During the lead-up to last year’s presidential election, both candidates recruited celebrities and other well-known public figures in order to champion their respective causes. Regardless of whether these figures had a tangible impact on the process, one of the things I find most troubling is when people outright dismiss the political opinions of public figures such as athletes and movie stars.
One of the most poignant examples of this was after the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO, when members of the St. Louis Rams football team (now Los Angeles Rams) raised their arms in a ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ gesture in support of the Ferguson protesters. Many criticisms were levied against the players, some suggesting that their actions were “tasteless, offensive, and inflammatory” (St. Louis County Police Association), while others, such as Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren, asked why the players felt the need to “ruin football with politics and controversy.” At Hollywood award shows such as the Oscars, winners often give politically motivated acceptance speeches, such as Leonardo DiCaprio’s call to action in regards to global warming, or Adam McKay’s demand for bank regulation after his victory with “The Big Short.” Ultimately, the critiques of political statements made by athletes and celebrities in general boil down to the idea that these public figures do not have the right to express themselves politically because they are only qualified to entertain us, not inform us about political realities.
This is an absurd criticism. Not only does it deny both logic and reality, it undermines democracy. I personally believe that when a person makes a political statement, one should evaluate it on the merits of the argument. If, for instance, an economist encourages one specific economic policy over the other (such as regulations on derivatives on Wall Street), because they have authority on the matter, I am inclined to defer to their judgement where I don’t have any personal experience. But ultimately, I am still going to evaluate what they say as separate from their qualifications. Likewise, if somebody who has no professional qualifications suggests that free market economics are actually preferable to regulations, I am going to evaluate what they’ve said based on the soundness of their argument. Just because you don’t have a graduate degree in economics doesn’t preclude you from being able to express your economic views or from having a reasonable, persuasive point of view. In the same way, athletes who express their political beliefs should not be discounted because what they are saying does not relate to their job. Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that the beliefs of athletes and other celebrities are inherently stronger arguments; I am only suggesting that they are not inherently weaker.
In addition, public figures using their celebrity status to make political statements is not a recent development. At the medal ceremony of the 200m dash at the 1968 Summer Olympics, gold and bronze medalists John Carlos and Tommie Smith (both of the United States), each raised a black-gloved fist in what is now known as a Black Power salute. Many of American novelist and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s works were informed by his left-wing and communist political background, and ultimately he was blacklisted by Hollywood for a time. No aspiring musician can avoid any of Bob Dylan’s protest songs, such as “Blowin in the Wind” and “Masters of War.” The same is true for any aspiring filmmaker with films such as “The Battle of Algiers” and “Schindler’s List.” Sports, novels, songs, and films all have political aspects to them; to suggest that athletes as well as the creators of these pieces of art should not be involved in politics at all and should be reduced to producing banal entertainment is to forget why this art is created in the first place.
I also want to mention comedy and satire. In the same way that films can function as forms of political expression, so too can comedy. The preeminent satirist that comes to mind is Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” In response to criticism about his show, Stewart has often remarked that he is “a comedian first.” It is important to note that Stewart does not mean to suggest that he does not attempt to make any political commentary, only that he focuses on comedy before he focuses on the political message when he’s crafting a segment. There are both comedic and political aspects to his satire. Being funny and having a political message are not mutually exclusive. The criticism that I’ve heard a lot about Stewart, but also left-wing satirists (such as Stephen Colbert and John Oliver) in general is that these two parts cannot coexist. Once you try to be funny, you can no longer be political. Again, I feel that this ignores the history of artistic creation and of satire–simply look to Mark Twain.
The reason I feel so strongly about restricting the political expression of public figures is that the political expression of anybody and everybody is critical to the success of democracy. When people’s voices are marginalized, even if those people are privileged, democracy is failing to function properly. Democratic governments should gain their power from every single person in a country, not just a small portion of people.
It doesn’t matter who you are; you have the right to express yourself, especially your political opinion. Being an athlete doesn’t delegitimize your perspective, nor does being a songwriter or a novelist. In the end, as long as you are able, hearing everybody’s perspective, whether you agree with it or not, is important to the successful governance of this country and other democracies around the world.