Taylor Swift broke a career-long silence regarding her political views, and the aftermath raises serious questions about the role and responsibility of celebrities in the face of controversial political issues.
Until last Sunday, Taylor Swift had been infamously neutral when it came to politics, generating much criticism for not even denouncing the white supremacists who used her as an example of white femininity. She justified her silence by claiming she was too young and inexperienced to influence people politically, adding that her expertise was in music rather than public policy or political critique.
But a recent Instagram post put an end to that. Due to personal experiences and worldwide events, she decided to openly express her support for Democratic candidates Phil Bredesen and Jim Cooper in the upcoming midterm elections. And, unsurprisingly, this drew criticism as well. Many voiced opinions at Swift, ranging from the usual ‘you should have spoken sooner’ (see columnist Michael Harriot's strong recrimination) to the more aggressive ‘you should stick to music.’ Personal feelings towards Taylor Swift (or her music) aside, this conundrum raises a serious question concerning the responsibility to express—or to not express—political opinions, especially when you are in the public eye.
There are three common positions most people adopt regarding this issue. The first is the rather constraining view that celebrities should never voice their political view at all. Public figures, the idea goes, wield too much power and influence and lack the expertise or experience to provide well-grounded opinions. It is reckless, perhaps even irresponsible for them to do so. Taylor Swift advocated this stance in her own case, and other celebrities such as Nick Cave go as far as to denounce artists who take a political stance, as he said in a recent press conference.
I don’t trust artists who use their creative impulses as a platform to push their particular political agendas down the necks of their audience. I find that gross, to be honest. I don’t want to go onstage and preach to people about things.
It’s not uncommon to see this sentiment expressed all over social media, condemning the role celebrities have played in shaping movements such as #MeToo. Then again, most people who criticize politically active celebrities have no expertise in the views they espouse and promote. The difference is supposed to lie in that each of these individuals has less reach than a celebrity. So, it seems, as long as they have a sufficiently small number of followers, they are immune to their own criticism.
But then there’s no reason why educated or otherwise well-informed celebrities should remain quiet. In fact, the view that only experts can express their political views contradicts the very core of a democratic society. Most often, the leaders we elect are by no means experts in the fields they will be deciding on. Trump certainly had no more expertise in politics or public policy than any other business magnate or reality TV star, yet he gets to shape an entire nation. We don’t leave the final decision to a president’s expert advisors —we leave it to them, hoping they are well-informed. So, if being well-informed is enough for presidents, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be enough for celebrities. Be that as it may, it does seem that any public figure has more responsibility than less powerful people to at least inform themselves as much as possible in the subject they want to discuss —at least as much responsibility as they have influence.
The second position is that celebrities have a moral responsibility to always take a political stance. Celebrities have indeed a very powerful and influential position, and their fame provides a platform from which they can move their followers to action, put pressure on politicians, and ultimately enact real change. Taylor’s endorsement, for instance, reportedly effected a spike in voter registration, as Time noted. (Slate later specified that there may be other explanations). Whatever the case, it’s uncontroversial that celebrities can induce change. So, if they can do good from their position, does this not mean they have an obligation to do so?
Let’s imagine a general scenario. Suppose you see there’s going to be a mugging and you can call the police beforehand, but you choose not to because “it’s not your business.” Or suppose, alternatively, that a child is about to get beaten by their abusive parents, but you don’t interfere because “it’s not your place.” After all, you are no expert in ethics or child welfare policies. One final example. You know there’s going to be mass oppression in your community, and you can start a movement to prevent it. Yet you refuse to do so, since “no one asked for your opinion.” Wouldn’t you say there’s something wrong in your passivity in all of these cases?
The examples are not ultimately meant to argue in favor of Swift’s newly-found political voice. They are merely supposed to lead us to a very intuitive moral principle: if someone has the power or is in a position to prevent harm, they have a responsibility to prevent it. If we can save a child drowning in a lake by jumping in, not to jump seems morally questionable at best, and outright immoral at worst. Anyone who agrees with this principle will have a hard time defending the view that celebrities don’t have a responsibility to enact changes for the better.
After all, those who stand idly by in the face of evil are accomplices of evil. (Or, to paraphrase philosopher Edmund Burke, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing). As Einstein similarly expressed, “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it.”
Many public figures take this view to heart, and often combine their art with political criticism. Think of Roger Waters, who has been vocal in his disdain towards Israel’s treatment of Palestinians; or Bono’s campaigns against poverty (and against the policies that perpetuate it). Or Kanye West’s controversial support of Trump. Many artists, moreover, are ultimately known for incorporating criticism (or attempts to raise awareness about political issues) in the core of their art, such as Picasso’s Guernica or Orwell’s 1984. After all, what is art’s purpose if not the relentless critique of society and political affairs?
(Guernica, by Pablo Picasso, depicts the horrors of war in response to the bombings of Guernica)
But then there’s the third view: that celebrities can but are not obliged to voice their opinions. Perhaps the claim that each person is responsible to do everything in their power to avoid harm is too demanding. At the end of the day, many of us are in a position to help countless individuals across the world every day by donating most of our earnings or by giving them food and shelter in our homes. Yet few people would actually take seriously the idea that there’s that degree of responsibility. Perhaps it’s ultimately a matter of personal choice, and perhaps that choice ought to be respected. If someone doesn’t want to get involved, they could very well have a right to stay out of it if they so choose. Sure, many people will judge them for the worse, but it’s also a prudent tactic whenever one is unsure about the correct way forward.
It is hard to remain unbiased and neutral in today's tense political climate. Many people feel passionate about the topics that are at issue, including whether celebrities have a role in political debate. What do you think?
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