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What Charlie Taught Me

March 8, 2011

What does it mean to be pro-life? How can one be an advocate for the protection of the dignity of the human person?

These are big moral questions that form the basis of much Catholic moral theology.

For most of us, the answer to the pro-life question is simple. It means standing up against abortion, the destruction of human embryos for stem cell research, and euthanasia. While these are certainly the most recognizable and agreed upon issues in the pro-life community, there are others that find themselves under the pro-life umbrella, such as opposition to the death penalty or opposition to war, especially when it results in the loss of civilian life.

The issue of the dignity of the human person is a little bit more vague for a lot of folks. We agree that forced (or any) prostitution undermines the dignity of the person. I would probably have a tough time, too, finding anyone who told me that human trafficking helped encourage a healthy respect for human life and dignity of persons. Again, these are the easy issues to identify because they point to issues that are so far beyond any moral ambiguity.

The other night, however, in the midst of a conversation with my wife, Michelle, I started really thinking about what the less obvious answers to these questions might be.

In my writing about marriage and sexuality, I have focused a great deal on the sinfulness of objectification. When I say objectification, I mean looking at another human being, even if he/she is your spouse, and seeing him/her as an object by which you might achieve sexual gratification. The issue, at it’s core, is one of lust versus love.

The teachings of the Catholic Church focus on sexual relations within marriage as a mutual gift. That is, rather than trying to possess one another in the marital embrace, the couple strives to give themselves to one another in the sexual act, seeking each other’s gratification. They act in a way that gives out of love, not a way in which they try to possess out of lust.

Objectification is a fairly easy thing to define when speaking in sexual terms, but how often do we thinking about objectification in more general terms, and the affect is has on how look at and treat other people? The realization that dawned on me (and I admit, it’s probably not revolutionary) is that all life issues and the questions of the dignity of human persons come down to the objectification of people.

Human trafficking and prostitution are the objectification of people being bought and sold for some express desire. Abortion and euthanasia are the objectification of human life as something that can be discarded when it is undesirable or when it’s not “worth living.”

All of these issues point back to people being devalued purely for their humanness, and being re-valued in some other terms.

So, you might ask, what debate of moral issues led to this line of thinking?

Charlie Sheen.

I, like most of Americans, have not been able to avoid the crazy ramblings of the man who has obviously lost his mind to drugs, alcohol and sex. I’ll admit that some of the things he said actually made me laugh. However, in really thinking about what Charlie Sheen represents in American culture, I can’t help but see one more example of a person objectified.

Charlie Sheen is being objectified by the news media, because his brand of crazy brings ratings and advertising dollars to their bottom line.

Charlie Sheen is being objectified by the American people because we look at him and see, not a man who’s life is falling apart, not a man who looks like he hasn’t slept in weeks and could, conceivably, drop dead any moment. Rather, we see a man who can provide us with entertainment.

In last week’s blog post, I made mention of the fact that our celebrities no longer provide us entertainment with just their various crafts. We look to our celebrities to provide us with entertainment through their various life triumphs and failures. We pore over gossip magazines to find out who is dating, getting married, fighting, getting divorced or sleeping together. We look at these people, not as people, but as objects to provide us with some entertainment through the highs and lows of their life experience.

I am not arguing that this fascination and objectification of celebrity is something new. I believe that those who hold prominence in any society have always been the focus of salacious gossip and a general fascination from the culture at large.

All I’m proposing is that, perhaps, we who are most tuned in to issues of justice and holding up the dignity of the human person need to widen our gaze and realize that, even in ways we haven’t considered, our culture is objectifying people and undermining their dignity.

By recognizing such a truth, I don’t claim that we can change the values of the culture at large, but rather, that we can ensure that we don’t contribute to the problem or unwittingly buy in to the every day reality of dehumanization and objectification.

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