Patrick Swayze and the Fallacy of Dying Celebrity Wisdom

September 17, 2009

Actor Patrick Swayze died last week on Sept. 14, after a nearly two-year battle with pancreatic cancer.

The news media typically fall all over themselves in an effort to cash in on the latest celebrity death (from Princess Diana to Michael Jackson), issuing special edition magazines, quickie books, TV specials, and so on. Swayze was no exception, and in the months before he died he gave numerous TV and print interviews.

ABC television aired a Barbara Walters special in which Swayze, best known for starring in the two hit films Dirty Dancing and Ghost , was interviewed at length about his career, legacy, and disease. These interviews were often based on the strange assumption that the experience of dying from a disease bestows wisdom on the victim. Those facing impending death are thought to somehow have rare insights into the meaning of life, and Barbara Walters was there with a camera to share those life lesson nuggets for her TV audience.

Not everyone merits the treatment. Of course, the disease must be terminal and serious. We don't assume that people who have a cold or a broken arm necessarily have any special insights to life's truths. Foreknowledge of certain death must be an essential component.

But dying isn't enough; you also have to be famous. At any given time there are tens of thousands of people who are facing impending death around the world, from terminally ill patients to prisoners on death row. The media and the public aren't interested in their insights (if any) about their situation; it's only celebrities who we have seen on TV or in films whose deaths we see as significant worthy enough to merit our attention. Actors don't necessarily know anything about anything (Jenny McCarthy's anti-vaccine crusade is a great example), and there's no reason to think that the public should heed actor's beliefs and opinions.

There is of course some benefit from celebrities talking about their diseases. Lance Armstrong raised millions of dollars and awareness about cancer; Michael J. Fox lobbied for Parkinson's funding; Farrah Fawcett talked about anal cancer. But the vast majority of the coverage was focused not on the disease (which is a downer) but the survivor / eventual victim (who invariably offered inspirational words and slogans). Celebrities can bring focus and attention to their diseases-- though there's an ethical issue with that as well: why should a disease get more funding and attention just because a famous person suffers from it? What about ordinary folks suffering from ailments without a high-profile spokesperson?

This coverage is nothing new. When musician Warren Zevon appeared for this final television appearance with David Letterman, the host asked Warren if he had learned anything over the course of the past months, dying while recording the Grammy-winning album "The Wind." Warren, with his usual sardonic wit, replied, "Not really... just that you should enjoy every sandwich."

That's good advice, and it's probably a good idea to encourage people to carpe diem, seize the day. If a dying person's words help someone cope or live life to the fullest, that's fine, but we should acknowledge that the premise behind the coverage of dying celebrities is flawed at its core. Neither being famous, nor dying, nor a combination of the two, inherently bestows any special wisdom or insights on life.