A good friend of mine was bothered recently by Meryl Streep's widely viewed acceptance speech at the Golden Globes last weekend. This was not because she disagreed with what Meryl Streep had to say; quite the contrary. What really bothered her about it was the broader issue of how much sway most celebrities have over popular opinion, simply because they are famous.
Although I agree with my friend that we should never consider a celebrity to be an expert on a subject simply because they are celebrity, I have to disagree with her that it is inappropriate for famous people to speak out when they have strong feelings about a subject. As individuals, citizens, and consumers, we should always employ critical thinking rather than blindly accept everything we are told. We should question the expertise of public figures, and hold them to high standards. We should trust the opinions of experts in their fields over the opinions of celebrities. However, that does not mean that all celebrity opinions are bullshit, or meaningless. It all depends on the context. I'm going to be very blunt: Donald Trump's opinions on climate change are complete and utter nonsense. He knows nothing about science, and he doesn't care about educating himself on science. I'm gonna go with the environmental scientists, the experts, when it comes to things like climate change. In matters of women's rights, I'm gonna go with what women and sociologists have to say on the subject. When it comes to racial inequality, I'm going to listen to my Black and Hispanic and Asian friends about their experiences (and sociologists and public policy experts).
I believe that it is the responsibility of those with an audience to speak out on behalf of those without one. In times of crisis, it is important to let your voice be heard. As an artist, my most important vehicle for activism is my art. As an actor, I choose to be an activist by telling stories that people can relate to. I choose to be an activist by spreading empathy and understanding through my characters.
Look. It's fine if you disagree with a celebrity. It's fine if you agree with a celebrity. I don't believe what I believe because Meryl Streep told me to. Rather, I appreciated her using her position of power to eloquently give voice to things I have already been thinking and feeling. She used her position of power to amplify concerns shared by millions of Americans, and to advocate for many people who feel oppressed, bullied, and abused. To be frank, in general I would much rather hear a celebrity speak about kindness and empathy and advocating for other people than hear them speaking about, I don't know, what kind of chap-stick they use. And I don't meant to say that every award acceptance speech should be a social justice platform; it's true, that is not what an award show is about. Yet, when people all over this country are experiencing very real anxiety about their future rights and safety, it's nice to know that someone who doesn't even know you personally understands your concerns. More importantly, it's powerful to have someone stand up for your rights and your well-being in front of the whole country. In times of political tension and uncertainty, it's important to exercise your right to free speech and your right to protest. If you choose to stay silent, you may suddenly find that you are no longer able to speak at all.