper about people who experienced severe grief reactions following Princess Diana’s death (I’ll try to track down a link). Come to think of it, it will be the tenth anniversary of that soon, so there will probably be a resurgence of such cases.

It would be interesting to study if there is some connection between the propensity to experience intense emotion in relation to celebrities, and the ability to experience virtual intimacy. Another thing to explore when I set up my practice in SL.

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