Celebrities may be fascinating, but we can’t objectify them
Against my better judgement, I read the LifeSiteNews interview with Milo Yiannopoulos, the professionally degenerate political and pop culture provocateur who’s spent the last few decades marketing his transgressiveness to the highest bidder. This Wikipedia article does a serviceable job summing up his career.
Take every frightening and revolting cultural phenomenon you can think of from about 2015 on, add a huge dollop of money and an even huger dollop of self-loathing, blend well, and Milo is there, making sure everyone watches as he drinks deep.
So now he’s back in the news, because the man who headlined the “Dangerous Faggot Tour” says he’s now ex-gay, has demoted his husband to pampered housemate, and is devoting his life to St Joseph. Commenters on both ends of the political spectrum are calling this announcement his latest grift, just another costume change for a fellow who’s learned how to monetise controversy and desperately needs spotlight.
“I’ve just seen too much evidence that people, all people, even very famous people, are complicated…This is normal. This is human.”
But a good many far right Catholics are offering full-throated praise and thanksgiving to God for what they see as the ultimate prodigal son headline of the year. It’s not just rejoicing over the alleged conversion of a soul: There’s a distinct “Score one for our side!” feel to many of the comments. (And it’s not just conservatives who see Milo’s latest announcement as a big get. One queer comedian quipped “We lost one y’all! Celebrate!” adding a high five and rainbow flag emojis.)
It seems only fair that people are treating him as a talking point, a headline, a poster boy. He has deliberately and consistently demanded to be marketed this way. For whatever reason, he’s chosen to commodify his personal life, so it’s hard to blame people for treating him like a commodity.
Let me be clear: I have no idea if he’s sincere or not. I have heavy doubts about the “conversion therapy” he touts, but it’s possible that he at least actually intends to dramatically change his behaviour. All sorts of things are always possible.
But I don’t really want to talk about him. I want to talk about how people are talking about him, and talking about his conversion or fake conversion as if it’s a game, with points to be scored.
It’s so easy to do. If it suits our purposes, we can say, “Look! Even this consummate sinner can repent! Score one for us!” because we think it proves the power of our God; or, “Look! This guy who’s been scamming people his whole life is now so desperate, he’s running a reverse scam!” because we think it proves the desperation and gullibility of the enemy.
Either way, it’s reductionist to the human person, and that’s something I’m trying to do less of. Yes, even though that particular human is begging to be reduced.
I don’t feel especially sorry for Milo, even though he’s clearly lived through his share of wretchedness. And I’m not warning you that Milo is probably not actually converting or probably not actually living chastely (although it is true that, when we instantly hoist some new hero on our shoulders as the champion of our cause, we often end up looking like fools. True heroes are very rare indeed).
But I’m not warning that Milo will end up embarrassing Catholics if we embrace him as one of our own. I’m warning everyone against using people as talking points, whether they’re sincere or not. I’m warning against using people, period. Even if they’re begging to be used.
You don’t have to force yourself to believe something that doesn’t seem true. There’s nothing especially holy about being a sucker. But you ought to ask yourself: Is it actually necessary to make a judgment about this person, one way or the other? What am I really basing my judgment on? Can I make a distinction between engaging with what a person says and does, and assuming the person himself is nothing more or less than what I can learn through headlines and snippets on the news? What do I hope to gain by making a person smaller and more serviceable in my mind?
And you don’t even have to be nice to people! Just take them seriously as humans. Encounter them as humans, not as talking points.
I’ve just seen too much evidence that people, all people, even very famous people, are complicated. Even if they don’t know it themselves, they are profoundly inconsistent, and capable of profoundly disappointing lapses and profoundly astonishing moments of grace, sometimes in rapid succession. This is normal. This is human. This is what people are like. Heroes rare are, but people who aren’t reducible to trophies in a game are everywhere. They are all of us, even Milo.
The “life as a game” approach isn’t just dangerous because it makes us objectify other people; it’s dangerous because it encourages us to objectify ourselves, to reduce our own complexity to a simple set of game rules. It encourages us to think of every relationship as a battle between good and every human interaction as an opportunity to choose sides. It encourages us to shy away from ambiguity, uncertainty, changes of heart, and holy fear, because these things aren’t covered in the rules.
Virtue isn’t a matter of winning points, and conversion isn’t a matter of capturing valuable players. And God is not a scorekeeper.
Milo is a man who will one day die. He will lie moldering in a coffin, his flesh retreating from the bones of his face and his mop of wavy hair rapidly turning to straw, while his poor soul appears naked before the Lord. Whether or not he persuaded anyone of anything, or whether or not his tour or his book or his platform was cancelled or reinstated, or whether or not his name in the headline boosted traffic — none of this will matter in the slightest. All that will matter is who he is when he is alone before God. Just like you, just like me, just like anyone who spent their days deciding whether to use each other or not.
Talk about ideas. Pray for people. And resist the urge to reduce people to players in a game, even if that’s what they themselves are begging for.