I am indeed one of those people that was a bit pleased that she was hauled screaming out of the court room and back into a cozy little jail cell, and following the unfolding circus on TMZ.com all week. Americans love to see this scenario played out over and over again. Leona Helmsley (aka The Queen of Mean), Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Martha Stewart and of course who can forget the boys of Enron?
People don’t feel this way because we are inherently mean and cold-hearted. When the rich and famous run afoul of the law and vice, it speaks to a number of social rules that Americans in particular cannot abide being broken. I have written previously about one reason why we are so obsessed with celebrity in the entry “Quick, look over there. No, don’t stare Dammit!” They are as close as we get to the tangible, knowable gods we used to have in the past.
There are several elements at work when people are dismayed at this preferential treatment and pleased with a heavy punishment. But here are just a couple.
To start with, we are fascinated by and resent people that are famous for being famous. They confound the American protestant work-ethic ideals. Fame and wealth belong to those that can somehow prove they deserve it. Attached to this is the idea of adding some value or service back to society. We resent those we see as just taking up space without seeing anything valuable coming back. (ironically some of the same resentments we apply to this genre of celebrity are also applied to the homeless). We are curiously socialist when it comes to wealth. Bill Gates who, depending on the stock market at the time, can be the world’s richest man and seen as an innovation crushing monopolist. However, here is no question that he actually did something, something very important. His social reputation improved as well with his 33 billion dollar Gates Foundation. We may whine about his wealth and business practices, but as a culture we would be horrified to seem him go to jail. Its why we love/hate lottery winners: when the family on hard times wins an unimaginable amount of money we feel like “the little” guy is getting a break. At the same time, they will get mountains of mail from people demanding they cough up some of that cash (its not like they earned it) to them, for no reason as well.
The other element why we love to see Paris Hilton and Martha Stewart go to jail or prison is because they screwed up a good thing. They had a deal that 99% of us can only dream of (and of course we imagine ourselves putting to much better use…indeed) and got nailed because they wanted more, or flaunted the rules or engaged in some other form of hubris. When I was doing my graduate fieldwork in a state prison, it was a common attitude among the inmates with long prison and / or criminal records. Sure they were pissed off about a lot of things, but a rich, well educated person that that seemingly has it all and winds up in jail for doing something stupid? Make no mistake, they hate you and resent you for being a screw up.
See how much in common you have with an inmate? That always good to bear in mind.