Well, another day, another lecture from a celebrity on why I’m a terrible, degenerate person.
These days, people like me (Christians, or people who hold conservative views on various social or political issues) can expect to receive a stern talking-to almost every week from someone rich and important and glamorous. Start looking and you’ll see these proclamations everywhere—and before long, you too can realize what a disgusting louse of an individual you really are.
A couple of weeks ago, Miley Cyrus decided that eating a cake in a vaguely pornographic manner was an excellent way to proclaim that ‘Abortion Is Healthcare’—even though, you know, it really isn’t. I mean, what a powerful and nuanced argument, Miley. I’d always thought I was pro-life, but you gave me so much to consider.
Of course, the subtext was clear: this is, like, SO obvious guys! It’s so obvious that the truth can fit on a cake! Everyone who’s anyone agrees. Everyone who’s anyone knows the orthodox position that they should embrace, so get with the program! And if you’re pro-life—if you believe that our default position should be to protect the lives of the most defenseless and vulnerable members of our society (the unborn)—well you’re just not with it (whatever it is). You’re a backward, horrible person who’s out to ruin people’s lives.
A couple of weeks before that, Jim Carrey had posted a disgusting cartoon of Kay Ivey, the Governor of Alabama, being killed—essentially advocating that she should die violently because she signed a pro-life bill into law. (Carrey’s pro-abortion tweet was actually a massive own goal, depicting one of the more horrific methods of killing an unborn child in the womb and reminding millions why they are pro-life.) Get on board, people. Get on board or you’re better off dead.
Then just yesterday, Taylor Swift dropped the video for her latest song, ‘You Need To Calm Down’.
Since most of us aren’t 11-year-old girls, we’ll watch the video or listen to the song and think, “that’s three-and-a-half minutes of my life down the toilet”. But the fact is that Taylor Swift is a (gulp) thought leader in our society, and millions of people are influenced by her. So the video is worth watching, and its message is worth considering.
For my money, the video is a study in bigotry. It plays entirely on tasteless stereotypes and tropes. The beautiful, tolerant people dance and have fun and celebrate everyone’s sexuality and gender fluidity together, while the stupid, redneck hicks—the trailer trash—foam at the mouth and wave misspelt signs in the Beautiful People’s faces. I watched the video with the sound turned off, but I still knew exactly where I was supposed to stand—who I was supposed to emulate, and who I was supposed to reject.
Combine that with lyrics like these: “Why are you mad when you could be GLAAD?” “Sunshine on the street at the parade, but you would rather be in the Dark Ages.” “Shade never made anybody less gay.” The video finishes with an explicitly political plea: “Let’s show our pride by demanding that, on a national level, our laws truly treat all of our citizens equally. Please sign my petition for Senate support of the Equality Act on Change.org.”
The message is clear: come ON you guys, just get over it! Don’t you know that people can marry whomever they want and have sex with whomever they want and BE whoever or whatever they want to be. The only people who could possibly disagree are the scary, inbred, slack-jawed yokels. It has nothing to do with thinking that God created marriage and therefore he gets to decide who can marry, or with believing that God created sex and therefore he can tell us when it’s good to have sex and when it isn’t. It has nothing to do with all the evidence of science, not to mention our common sense, telling us that there are only two genders. It has nothing to do with wanting to say to people, “Look, trying to change your gender is a bad idea; it won’t solve your problems, and it may well create new ones—so why not forget the gender stereotypes and accept that there are many ways to be a man and many ways to be a woman, and do your best to get on with being the man or the woman that God made you to be.” Nothing to do with any of that; it’s all just bigotry and stupidity. You Need To Calm Down.
(By the way, this is a huge part of why Trump won. The dominant cultural forces in American life had spent years telling ‘middle Americans’ that they were bigoted, hate-filled people simply for holding average, conservative views that they’d held for decades. Those middle Americans thought to themselves, “that’s not who I am—I’m a decent person”. Then along came Trump, positioning himself as a spokesman for the maligned average American and offering a gigantic middle finger to the cultural elites. I’m not sure I entirely blame them for jumping on his bandwagon.)
Now look, I’m not here to impugn Taylor Swift’s credentials for offering moral leadership and thought leadership to our society. I’m not here to argue that she’s showing all the signs of capitulating to the angry, frightening voices of Progressive Leftists who, until about six months ago, believed she hadn’t done enough to speak out on political issues or to advance the Moral Revolution.
Come to think of it, yes I am. I’m here to do those things.
But in all seriousness, I’m not arguing that celebrities like Miley Cyrus or Jim Carrey or Taylor Swift should just stick to singing and acting and that they should keep quiet about everything else. If society offers you a soapbox and a microphone, climb up and say what you want to say. If we choose to give the microphone to unqualified dopes and then we listen to them or allow ourselves to be influenced by them, that’s our collective funeral. But they have every right to use their free speech to advance whatever causes they think are important, or to make an argument, or to use their artistic talents to woo people to their cause. I mock Taylor Swift’s shortcomings as a political spokeswoman, but (like Cyrus and Carrey) she’s no idiot. She knows how to use her voice to influence people. Maybe we can even learn from her.
And a good argument is a good argument whether it’s made by a famous person or a normal person—and the same is true for a bad argument. Celebrities should say what they want to say, and ordinary people who disagree should do whatever they can to rise up with better arguments and show why the Beautiful People aren’t always right. Marshal the facts. Show why they’re wrong.
So to what am I actually objecting? Two things.
First, why oh why do we listen to celebrities? Why have we collectively decided that, because someone is good at singing songs or playing games or making movies, their opinion on political or ethical matters is more important than the average person’s? Sure, every human being’s opinion is worth listening to and considering, but why do we give such oversized value to the opinions of celebrities? Why will this article be read by a few thousand people, instead of a few hundred thousand people if I happened to be “Geoff from Married at First Sight”? Why has our collective obsession with fame confused our public discourse so badly?
I guess that’s the answer: we live in an age that’s obsessed with fame and celebrity. That, and we’re so given to thinking with our feelings. Miley Cyrus may have no solid argument to make about why abortion is healthcare, yet it feels good to be on the side of someone so beautiful and creative and popular and famous. But it makes no sense. It’s a stupid way to form our convictions and reach our moral conclusions.
Second, disagreement will (and should) always be part of a pluralistic society like ours. That’s good. But I long for disagreement that is based on substance, rather than divisive name-calling that maligns and stereotypes anyone who disagrees with you. I long for a society that is willing to go beyond soundbites and dismissive clichés when it comes to figuring out what’s right and what’s wrong.
In our current climate, all sides contribute to this mess. But I contend that the Political Left and the forces of secularization are at the forefront of these problems. What masquerades as ‘tolerance’ has actually become incredibly shouty, much too quickly given to dismissing or intimidating or attacking opponents, rather than respectful listening followed by attempts to persuade with winsome, high-quality arguments.
I long to see more Secularists or people on the political and social Left who could say, “You know, I don’t agree with those Christians” or “I don’t agree with those conservatives” but who would quickly add, “but they’re people of integrity and good will, and their arguments should be heard and considered.”
Of course, I long for more and more Christians who give others reason to say, “they’re people of integrity”. And I long that we would treat others as we long to be treated ourselves: not imagining that they wake up in the morning thinking, “I’ll destroy Western civilization if it’s the last thing I do!”, but instead seeing them as people who, within their faulty worldview, are doing their best to make the world a better place. Taylor Swift is trying to help; she’s just really misguided about what’s actually helpful.
One final thought: Living through America’s 2016 election night was a heady and disorienting experience, and every time you stop and think ‘Donald Trump was elected President’ it should still make you sigh in amazement. But whatever you make of Trump v. Clinton, one part of it makes me smile: imagining all the celebrities sitting around on election night, mourning, then shouting into the wind: “WHY DIDN’T EVERYONE LISTEN TO US?!?!” (I don’t actually hope that happened, but you get the point.)
The celebrities of our culture could have learned some great lessons from that fateful night. Perhaps they could have realized that lots of people are pretty good at thinking for themselves instead of taking their moral and political cues from Hollywood (being the last bastion of morality that it is). They could have realized that average people with fairly average views—like killing babies is bad and that there are only two genders, for example—don’t really like being told that they’re deplorable for holding those views.
But it seems to me that, instead of learning any of those lessons, the Rich and Famous have double-downed on lecturing the hoi polloi about our failings at every opportunity. And that’s not going to change any time soon.
So I suppose all we can do (and by ‘we’ I mean those of us who hold views outside of the cultural mainstream) is, for starters, to keep examining our beliefs. If cultural pushback happens to expose any real bigotry or any flawed thinking on our part, be willing to change. But don’t change just because it’s easy. Don’t get caught thinking with our feelings; think with our minds. Scrutinize arguments (or lack thereof). Dig deeply into our convictions and see if they can withstand the fire of celebrity scorn and cultural disapproval. Know what you believe, and know why you believe it.
Once we’ve done that, whenever we get the chance, grab the microphone and push back. Sometimes we can afford to laugh off our celebrity scoldings for what they are; but sometimes we’ll want to argue back. Win the day with arguments. Hold our ground. Speak the truth in love, and trust that the truth will win the day—at least among those who are willing to listen.
That, and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. He’s quite famous—but he’s also quite worth listening to.