When It Comes to Politics, Should Celebrities Speak Out or Stand Down?

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Photo by Bissartig on Pixabay

I’ve always been perplexed by how some celebrities can be so eager to present themselves as enlightened citizens of the world while simultaneously behaving as if the Bible, Rust and Corn Belts are altogether separate from that world. The entertainment industry is but one liberal part of a much more diverse — and much more conservative — whole, yet it seems that for many of America’s biggest and most influential stars, the huge red sliver of land that sits between New York and California is little more than a colossal anachronism.

Not surprisingly, that hasn’t gone over well with many on the right, whose collective frustration with the so-called “coastal elites” helped author one of the most talked about stories of 2016.

It’s not hard to understand where these flyover country conservatives are coming from. In fact, there are a few celebrities who figured it out long before Donald Trump’s stunning ascendancy to the White House.

In a December 2016 interview with Reason, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain offered a rather blunt assessment of the state of liberal politics in America. “The utter contempt with which privileged Eastern liberals such as myself discuss red-state, gun-country, working-class America as ridiculous and morons and rubes is largely responsible for the upswell of rage and contempt and desire to pull down the temple that we’re seeing now,” he explained.

Of course, it’s utterly bizarre that we attach so much weight to the opinions of the rich and famous to begin with. Politics isn’t the province of professional actors, athletes or musicians, and the average celebrity is no more qualified to speak about economics or foreign affairs than you or I. So would it perhaps be best for everyone involved if celebrities agreed to finally sit down and shut up about politics?

Absolutely not.

To be blunt, it’s entirely unreasonable to suggest that silence is the price celebrities should have to pay for their fame and fortune, and conservatives do themselves no favors when they demand that celebrities refrain from speaking out about the issues they hold dearest to their hearts. A person’s passions are among their most defining features, and it’s downright absurd to expect anyone, famous or not, to voluntarily suppress those passions because you might be offended by them. In fact, that’s precisely the mentality that conservatives are fighting against on college campuses all across the country.

Our society is already much too vindictive and censorship-happy when it comes to political discourse. And yes, in many industries — and perhaps most especially in academia — conservatives are disproportionately targeted for their political views. But to my conservative friends and acquaintances, I say this: The answer to your problem isn’t to try and bully celebrities into silence; it’s to stand up to the people trying to silence you and your superstar peers.

That being said, it’s equally important for liberals to bear in mind that just as celebrities are never obligated to bite their collective tongues on any subject, they are also not obligated to lend their voices to any specific political campaign, movement or faction.

Supporters of the #MeToo movement have been rightfully reminding us that men need to respect the agency of women, that consent is of the utmost importance, and that no human being is entitled to another person’s body. By that same token, no human being is entitled to another person’s activism. But it turns out that there are some folks on the left who don’t quite see it that way.

Taylor Swift, for example, has received a lot of flack for not speaking out more in support of progressive causes. But these criticisms are wholly unfair and demonstrate a troubling sense of entitlement on the part of her detractors. Swift is under no obligation to act as anyone’s advocate. Her time, her voice and her labor belong exclusively to her. Consumers of her music are entitled to one thing and one thing only — the entertainment they paid for. Nothing more, nothing less.

Her critics might counter that her obligation is not to her fans, but rather to herself, and that standing strong and speaking out against President Trump and his conservative agenda is a moral imperative that no decent person could possibly ignore, let alone someone with as influential a platform as the one Swift inhabits. But even if you agree with the premise that pushing back against Trump qualifies as an act of moral necessity, why the focus on a celebrity like Swift? Is it because she’s a woman who happens to project an image of confidence and self-sufficiency, one that ought to inspire young women everywhere to take life by the reins and become the trailblazers they were meant to be? And is that not a worthy contribution to the progressive cause in and of itself?

But for argument’s sake, let’s assume that she does indeed have a moral obligation to support the #Resistance. Why is it also necessary for her to advertise that support to her legions of fans? Last time I checked, there are no universal rules for activism that Swift is obliged to follow. She’s free to pursue any political goal she wishes, and she’s free to do so in whatever fashion she deems appropriate. If she wakes up one day and decides to publicly unleash her activist self on the world, that’s fine. However, if she were to start engaging in behind-the-scenes activism while continuing to keep her political activities separate from her public life, who among us could claim the authority to judge her efforts insufficient?

The world in which celebrities reside may appear quite alien to most Americans, but let’s not forget that celebrities themselves are still very much human. And like all human beings, the choice to stand up and speak out about politics is a choice that they and they alone are entitled to make for themselves. Conservatives and liberals alike would be wise to respect that, lest they invite even more accusations of hypocrisy from their adversaries on the other side of the aisle.

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