Why your selfies with Rob Ford are encouraging him

A picture taken of Rob Ford outside a Shell gas station in Metro Vancouver, where he was ticketed by RCMP for jaywalking.

In November of 2013, the Oxford Dictionary chose “selfie” as the Word of the Year.” Around the same time, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford had cemented himself as one of the most talked about politicians of the year. As these two phenomena converge, “selfies with Rob Ford” have become a hot trend on Twitter and Facebook.

Why do people take selfies with famous people and why specifically with Rob Ford? According to the New York Times’ Chuck Klosterman, who writes The Ethicist column, taking selfies with Rob Ford raises the question of, “What are the ethics of celebrating a public figure if the true motive is to ridicule him?” You can read the full answer here but the question of satire comes up. Are people taking pictures of the mayor to document a moment, to mock him or as political satire?

A small minority may in fact take a selfie with Rob Ford as genuine satire or irony. For many others, however, their supposed mockery more realistically represents a simple trend: It’s “cool” to take an insincere selfie with Ford.

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The more interesting posers are those who snap a pic with the mayor almost as a reflex and then try to explain it afterward. Although some of these people try to play it down or claim they were ridiculing Ford, the excitement and look in their eyes often reveals their true motives. They, like many fans, detractors and indifferent alike, seem to be demonstrating their fascination with celebrity.

Notwithstanding those who seek to make a profit off of their memento, many people take pictures with celebrities because these individuals have been built up to be special in some capacity, regardless of the reality of their character or accomplishments. On one hand, the average person does not really seem to distinguish between fame and infamy, celebrity and notoriety. On the other hand, many upstanding citizens want to temporarily unleash or at least indulge their “dark side” —which we all possess to varying degrees beneath our social persona—vicariously through other people’s inappropriate attitudes and behaviours, especially when they have achieved some notoriety.

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This is similar to the Al Capone mystique, whereby people would try to get close to or associate with the notorious gangster in some way, despite his reputation. It’s elevating themselves by proxy, so to speak. For those few seconds, they gain a very temporary but powerful sense of significance or value simply by sharing a brief moment with someone who has taken on almost mythical proportions in their mind.

As with Al Capone and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, for most people there is a limit to how much they are willing to deny, to overlook, to rationalize or to forgive before they finally see the object of their awe in a different light. In the meantime, they will keep on unconsciously distorting reality to fit in with the image they have created of the person: the image they want or need to maintain. You can read more about the psychology behind this phenomenon, cognitive dissonance reduction, here.

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With Al Capone, people would usually focus on his generous donations to charity, choosing to ignore how he gained his money. Others would try to frame him as simply a businessman doing his best to succeed in a particular economic climate—someone portrayed unfairly by his rivals, politicians, the media and others who supposedly had some selfish agenda. And never underestimate the power of charisma.

Not to compare Rob Ford to Al Capone in any way—and this is a good time to stress that I have never interviewed nor assessed the mayor directly—but many people are wondering why none of Ford’s transgressions has served as the “deal breaker” for even his staunchest supporters. Even if no single incident was a game changer, the public can be excused for questioning why an accumulation of his behaviours over the past few years, and this last year in particular, has not led to a sizable reduction in his support.

At the very least, one might ask why Rob Ford has not really changed much after all of the shocking and embarrassing videos, press conferences, media attention, police reports and so on. The answer can be partially found within every selfie taken with the mayor. Such signs of adulation enable and embolden Ford because he likely interprets them as proof of his popularity. During moments of doubt or other rough times, he can simply reflect on the last time he attended a sporting event, club or other public event where large crowds swarmed around him. Even if the majority of the people there are critical of him, he can be expected to very selectively attend to only the supporters.

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This would be similar to his focusing on only his political successes while completely ignoring his failures and the myriad other things he’s done that have turned off a lot of the public. Rob Ford seems to be a master compartmentalizer.

A few times over the past year, when it was clear that there was indisputable evidence to contradict Mayor Ford’s claims, the barriers that keep certain thoughts and feelings outside of his conscious awareness appeared to weaken. During one press conference in November in particular, following the release of the video of his “drunken” threats against an unnamed enemy, Ford could barely utter more than a few words. It seemed as if he could see his reputation and career crumbling before him.

For most people in such circumstances, the walls of compartmentalization would have soon toppled completely under the sheer force of reality. But Ford’s reality turned out to be different from what most would have expected: Everywhere he went, people continued to clamour for a selfie with him while offering words of encouragement. Each photo taken and each hand shaken afforded him a diversion; he probably had little difficulty disregarding the things in his personal and professional life that would overwhelm most people with shame, embarrassment, guilt or anxiety.

And what about all those people in non-ironic selfies with the mayor? Unless they truly believe Rob Ford has done no wrong or can compartmentalize as well as he seems to do, they have to justify their actions to themselves somehow: Why would they take pleasure in posing with someone whose actions they would probably condemn if committed by their neighbour?

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In line with the process of cognitive dissonance mentioned above, these people have to tell themselves something that will let them sleep at night; this likely includes framing Rob Ford in a more charitable light than they would have ordinarily done. And so the cycle continues, possibly long enough for them to be able to say they have a selfie with a mayor who defied the odds and got himself re-elected.

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