If you’re like me, you were shocked to discover that Steve Martin was spearheading a law to make it illegal to play any instrument that wasn’t the banjo. Mr. Martin’s cause was immediately met with pushback as folks claimed that he should just tell his jokes like he gets paid for and leave the music curriculum to music professionals. What does Steve Martin know about music? Besides, it’s not fair because he’s a celebrity. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, it’s because I made it up. We are seeing similar stories unfold through which brings us to today’s topic: celebrity-engaged citizenship.
“Shut up and dribble” has become something of a rallying cry against celebrities who have the audacity to voice their opinion. For a handful of reasons, it is thought that celebrities shouldn’t be involved in social/political conversations. I disagree wholeheartedly. All citizens should be involved in the discourse of the state, and that responsibility isn’t reduced based on how recognizable you are. There are some specific concerns against celebrity citizens and none of them hold much water.
“It’s not their job. They get paid to entertain us, not tell us how to live our lives.” True. Celebrities are paid entertainers. If that’s all it takes to bar comment on social issues, then nobody outside of elected officials can make political comments. It also means that nobody who isn’t a professional athlete can comment on the pitching rotation. Nobody who isn’t a professional actor can critique a movie. If professional experience is required for commentary, it’s going to be a very quiet world.
“It’s not fair. That celebrity has more money and public presence than I do.” True. Some individuals have advantages you don’t have. LeBron James is 15 inches taller than I am. That doesn’t mean that he can’t play basketball so that it’s fair to me. It means I must work harder, (much harder) if I want to have a chance. That’s the way things are sometimes. If James ever wants to talk Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, he’ll be at an equal disadvantage. Things aren’t always going to be fair. You can whine about it or you can find the venue where the imbalance is in your favor.
“What do they know? They’re just a pretty face.” Exactly! The distinguishing feature here is being a pretty face, or a gifted athlete, or some other situationally valuable aspect. That doesn’t give the celebrity any more (or any less) of a right to speak. That’s the point of the First Amendment. The First Amendment doesn’t say anything about being listened to, though. If you think somebody doesn’t know what they’re talking about, don’t listen. Please note that “working in a different field,” is not the same as “not knowing what they’re talking about.”
That’s what it feels the individuals who make this argument are really getting at. They just don’t like what that celebrity said. They followed the celebrity’s career and thought they could relate to the individual. It’s a quintessential component of hero worship. Sometimes your hero will let you down. You either have to change heroes or change your stance on the issue.
Every citizen has a right (and I would argue a duty) to speak out on issues facing The State. The number of championship rings, academy awards, or Facebook friends does not in any way increase or decrease that right. We are all citizens. If a citizen that you admire has a different take on an issue, good. That’s how democracy works. We should all be engaged citizens, celebrity or not.
Adam Moderow is a Highland Community College professor, Winneshiek Players board member, assistant for the Freeport High School Speech Team, Eagle Scout, and a firm believer that tea makes everything better. You can follow him on Twitter at @adamoderow.