The curious case of JK Rowling, Kanye and their fellow celebs — Platforms and misinformation
Quelle surprise, J K Rowling has yet again drummed up headlines through using gender as part of her latest book narrative. That headlines are trumpeting that she is a transphobe, that oxygen on talk shows if being taken up as to whether she is or not and not focusing on more pressing issues. One would almost think that the press would rather drum up outrage over a seemingly small issue than focus on the bigger political shitshows going on. However, having not read her book, and as per my previous post I am never likely to, it brings up a wider point about why J K Rowling’s attitude towards trans people and human biology matters — namely she is a celebrity with a broad following, her mild commentary and liking of more radical elements encourages those radical elements, and she espouses an outdated scientific approach to the subjects she is discussing. This is a critical issue for many celebrities, as often they use their platforms to promote ideas and philosophies that do not jive with science. It is this idea of celebrity platforms that makes them both compelling and possibly dangerous, and why we need to analyse our attachment to celebrity culture.
I confess that there are very few people in the public eye who I would turn to for advice, and those I have I know personally. Everyone has an opinion about most things, and in the age of social media it is easy to develop and promote a platform through social media to promote those views. Prior to the rise of social media most celebrities would have manicured images, controlled by corporate contracts and massaged by agents. The internet has allowed them, and us, to be more candid and open about what we actually think and feel, and when you have the limelight it is easy for your thoughts and opinions to carry more weight than possibly it should. Anti-vax, racist, homophobia, and misogynist behaviour that possibly would have flown under the radar in a gossip column not twenty years ago is now fodder for those desperate to find totems for their beliefs.
What makes mild anti-science and anti-rights dangerous is not what celebrities think or believe, it is the platform they build and promote enabling those of a more radical bent to move into the public eye and be seen as respectable. For every mild questioning of vaccines and the science behind them, there are tens, hundreds, thousands of people absorbing this information and feeling validated in not having their children vaccinated. In turn, when a child dies of measles or some other easily preventable disease the question then comes back to who is culpable. The same goes for homophobic and transphobic murders. The same for misogynist rampages. An acceptable face for misinformation and hate allows the fringe to operate and act as if they were validated.
Throw into the mix that those with celebrity platforms are often used as stool pigeons, repeating rhetoric on television, Youtube, and other mainstream media owned by large corporations who have a vested interested in selling a certain slant on the world. Joe Public is rarely, if ever, invited onto these shows as they do not attract large audiences. Even those learned in a subject rarely get mainstream platforms unless they are a lamb to the celebrity wolf. Ratings help sell advertising, in turn helping turn a profit for the corporate masters. Views that run counter to the mainstream, or fight back against perceived political correctness, gain traction because it is easier to relate to a conspiracy theory or a loss of power than it is to accept the plain facts that the world is changing and we may have to change along with it.
Transphobia and anti-trans rhetoric have built up due to the ongoing culture wars in the English speaking world. Homophobia is once again on the rise across Europe. Anti-vax demonstrations threaten to derail the Covid recovery once a vaccine is rolled out. The Antifa backlash is being harnessed by the far right as a way of exercising autocratic tactics. Each of these has celebrity backers, enabling and espousing patent misinformation, and yes free speech is essential, but there are consequences for misinformation not being challenged or accepted at face value. This is the critical issue with celebrity platforms, namely that the larger the celebrity to more difficult it is to critically engage and work through the misinformation they are spreading. It sucks all oxygen from more important issues that a really worth more of our time and attention, it makes resolving those same issues harder because people would rather talk about the celebrity and their platform.
Yes, some celebrities use their platforms to effect meaningful social change, Marcus Rashford and Colin Kapernick being important ones in the last two years. However, the societal impact of those net positives are potentially being outweighed by those celebrities who use their platforms in ways that harm the very fabric of society. It is easy to get swept up and not critically analyse not just the message, but who the messenger is tacitly and overtly supporting. J K Rowling uses her platform not just to say what she believes, which is her right, but also to promote and support others, whose work and opinions actively arm trans and non-binary folk. Many other celebrities are the same, with milder public messages backed up by support for fringe opinions and groups. For all the enjoyment we might gain from their work, there comes a point when the holistic societal net harm of a celebrity becomes too much to ignore. This is why it is far more than simply what a celebrity says, but also what a celebrity does and allows to be done in their name. It is why celebrities like Pew Die Pie are deplatformed by their sponsors and backers over outrageous behaviour.
Each of us has to make an active choice to engage with a celebrity, to enjoy their work, and to tacitly or overtly accept their world view. Some believe it is possible to divorce a creative from their end product, and to a degree we all do it when we consume any form of media; yet, we also acknowledge that it is impossible to untangle celebrities from their work completely, Tom Cruise and Michael Jackson are but recent examples of this. We actively enjoy problematic content because we actively choose to gloss over certain celebrity platforms. We are all hypocrites to a degree, but there comes a point where we draw lines in the sand and say enough is enough. Disengaging from celebrities can be hard, especially when you enjoy their creative output, but sometimes that is the only way to combat the misinformation and enabling their platforms carries. Everyone is free to say what they wish, but that freedom comes with the consequences of pushback and being ignored.