Why do celebs think they’re social commentators?

October 8, 2015 - LIMA, Peru - Young Entrepreneurs as Drivers of Sustainable Growth. 2015 World Bank / IMF Annual Meetings. Lima, Peru. Moderator: Antonio Caño, Editor in Chief, El País; Allen Blue, Co-Founder, LinkedIn; Mariana Costa, Co-Founder, Laboratoria; Jim Yong Kim, President, World Bank Group; Sean Penn, Founder, J/P Haitian Relief Organization; Ashish J. Thakkar, Founder and Executive Chairman of Mara Group; Blanca Treviño, President and CEO, Softtek. Photo: Franz Mahr / World Bank

By Dan Heard

The renowned American author Mark Twain once said “It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt”. Is it just me, or do very few celebrities actually do this these days? Only last week, former boxer Manny Pacquiao sparked an enormous controversy following comments he made regarding gay people and same-sex marriage, in one instance even calling them “worse than animals”. “It is common sense,” the eight times World Champion said. “Do you see animals mating with the same sex? Animals are better because they can distinguish male from female. If men mate with men and women mate with women they are worse than animals”. Perhaps the most shocking thing is that Pacquiao made the comments (for which he later, thankfully, apologised) on a site promoting his campaign to win a seat in the Philippine senate in May. Was it just a ploy to gain the support of the far more conservative, Christian voters? Or do Twain’s words speak more truth than Manny ever could?

Even the great and the good from the world of film and TV put their foot in it far too often. Three-time Academy Award winner Meryl Streep recently went off script (pardon the pun) as part of her role as head of the jury at the Berlin Film Festival, and waded into the centre of the uproar over the lack of diversity in the film industry. During a press conference for the festival, Streep deflected questions about the all-white, seven-member jury by answering, “at least women were included” and “we’re all Africans really.” While the former is an issue she has campaigned for relentlessly during her career, the latter only ignited further debate over the snubbing of black actors at this year’s Academy Awards. Now, though an issue regarding awards and nominations may appear to be within the remit of actors to have an opinion on, Streep’s comments appeared unusually dismissive and quite crass. It’s almost like something Sean Penn would say.

Ah, yes, Sean Penn. A man who gives Bono a run for his money in the “how far up my own arse can I go” stakes. There is no issue, politically, socially, or economically that he feels is beyond him to offer his input on. Renowned for his activism and his extreme left-wing views, a few years ago he called on Britain to relinquish what he referred to as its “colonialist, ludicrous and archaic” hold over the Falklands Islands. I’m sorry, but what the hell do the Falkland Islands have to do with Sean Penn? He didn’t stop there though on his moral crusade. Only last year he made his way deep into Mexico to interview the infamous drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman for Rolling Stone, only weeks after Guzman’s dramatic escape from prison. The move again drew criticism, not only from literary critics (for his weird, lapsed interviewing style) but even from the White House, who called it “maddening”.

And this is the thing. If I want to hear an analysis of a boxing match, or a critique of a film (or just an explanation of what the hell “I Am Sam” was meant to be. You’ve got two Oscars you didn’t deserve anyway Sean…), then of course I’m interested in hearing what these people have to say. After all, these are issues in which their opinion holds the most weight, seeing as it’s their profession. Yet if I want an update on migration, or the economy, then I want the opinion of an academic, an expert, a journalist. Because you’re good at acting, or sports, or can just about sing in tune, this doesn’t qualify you as a social commentator. Yet the opinions of the rich and famous are now seemingly more widely accepted than any expert (but let’s face it, if you’re listening to celebrities on global affairs, you’re not really asking the hard questions, are you?). You could argue that it’s good to see passion and commitment to causes from these personalities- but does that mean, for example, we’re meant to feel more or less sympathy for something just because a celebrity says so? Mark Twain’s words couldn’t ring truer.

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