Why does this pictue make people wince? (LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)

He stepped onstage, and the crowd went nuts. “REMEMBER KIDS: It's not enough to punch a woman to win a Grammy. You also have to steal dance moves & lip synch poorly,” Rob Delaney tweeted. More than 1400 people retweeted the sentiment.

Chris Brown occupies the peculiar circle of pop cultural Hell reserved for people who have done something everyone agrees is awful.

That’s rare, these days. If you want to be universally despised, even comparing someone to Hitler — generally a good way to earn opprobrium — falls flat. Defecate on a flag? Someone might call that art. But hurt Rihanna in any way, as Brown did in 2009...

That’s one of the few unforgivable offenses. Perpetual whirlwinds and Dante’s reserved parking spot under Satan’s tail are too good for you.

After all, we are the People Who Read People. We love Rihanna. But what a strange and meaningless statement that is. Love requires an object. What’s the object here? The elaborate, wild-haired confection of summer jams and perfect teeth that shows up on our YouTube hit lists every month or two, like clockwork? The mechanized beats? The hair? That powerful, distinctive wail? Under that, somewhere, is a person, of whose existence we frankly have no idea — except that she is collaborating with Chris Brown again, and we do not approve.

We saw the awful pictures when he hit her. “Well, we said, “That’s over. So much for his career.” We felt a little sorry for him. But he’d brought it on himself.

Years passed.

If he seemed to want our forgiveness, we might have granted it. Instead, he showed up in commercials as though nothing had happened. He emerged with an album entitled F. A. M. E. (Forgive All My Enemies) — as though, somehow, he were the one who deserved an apology. Time and time again, he’s failed to display anything other than bewilderment at all the negative attention.

It’s one thing to demand that someone spend his life paying for one mistake. But Brown doesn’t seem to have paid at all. There he is performing at the Grammys. There he is winning one. I thought we had all agreed as a society that he was to be banned forever unless he demonstrated a real change of heart? Why is he still being shoved at us? Why is Rihanna collaborating with him, in guest verses that are enough to turn your stomach?

Yelling at Chris Brown is a new national pastime, or at least yelling at Rihanna for not yelling at Chris Brown. He’s giving Quisling a run for his money as Most Widely Despised Collaborator Of All Time. Plus, he’s not even that talented. End his 15 minutes and give someone else a turn.

What’s worse is that Rihanna doesn’t seem to be on board with our indignation. It’s the murderous tango of abusive relationships.“This is awful,” we yell, “This man is bad news.” That’s the trouble with our peculiar relationship to celebrities: If we knew these people, they’d be getting an earful. But the glass cage of celebrity offers no protection to anyone and mutes our shouting. We get a great view, but we can’t stop the crash.

We can’t believe that anyone would walk back into this. We should know better, now. Burton and Taylor may be a distant, unpleasant memory, but we fought hard for this knowledge. The loud uproar against Brown is a minor triumph. They can force him on our stages, but they can’t make the rest of us applaud. As a society, we have come to see that abuse is abuse, and there’s nothing exciting or tempestuous about it.

But people are more complicated and bewildering and foolish than that. Or perhaps it’s the machine that’s too cruel. Celebrities are plastic dolls with hearts.

Is it, as Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon suggested, about creating a narrative of Bad Romance and reconciliation to loop viewers in? It’s in terrible taste. But it’s gotten us talking. If anything on earth would incite us to listen to those grating plastic jams, this would. They offer little inducement in themselves.

Is all of it a stunt? Or is none of it a stunt?

In the unforgiving gears of celebrity, it all grinds out about the same. We yell. We pound the glass. Indignation? Adulation? They only notice that the crowd’s responding.