Whitney Houston’s recent death has overtaken the media during the past couple of weeks. Everyone is talking about it, obsessed with the details. There’s even a shocking and controversial photograph on the cover of the National Enquirer of the late Houston in a casket. And while a lot of people recognize this twisted obsession and are upset— because, for example, 103 people died in Syria on Friday but the general US population continues to pretty exclusively gossip about the death of one celebrity—a lot of other people have targeted Houston, focusing particularly on her history of drug abuse in light of her death. Celebrities, for most of us, are not people. With Hollywood’s help, we idolize them, raise them up, and simultaneously envy them for being so rich and beautiful and apparently talented. They become superficial entities, vessels brimming with awards and scandals, stories to follow when our own lives seem too mundane.
Then, when a celebrity dies, we panic. We remember that no matter how materially successful you are, no matter how many mansions you own, no matter which gorgeous actor you’re married to—you’re still going to die. And this is strange and terrifying. Death scares us. We don’t like to think about mortality, so we rush to attribute deaths to something specific—a process that becomes a lot more intense under the media spotlight. Whitney Houston must have made some terrible choice—a choice we’d never personally make, of course—in order to end up tragically dead at 48 years old. She was a drug addict—that must have been it.
Following Houston’s death, many people made insensitive and bigoted remarks, reducing her fame and achievement to the mistakes she made and the struggles she dealt with. But making Houston an “other” doesn’t excuse ruthless disregard for the sanctity of her life—though, as history shows us time and time again, we are exceptionally talented at justifying to ourselves any number of inhumane, morally horrific words and actions.
It’s difficult, because of her celebrity status, to remember Whitney Houston as a human being, as somebody who actually died. But we also have this wonderful human faculty called empathy, which we have the power to use in order to understand and identify with the humanity of others. So for all of those people who self-righteously sat at computers, spamming Facebook with status updates about how much they don’t care about Whitney Houston’s death, first of all, they’re lying, because we’re all part of a culture that as a whole is obsessed with her death. And secondly, have a little empathy for the loss of a human life.