Shoot the Messenger? Cult of Personality?
July 13, 2008 9:11 PM   Subscribe

Which causes or ideas have become more about the messenger than the message?

I remember, for a while after "An Inconvenient Truth" came out, there was a lot of fuss given on Al Gore personally alongside (and sometimes more than) the attention on climate change. Now Al Gore's fame has quelled a little, but I was wondering if there have been any other social causes or new ideas that are now only remembered because of the presenter - or even if those ideas have fallen by the wayside in favour of the presenter's personality.

While Princess Diana brought landmines to greater public attention, it wasn't the cause of her fame, and the landmines cause hasn't diminished just because of her. Similarly, there isn't one clear person that can be credited for the gay rights movement or the feminist movement.

However, how many people would understand Albert Einstein's Theory or Relativity or how it's relevant to today's world? How about Stephen Hawking's work on astrophysics? Has their "celebrity" overshadowed understanding of their work on a mass level?

Also, has there been any studies or research done in this area? Is there a name for this phenomena?
posted by divabat to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Good question! It's probably a little more likely that people get famous because they adhere to the cause that "wins." We remember Abraham Lincoln for his presidency and his famous stance on slavery, but for quite a long time he backed colonization: send the slaves back to Africa. If he had kept the same attitude, perhaps he would be about as memorable as Rutherford B. Hayes?

"We're the adequate, forgettable, cccasionally regrettable caretaker presidents of the U-S-A!" - from the Simpsons

I think there is also people who try to get a point across but fail spectacularly. For instance Lenin and, more prominently, Stalin, have been held up as the exemplars of Communism, along with Mao and various other dictators. Although Communism certainly encourages a period of dictatorship, the general understanding of communism/socialism/marxism of any flavor is millions of people dead of starvation and murder. And although it's not entirely the fault of Stalin & Co. because the western press spun it a certain way, they still overshadowed the main thrust of their political philosophy with their own cults of personality.
posted by burnfirewalls at 9:24 PM on July 13, 2008


*Occasionally regrettable, just like my typing skills
posted by burnfirewalls at 9:25 PM on July 13, 2008


People have known the dangers of landmines and climate change long before Princess Diana and Al Gore came to be connected with them.

Why those two became connected to those issues was because they were overstepping the traditional boundaries of their respective positions. I really admired Diana for doing what she did, and for coming to my native country (Bosnia) to push the issue of landmine prohibition. Not just because it affected my country greatly (and still does) or that I know people who lost limbs and lives to it, though those were factors. Primarily it was because Diana's position as a "princess" meant that, traditionally, whatever causes she wished to champion would be fairly benign. Think of the concern Prince Charles has for the destruction of beautiful old English buildings, or Laura Bush's literacy campaign or Ladybird Johnson's promotion of highway beautification. Wonderful causes all, but almost devoid of controversy. Diana spoke out against landmines in the face of America's pathetic refusal to ban them; she posed with horribly disfigured victims of these vicious little machines. It wasn't pretty, it was often shocking, and it did position the issue higher up on the list of concerns.

Ditto Al Gore. He's still laughed at, but with $4.50 a gallon in America, melting ice caps and increasing physical evidence of global warming (and more important, the need to do something about our lifestyle's wasteful tendencies), well Al's not quite the laughingstock anymore, is he?

The ahead-of-the-curve or outside-tradition nature of those two is why the messengers got so much more attention than promoters of other issues do, and god bless them for that. I don't think there's a name for that, they were just cases of a couple of well-known people really being on the ball compared to most other celebrity causes.

Similarly, the theory of relativity is not something most people need or want to think about. Most people don't understand it at all (likewise a lot of Hawking's work), and I think it's wrong to say that the celebrity of those two "overshadow" their achievements. The fact that they were and are such interesting *people* actually meant that their achievements are at least vaguely recognizable to people. In other words, they don't overshadow their achievements, they helped promote them. There are loads of scientific advances as important as anything those fellows achieve you don't know about at all, as there was no cult of personality behind them.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:36 PM on July 13, 2008


People have known the dangers of landmines and climate change long before Princess Diana and Al Gore came to be connected with them.

I don't know about that. I didn't even know about climate change until a couple of years ago - when I was young it was mainly about "save the trees" and CFCs (which didn't even have a celebrity component to them). While I see your point, I'm concerned that those issues live and die with the celebrity, and after they're gone people stop caring.
posted by divabat at 9:59 PM on July 13, 2008


At the risk of crossing a line or two, I've long maintained that the church is the worst thing to have ever happened to Jesus' teachings.
posted by DoctorFedora at 10:02 PM on July 13, 2008


Michale Moore's reputation (deserved or not) precedes him to the point where a sizable portion of the population are fundamentally opposed to his films regardless of the subject matter. I once got into an argument with a coworker who was bad mouthing Moore during lunch when I asked, "Have you even seen his movies?" to which he replied, "No, I don't need to see them because the guy is an asshole."

It's a stretch but I'd even include Osama bin Laden in there to. Who among us has really read his writings? Not that there is anything redeemable to be found there, but the guy's reputation is so caustic to the American psyche that it has led to at least one administration out right lying about his motives (He hates our freedom, etc) and getting away with it by the sheer fact that the only guy who has read his shit is Pat Buchanan and a few lefties...

Ditto for Mein Kampf.
posted by wfrgms at 10:59 PM on July 13, 2008


I'd have to agree with the esteemed Doctor. Large swathes of Christianity have been overshadowed by what I guess could be called Jesusism. Rather than taking the message--which I think was his whole point--people worship the messenger.

Minor nitpick; she was never "Princess Diana". In the UK, only women born to a title are Title Givenname.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 11:03 PM on July 13, 2008


People have known the dangers of landmines and climate change long before Princess Diana and Al Gore came to be connected with them.

I don't know about that. I didn't even know about climate change until a couple of years ago -

The former was pretty old news more than a decade ago, though I can't cite any sources except for the common knowledge Kyoto Protocol which attempted to deal with this issue in 1997. I certainly can remember doing a report on it while I was still in high school in Sarajevo prior to the war, so 1991 or 1992 or so. And if you read treehugger.com, they regularly come up with documentation and debate on the topic from the 1970s on.

The latter is *really* old news, as the issue was debated at least as far back as WWII, but for more solid proof of the issue preceding Princess Diana, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines was formally started a few years' before Diana uttered a word about them, and though this group led to the Ottawa Treaty, they were by no means the first organization to widely publicize the damage landmines cost. In any case, even this more recent group was founded from smaller groups and coalesced five years before Diana's involvement, though you can read plenty about anti-landmine activism from when Di was still in nappies.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 11:07 PM on July 13, 2008


Animal rights / PETA stuff
posted by low affect at 11:30 PM on July 13, 2008


At the risk of crossing a line or two, I've long maintained that the church is the worst thing to have ever happened to Jesus' teachings.

I'd say more specifically that a huge number of people's only exposure to the teachings of Jesus is from seeing televangelists. The message then becomes entirely about Benny Hinn / Paul Crouch / Creflo Dollar / Joel Osteen, etc.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 11:47 PM on July 13, 2008


What about Che Guevara? Most don't even recall what he stood for, and he has become an icon in the basest sense of the word. In most of the world, his image is largely divorced from the substance of his ideas.

On the flip side, one could argue that much of Freudian psychology survives only because of its attachment to Freud. If "penis envy" or other concepts had not been so closely associated with Freud, it is doubtful that they would have the same widespread infiltration in modern Western culture.
posted by kyleg at 1:01 AM on July 14, 2008


I would say this is one manifestation of the fundamental attribution error.

We tend to overemphasize situation when it comes to our own motivations, but with others, we do the opposite. I could easily see this extending to views and statements/actions by people -- it's not that they learned X, but that they're the kind of person who believes X, etc.. In which case, you're talking about something that's a fundamental part of human psychology.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 1:24 AM on July 14, 2008


Karl Marx? At least in the US, there's an almost inbred attitude toward Marx which seems to entwine and equate his thoughts and ideas with the worst of Soviet Communism. Sort of a Marx=Stalin mindset. This without ever having so much as looked at the covers of either Capital.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:46 AM on July 14, 2008


...or the Manifesto.
Clicked Post before filling-in the last sentence. ~reaches for more coffee...
posted by Thorzdad at 4:48 AM on July 14, 2008


Most of the time, when someone says 'I love you', it's about the person saying it, not the words.
posted by Phalene at 6:47 AM on July 14, 2008


how many people would understand Albert Einstein's Theory or Relativity or how it's relevant to today's world? How about Stephen Hawking's work on astrophysics? Has their "celebrity" overshadowed understanding of their work on a mass level?

Indeed, how many people do understand their works? Princess Diana and Al Gore were both famous in their own rights before they became associated with their respective causes. Einstein and Hawking became famous because of their works, and are (IMO) unlikely celebrities.

I think there are very different mechanisms at work separating famous people using their fame to draw attention to a cause or idea, and people who become famous because of the power of their cause or idea. I can't think of any rock-star scientists (well, maybe one) who make an idea famous because they are famous, or conversely, who drown out the impact of an idea with the force of their celebrity.

Perhaps Richard Dawkins—but that's taking a controversial idea (evolution) and attaching it to a messenger who's polarizing for other reasons (militant atheism), which results in the idea becoming even more controversial.

Cindy Sheehan became famous because of her protests against the Iraq War—again, this made her a controversial figure, and her opponents would use her association with any cause she was tangentially involved in as a way to demonize that cause. This is a little bit like what you're getting at—where the messenger overwhelms the message—but only in a negative way (as with the Michael Moore example above). I wonder if that could be a common theme: where it's more common for opponents of an idea using "negative celebrity" to demonize an idea the opposite.
posted by adamrice at 7:02 AM on July 14, 2008


Does anyone really remember what Osama Bin Laden's original beef was? For the record, he considered it a blasphemy that the Saudi government allowed American armed forces to be based in Saudi Arabia, the country that contains two of the holiest sites in Islam. Moreover, he's pushing for the re-establishment of a pan-Arab caliphate.

But that's pretty much gotten lost among the images of a guy in a cave and planes slamming into towers.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:03 AM on July 14, 2008


Gandhi.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 3:31 PM on July 14, 2008


I would venture a guess that a whole mess of people talk about Darwinism without knowing precisely what Darwin himself actually said/wrote/thought. I don't even know enough myself to say whether everything I think of as "Darwinism" really came from him.

Also, reading the question really made me think of Bono.
posted by bah213 at 4:19 PM on July 14, 2008


Buddhism and the Buddha. He was just a man, as he pointed out, and not a god to be idolized. Some sects remember this and discourage praying to his image; many Buddhists forget this crucial fact and worship him as something of a deity, and his message is lost in the worship.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 11:56 PM on July 14, 2008


Oh, and Richard Branson.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 11:58 PM on July 14, 2008


« Older Literary question   |   #@$%!!! Flash!! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.