Tuesday, January 10, 2017

An Unpopular Opinion: Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes Speech

            My Facebook feed has been abuzz with political news again this week. This is almost never a welcome sight. I grow weary of seeing my friends (conservative and liberal) share heavily biased news articles and misleading memes from Facebook pages like “Trump is the New Sauron” or “Clinton Deserves Death.” I see this as one of the fastest way to spread misinformation and lose friends. Even posts from my fellow conservatives have this effect on me. But the latest political debacle struck a chord that few news stories do. This controversy, I believe, hits at the heart of free speech and what it means to be a celebrity and have influence. When it comes to this case, I find myself at odds with many of those who vote similarly.

            In case you have been under a political rock for the last few days, actress Meryl Streep is in hot water for using her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes as an opportunity to comment on the importance of diversity in Hollywood, the press, and the dangers of mockery as a political tool. While I believe that some of Streep’s claims were overly sweeping, I overall find myself agreeing with what she had to say.

Any storytelling medium has an important role to play in empathy. It has the unique ability to enable us to step outside of our ordinary life and walk a mile in a stranger’s shoes. Books like Night, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and To Kill a Mockingbird have done this to great effect. Films like Schindler's List, X-Men, and even Star Wars have captured audiences hearts by honestly portraying the Holocaust, symbolically representing the disastrous effects of prejudice, and powerfully presenting the hero’s journey. Hollywood has only been strengthened by diversity. Foreign directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang come to mind. The answer to Hollywood is not to ban diversity but to enter the filmmaking community. If you dislike the films being produced today, make better films or support those who do. Censorship is not the answer. By the way, I don’t believe that it is fair to characterize President elect Trump as wishing to exile all immigrants nor would the American film industry implode even if he somehow managed to do just that (though, I believe that it would be a shell of what it is today.) Streep’s characterization of Trump’s policies were somewhat unfair but her underlying point remains. Hollywood (and the arts community at large) is benefitted by diversity.

In addition, I agree with Streep’s thoughts on the press. The press plays a key role in holding our elected leaders responsible for their actions and bringing corruption to light. (Whether or not the press effectively does this is another question entirely.) Freedom of the press is a very important element of the American democracy and a freedom that our Founding Fathers protected it by name in the Bill of Rights. Limiting the press by censorship or intimidation can only hurt a nation. If you disagree with a position a news source purports, argue against it. Form a well-reasoned response and object to it publically. There’s a great deal to be said for the dialectic. Again, if you dislike how the press operates today, get involved. Write op-eds. Become a journalist. Support the news sources that are relatively unbiased or, at the very least, fair in their reporting. Contribute to the discussion. Don’t degrade yourself and the conversation by resorting to mockery. Again, whether or not Trump engaged in this type of mockery may still be up for debate and I don’t care to publically take a side. However, there is something to be learned from his response to Streep. His Tweet could be characterized as an ad hominem attack. Poor move, Mr. President elect. Again, object with an argument, not an attack.

            Now that I have established why I agree with most of what Streep had to say, I want to address two major objections I’ve seen against her speech. I have seen it argued that she should not have delivered her speech because the Golden Globes was the wrong venue or that celebrities should not comment on politics.

The Wrong Venue

            I consider this to be the stronger of the two objections and it has some merit. The Golden Globes is an award ceremony for entertainers. Politics has little place there. Setting aside the fact that Streep’s speech tied into two key parts of the media (the press and film industries), I believe that this objection falls through. There is a long tradition of speeches given at what could be considered an inappropriate venue changing history.

Athenian leader Pericles used a funeral speech to spur his native Athens to keep fighting Sparta in the war that resulted in the very deaths he was commemorating. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass used an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence to shine a light on the plight of slaves in his powerful speech “TheMeaning of July Fourth for the Negro.” In a case that parallels Streep in many areas, author William Faulkner used his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech to dramatically illuminate the changes that resulted from a post-nuclear era. In a case of, perhaps, a genuine misuse of a platform, Pastor John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg in January of 1776 delivered a stirring sermon concluding with him removing his clerical robes to reveal a Colonial uniform, inspiring many of his congregation to enlist.

My point is this: some of the most influential speeches have been delivered at venues that could be seen as inappropriate. If one is to condemn Streep for her use of her speech at The Golden Globes, it would seem that one must also condemn these speeches and many others. While there is certainly a discussion to be had as to what the proper venue is for speeches on certain topics, I would be hesitant to condemn Streep’s speech on this ground alone. While her speech certainly had much to do with politics, it tied into the media in many places and included numerous references to those attending the Golden Globes. In my opinion, Streep’s speech seemed to be decently well suited to the venue. In fact, her speech was far better suited to the Golden Globes than many of the speeches listed above.

If one wishes to condemn Streep on the grounds that her speech was inappropriate to the venue, one must first show where specifically it was inappropriate and either condemn the speeches above as equally inappropriate or show how her speech is significantly different.

Celebrities Shouldn’t Talk Politics

Another objection to Streep’s speech is that celebrities shouldn’t speak out about their political views. While not as strong as the previous objection, I believe that this objection has some grave implications that cut at the heart of free speech.
The reasoning for this objection seems to go a few ways.

1. Celebrities should not share their political views because of how many gullible people they have influence over.

2. Celebrities should not share their political views because it’s not their place in society.

3. Celebrities are too out of touch with the everyman to share their political views.

4. Their comments don’t have any real impact so they shouldn’t share their political views.

I would like to address each of these arguments in turn but first let me share why I have a problem with all of them. Every objection seems to limit political free speech to a certain group (only those who have the role of political commentary or have a small circle of influence or understand the everyman, etc.) Free speech is a right guaranteed to all US citizens by the Bill of Rights. Like Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Speech is a right so key to this nation that it is protected by name in the constitution. Yes, this right has limits (violence and indecent material are not protected by this right). However, the decent, nonviolent voicing of positions (even very strong positions) is protected under free speech. 

Once we begin to limit this right, we put ourselves at risk to be silenced. There are some positions I find vile (anti-Semitism, abortion, governmental registration of religious groups) however, I will fight to my last breath to protect the right to voice these positions. I want these positions openly voiced and discussed. With these positions available for discussion, anyone can object to and argue against these positions. That is how ideas are silenced, not by censorship but by making their abominable nature so evident that they are no longer relevant to society. As soon as we limit free speech to a specific group, our ability to combat bad ideas or even spread good ideas comes into jeopardy. This is why I want Meryl Streep and other celebrities to be able to spread their positions. I want to be able to argue for or against them (as I am doing in this article). Moreover, if I am ever in a position of influence on the scale of Streep, I want to be able to voice my positions freely. Free speech is no longer free if it becomes limited to a specific group.

Now to respond to these arguments in turn:   

1. Celebrities should not share their political views because of how many gullible people they have influence over.

This version of the argument is particularly dangerous. Who decides what a celebrity is? Am I a celebrity because I have 500 Facebook friends (some of them probably likely to at least consider a position because I hold it)? When do we silence someone? When they have 500 followers? 1000? 10,000? Yes, people are gullible but free speech assumes an informed public able to weigh ideas. I would like to think that the general public, when educated, could appropriately evaluate ideas. This, however, is not a question of the influence of speakers but quality education. I want Streep to be able to spread her ideas regardless of her influence.     

2. Celebrities should not share their political views because it’s not their place in society. 

Again, says who? Who decides what one’s role is in society? This objection seems to be most often lobbed against celebrities who use concerts or performances to spread their political ideas. If the public has a problem with this there is an easy solution, stop attending their events. Make it clear that one doesn’t appreciate the use of converts to spread ideas. This isn’t censorship, it’s the free market at work. Celebrities can still share their positions but not at concerts because tickets to those concerts won’t sell. I don’t believe this type of pressure negates free speech. Instead, it appears to be a kind of protest.  

3. Celebrities are too out of touch with the everyman to share their political views.

            This objection and the next one comes from a quote from Mark Wahlberg commenting on the Meryl Streep debacle. Again, who decides whether or not celebrities are in touch with the general public? If a celebrity is out of touch with the general public, they shouldn’t be silenced. Instead, they should be informed that they are out of touch and helped to get back in touch with the general public. Or they could just stay out of touch. I’m probably pretty out of touch with most of my generation. I don’t want this disconnect to stop me from being able to share my positions.    

4. Their comments don’t have any real impact so they shouldn’t share their political views.

            This objection borders on absurdity. Lots of people’s positions and best speeches and articles probably have little impact on others. Why does this mean they shouldn’t be free to share their positions? Since when has influence been a requirement for speaking? In addition, this objection in the case of Streep is ridiculous. Streep has caused a huge stir with her speech. Obviously, people are listening and she is having an impact.

            Each of these objections implodes. They all seem based on variations on the following phrase, “Political free speech should be open all except celebrities because_______.” This “except” is the root of the problem. Free speech is free to all. There is no “except” in the constitution. Applying an “except” to any form of free speech (with the exception of violence or indecent material as reflected by previous government rulings) has the potential to backfire. Free speech is no longer free with an “except.” I want celebrities to be able to speak freely because I want everyone to be able to express any idea. If you have a problem with an idea, use your free speech rights and object to it, don’t try to limit the ability of your opponent to speak freely. Again, there is a great deal to be said for the dialectic.


            When I watched Meryl Streep deliver her speech, I noticed that she was visibly shaking as she began. Clearly, this was a difficult speech to deliver. Clearly, she was nervous to deliver. I admire her willingness to share her position reasonably and eloquently. I admire the fact that she refocused the dialogue on the importance of the media and the press. While I doubt I would agree to Streep’s political opinions, I agree with much of what she had to say at the Golden Globes. I don’t believe that it was an inappropriate venue for her speech and, in fact, see it in the lineage of many influential speeches. I don’t believe that she shouldn’t talk about politics merely because she is a celebrity. I believe that any argument that limits her ability to speak on politics merely because she is a celebrity edges dangerously closely to damaging free speech, one of the most important rights guaranteed by the Bill or Rights.

            Perhaps I’m an idealist to believe that reasonable dialogue is still possible in this generation. Perhaps I’m too much of an academic to see that free speech and open discussion is impossible. I have to believe that we are still capable of honoring the hopes and dreams of our Founding Fathers reflected in the Bill or Rights. I have to believe that even celebrities can and should share their beliefs and we can and should carefully respond to them. Streep’s speech is a prime example of free speech used right. She was respectful and eloquent. Even if you disagree with her position, you owe it to her to respect her right to free speech and respond in kind. In her speech Streep said, “Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.” I believe that it’s right. I have to also hope that reason invites reason and open discussion incites open discussion. For the sake of those rights we hold most dear, we cannot resort to fallacious objections and foolish attacks. We must model the principles of free speech modeled in the Bill of Rights. I encourage you to watch Ms. Streep’s speech and carefully consider what she’s saying. If you disagree, by all means object, but do so with reason. I would like to hope that this article models exactly the kind of reasoned dialogue for which I am pleading.   

            I conclude with a quote that has transcended it’s initial use and sums up the idea I’m attempting to communicate, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.” - Evelyn Beatrice Hall

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Feel free to comment! One of the reasons I blog is to interact with my readers. Don't hesitate to leave your thoughts or contact me with any comments, questions, or concerns. - James