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When Should an Entertainer Speak Out?

Meyrl Streep’s calling out of Donald Trump at the Golden Globes Awards ceremony last night is on the one hand inappropriate: she is an entertainer, and viewers would like to hear about her art, not her politics. 

Yet the way she did it was classy—explaining the theory of the arts as a vehicle for moral imagination and fellow-feeling:

“An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us, and let you feel what that feels like. And there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that. Breathtaking, compassionate work.”

She goes on, not mentioning Trump by name, to call out Trump as an actor with power who uses his power not to enlarge moral imagination, but to shrink it—to pick on the weak and vulnerable as easy targets, the way a bully would:

“But there was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good; there was nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh, and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back.”

And further:

“It kind of broke my heart when I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head, because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kinda gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.”

Meryl Streep’s speech was couched in her understanding of her craft, and relevant to the award she was receiving. 

So, my take is nuanced.  As a general rule, entertainers and performers should consider the venue and when it is appropriate to express their first amendment rights.  Generally, this would not be “on the job” but rather on the entertainer’s own time and dime. 

When Colin Kaepernick kneeled for the national anthem, we can sympathize with his reasons for wanting to complain, but not with the time and place.  The quarterback is paid to entertain by throwing a football, and the owners of the San Francisco Forty-Niners can dictate what he does on the field.   His protest was not particularly relevant to pro-football.  He can, if he chooses, resign his position if he is forced to do something on the field against his will.  (By contrast, think of Muhammed Ali going to jail to protest the Vietnam war.)

The Hamilton play protest in November was defensible on the grounds put forth here because the producer and director who hire the actors were in support. 


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