Charlie Sheen, as advertised
Charlie Sheen is in the news for being a degenerate playboy. This, to me, illustrates the bipolar nature of Western morality or, more accurately, mores. In the case of celebrities, this is found through two magazines. Vogue and People. One shows celebs as they’d like to be portrayed and the other as they actually are. It’s neurotic.
When Charlie Sheen says that doing drugs, partying, and sleeping with porn stars is winning, in a sense he’s right. In one particular pole of American norms, that is winning. I grew up in Middle America and the rites of adult passage were drinking, doing drugs and trying to get laid. It was only later that I realized that this wasn’t really for me, but even in Sri Lanka the pull of those norms is strong.
Take any wedding. The priest talks about love and fidelity and then they serve copious amounts of booze and people get down to 50 Cent on the dancefloor. I’ve heard some seriously amoral lyrics at the most square weddings, not to mention the fact that most kiddie parties at McDonald’s seem to feature Akon.
It’s as if we (the westernized included) expect this quaint morality in the public sphere yet want to get high and horny in private. What makes Charlie Sheen taboo is the fact that he’s talking about it. It’s perfectly OK to destroy yourself as long as it doesn’t intrude on the public sphere. Sex, drugs and rock and roll is glorified in music, film, advertising and personal conversation, but not to be done in public, especially in connection to politicians or public figures.
Part of this is because culture updates every year whereas religion seems to update every 2000. You had Judaism, then a Steve Jobsesque figure named Jesus unveiled Judaism 2.0, the New Testament. Then Mohammed revealed Judaism 3.0, Islam. Since then, nothing much. Maybe the first Sai Baba. In the Indian tradition, you have Hinduism then Buddhism. The multiplicity of Hinduism and the simplicity of Buddhism are, I think, actually quite suited to the modern age. I find Hinduism very suitable for understanding Indian bureaucracy and human frailty and Buddhism very suitable for living.
The mores (norms or standards) of all of these religions, however, are somewhat out of date. Attitudes towards homosexuality or sexuality in general, for example, or even prescriptions on food or dress. These moral foundations have all evolved into behavioral guides which are actually not well adapted anymore.
Drugs are not actually bad. Done too much, yes, but they are not inherently bad. The sages consuming soma and composing the Vedas could have told you that. Sex is not bad either, and you don’t need to be married. Most people have historically gotten high and laid and continue to do so.
The problem is that many moral cultures simply say that these things are bad and we’re not talking to you anymore. Thus, people who get into that ‘counter’ culture have no guidance at all, and they’re the people that need it the most.
Take American drinking laws. As a young man I learned about drinking by taking 10 shots of Absolut Vodka and ending up passed out in a bathtub while my friend was trying to finger his girlfriend. I was 16, and that was fucking retarded. If you want to try marijuana, you’d go through someone who also sold nitrous oxide and cocaine or whatever. Also dumb. Imagine if you could have wine with your parents or buy marijuana from a legitimate store. There would obviously be some better norms associated with the behavior. Even obviously toxic drugs like heroin seem to be dealt with better by decriminalization (like in Portugal).
Trying to ban natural behaviors like sex or drug taking tend to force it underground. Shutting gay people out of institutions like marriage means that society left them no structure but promiscuity. Making drugs illegal meant that otherwise normal people needed to associate with criminals. Denying the truth and nuance of human behavior basically makes things worse.
Charlie Sheen really seems like he’s addicted to drugs and needs help. He is, however, right in that his lifestyle is fun and many people sitting at home with their ugly wives and kids (his quote) are probably jealous. But people are calling him crazy because that’s not OK to say. It’s OK to use that desire to sell people body spray or concert tickets, but you can’t actually talk about it openly. While Charlie Sheen is crazy in that he seems to have little instinct for self preservation, what he’s saying isn’t actually insane. That hedonism is part of America’s collective unconscious and it is actually something legitimate to say.