Trendy comedienne Amy Schumer posted this tale of a recent encounter with a selfie-seeking fan on Instagram:
“This guy in front of his family just ran up next to me scared the shit out of me. Put a camera in my face. I asked him to stop and he said ” no it’s America and we paid for you” this was in front of his daughter. I was saying stop and no. Great message to your kid. Yes legally you are allowed to take a picture of me. But I was asking you to stop and saying no. I will not take picture with people anymore and it’s because of this dude in Greenville.”
She included the resulting photo of him above, which
a.) Made him an instant celebrity
b.) Made him an instant target,or
Later, she “walked the statement back,” as they say in politics, and tweeted,
“I’ll still take pictures with nice people when I choose if it’s a good time for that. But I don’t owe you anything. So don’t take if I say no.”
The smiling young man with the blurry thumb is named Leslie Brewer. This weekend, he contacted the Fox affiliate in Greenville–apparently everything will be happening in North Carolina from now on—to defend himself, and since conservatives hate Amy Schumer, Fox was eager to give him a forum. The resulting story, in part:
“Brewer said he was walking down the street when several other pedestrians started shouting that they spotted the celebrity at a stoplight. He said he pulled out his camera to Instagram it, but stopped recording when she asked.
“I did it in a non-threatening way,” Brewer said. “She says I got all up in her face, and it was completely different from the video.”
Brewer said he was upset when Schumer brought his daughter into the conversation and the two had a disagreement about him recording the video. He said Schumer began walking away but then turned around and came back. He thought she was going to apologize but said instead, she told him she was going to take his picture and share it with her four million followers.
Within minutes, the photo was rapidly gaining attention.
“It was literally five minutes and it was like, everywhere,” he said.
This is Rashomon, of course, and we can assume that both Schumer and Brewer are telling the truth, describing the event as they experienced it. The ethics issue—what do celebrities “owe” their fans when the celebrities are not performing, but are simply trying to go about their life in public?—was most recently discussed here, when the unconsenting target of a fan’s camera was Bill Murray, and he chucked the phone off a roof-top.
The ethics verdict at the outset is this: Schumer was right, and Brewer was wrong. Presumably Brewer did say something close to what Schumer reported, and while a common belief, it is an unethical one. Several commenters on Schumer’s Instagram post agreed with Brewer’s manifesto, and condemned Schumer. This has been a delusion of members of the public since the first celebrities started making a business out of fame, but the rise of selfie-mania and cell-phone videos have turned everyone into a potential paparazzi.
The truth is very simple. Celebrities can’t run from their recognizably and fame, but they have as much right to be left alone and treated with fairness, consideration and respect when they aren’t working as anyone else. Thus they have as much right to be annoyed when someone “sticks a camera in their face” as anyone else, and ought to be annoyed when anyone, blurry thumb or not, says, “we own you.”
Brewer needs to brush up on the Golden Rule.
What do celebrities in public owe the rest of us when they are off-duty? No more nor less than we owe them: polite, appropriate, considerate conduct. That does not include acceding to every request for an autograph or a selfie. There are famously nice and accommodating celebrities, and people like Murray and Alec Baldwin, who are not nice, because they are not nice people. I would argue that celebrities have an obligation to model good behavior as citizens and human beings for those who pay an excessive amount of attention to them, but good behavior doesn’t include the duty of smiling and surrendering to bad manners and presumptuousness when a stranger sticks a phone camera in their faces.
Some other questions raised by this incident:
Is this news worthy of a news segment?
No. A currently hot but ultimately inconsequential female comic has a brief altercation with a fan and posts it on social media? I won’t say who cares,since depressing number of people do, but why should anyone with a life of their own care? If it really is true, as Brewer said, that the incident was widely publicized, this validates my choice of news sources, because I missed it completely until Head Ethics Alarms Topic Scout Fred flagged the Salon article.
Is it unfair for Schumer to punish all fans for the conduct of one?
No. First, it’s not “punishing” anyone; she has a right to say to the world, “If I’m in public and not working, leave me alone.” Second, it is fair warning. Her subsequent amendment that she won’t rule out allowing photos if she feels like it is also reasonable. The message: “Try me if you want, but if you are obtrusive or I’m not in the mood, I’m going to say no.”
Is there any way to take a video of someone in public without their consent and have it still be “unthreatening” as Brewer argues?
As a celebrity, isn’t it unrealistic for Schumer to think that she won’t have to cope with the Brewers of the world?
Yes, but put yourself in her place. She just wants to dress down and do stuff without being confronted, assaulted, or asked to do things for strangers, after a lifetime of being able to do just that. Two years ago, nobody ever heard of her. How long do you think it would take you to get used to people gawking and staring and taking photos of you whenever you stepped out your front door?
Was Schumer publishing Brewer’s photo with her critical comments ethical?
No. It was vindictive, and “tit for tat” is a rationalization. As the Salon article points out, however, he didn’t seem to mind, but she didn’t know that, and made him a celebrity-of-the-day out of animus.
I will end with an observation I believe I have made before. The rage for selfies together with photo-centered social media like Instagram and Facebook appears to be feeding an epidemic of narcissism, especially among the young. Narcissism is a personality disorder, and this is not just an unhealthy development but a potentially disastrous one. By the time some definitive research has been performed that reveals that cell phones are turning us into obsessive self-loving idiots, it may be too late.
I’ll admit it: I am at the other extreme. I avoid photographs generally, and have never sought or saved my own. I also do not comprehend anyone who feels like their worth has been enhanced in any way by having a picture taken with a public figure, especially a historical and cultural footnote like Amy Schumer.
This is probably not the right attitude either, but it has the advantage of making me appropriately wary of narcissists. The increasingly narcissism-driven youth of America inflicted one narcissist on the nation when they elected Barack Obama, and after two terms of him, a large portion of the country seems to not be appropriately horrified by an even worse narcissist knocking on the White House door.
So there’s one more thing to blame for Donald Trump.