By Mitchell Barrington
The topic of last week’s opinion page was whether celebrities should use their platform to
advance their political views; Maddy Garrett wrote for the statement, Riordan Zentler against.
Both parties proposed rather interesting arguments for their positions.
Garrett began her piece by claiming that not only are “celebrities… individuals who have
their own beliefs”, but also that they are “just as able as citizens as the rest of us” before asking
the reader: “if you had a platform, wouldn’t you want to voice your opinions in the hope of
influencing others?” All of these statements may be acceptable, but the fact that celebrities have
political views, says nothing about whether they should express them or not.
Garrett then delved into the rights that celebrities have to voice their views, stating “It is
also essential for people to understand that celebrities’ right to speak their opinion is protected
under the First Amendment,” to infer that “celebrities have a duty to use their platform.” The
problem with this argument is that a right is not the same as an obligation; by law, I may have
the right to cheat in a relationship, though that certainly does not mean I have an obligation to.
Garrett’s counterpart, Riordan Zentler, began his piece by identifying that celebrities’
opinions often don’t represent the views of the citizens, asking “When and where are the voices
of blue-collar workers represented?” The answer is on election day. Though, the fact that no
celebrities express these people’s opinions would obviously not change if celebrities stopped
expressing opinions altogether. Further, if an important issue isn’t identified by one source, give
your business to another – whether that be the purchase of a newspaper, traffic to a website, or a follow on Twitter.
Zentler proceeded to rebuke the actions of Shia LeBouf’s anti-Donald Trump art
project, saying “The purpose of a protest is to give a podium to the voiceless, and we are failing
miserably at it.” The problem with this argument is that it is the voiceless who give the
celebrities power. If you don’t like the actions of a particular celebrity, give your support to one
whose you do like.
Last week’s arguments were lacking in cogency, though it is certainly easier to critique
than to be critiqued.
From the fact that one is famous, we may not conclude that their contributions to political
discussion will be quality. We may, however, be able to reason inductively that their stances
ought to be taken seriously if they have conveyed consistent profundity. This, however, is most
certainly not the case. Recording artist B.o.B claims to believe that the earth is flat, Jim Carrey
advocates the widespread boycotting of vaccinations, and Chuck Norris called evolution as a
scientific theory “cute.”
Such gross displays of ignorance are indicative of an underlying problem in our society.
Why do we go to celebrities for important issues in the first place? Why do we think B.o.B, Jim
Carrey, and Chuck Norris are going to have any expertise in the fields of geography, chemistry,
and evolutionary biology? In fact, why do we care about the personal lives of people who have
found success in music or film in the first place? This peculiarity is of particular concern, since
celebrities no doubt have influence over the views of many people in this country – even in these areas of non-expertise.
Perhaps it is because we find common ground with them. Polls consistently show 40-50%
of Americans disbelieve evolution (along with the Secretary of Education), opposing 99.9% of
scientists; 94% of scientists say climate change is a serious problem, and only 65% of the public
(but not the President) agrees; and there is a growing concern about the nonexistent link between vaccines and autism – stemming from one study in 1998, in which the scientist, Andrew Wakefield admitted to deliberately falsifying results. Despite the study’s results being discredited and not ever being reproduced, Americans voted in a celebrity for president who has publically expressed his support of the vaccine-autism correlation (or lack thereof.)
The need to hear what celebrities say about issues they have no expertise in stems from a
fundamental flaw in our society. Though, fortunately, ignorance is not a subset of fame.
Celebrities like Bill Nye (mechanical engineer), Neil DeGrasse Tyson (astrophysicist), and
Richard Dawkins (evolutionary biologist) are constantly trying to reach out to the uninformed
Public. Nye has spent his life since his hit TV show Bill Nye the Science Guy trying to make
scientific understanding accessible to people of all ages. DeGrasse Tyson continuously interacts
with celebrities in the public eye to explain the science that many have mistaken views of. And
Dawkins, after revolutionizing evolutionary biology by introducing the concept of gene-centered
evolution (and coining the word “meme,” of course) in his book The Selfish Gene, has been
grounded in the public eye, refuting America’s idiosyncratic disbelief in evolution.
I don’t listen to Dr. Dawkins sing because I should think he is rather poor at it. Listen to
musicians play music, watch actors act, and for goodness sake, stop caring about them as soon as their influence extend beyond their expertise.