On cultural significance and the value of a life

With Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett dying on the same day, there are a lot of articles discussing them together. This one at MSNBC is a pretty representative example.

In reading the coverage, I can’t help but think that Farrah Fawcett’s cultural significance is getting pumped up. Not to say that she wasn’t a major cultural icon. But I think there’s something else going on.

As a culture we like to think that the value of a life is unmeasurable, and therefore all lives are equally sacred (economists be damned). Nobody would say that the extent to which society publicly mourns somebody’s death is a measure of their worth as a human being (most of us don’t get TV specials when we die). Media coverage is a function of fame and public impact, and private funerals are about mourning a beloved person, and those are usually completely different spheres. But the fact that Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson died on the day puts us in the uncomfortable position of looking at their deaths side-by-side. Fame and human worth get mixed together in the media coverage of somebody who has just died, and it’s hard to only apply one standard and not the other.

In this case, if we step back and look objectively in terms of cultural significance, I don’t think it’s hard to reach the conclusion that Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson were not on the same level. That isn’t to diminish the place that Fawcett held in society. But few people in history could measure up to Michael Jackson, who triggered a tectonic shift in how our culture thinks about music, dance, race, and celebrity. Rationally we can acknowledge that inequality without implying that one person’s life was more valuable than the other’s. But I suspect that on a gut level, it feels vaguely ghoulish to do so too loudly. So the end result is that Fawcett may be getting credited for even greater cultural significance than she otherwise would have.

(Related tangent: I can’t be the only one who feels uncomfortable every year during the Oscar tributes to Hollywood folks who’ve passed away, seeing the famous actors get louder applause than the obscure cinematographers. I suspect it’s the same sort of conflict between fame vs. human worth that’s driving that discomfort.)