I’ve been seeing a pattern in social media lately: a celebrity known for being “progressive” says or does something, well, not very progressive, and becomes a target of abuse. And then, just as quickly, legions of fans rush to defend them. For a few days, the internet is locked in battle. Patricia Arquette, Tina Fey, Lena Dunham. Now Trevor Noah, the incoming host of The Daily Show, is the center of a fight over misogynistic, anti-Semitic, transphobic tweets. A sample:
Are these people all hypocrites hiding their self-interest and privilege in the guise of progressive politics, or is call-out culture demonizing well-meaning celebrities for simple mistakes?
Chill out. Your fave is problematic. Deal with it.
I don’t care who your fave is. It’s true for all of them.
The fact that your fave is problematic isn’t a big deal — the big deal is if we ignore it. Patricia Arquette’s Oscar speech was entitled, privileged and racially insensitive. Tina Fey’s new show is racist, Trevor Noah has made transphobic and sexist and anti-Semitic jokes, Lena Dunham’s feminism is very privileged and largely excludes women of color. They have contributed to systems of injustice that oppress others. These things are all true.
Patricia Arquette is a dedicated women’s rights activist and a talented actress, Tina Fey is a ground-breaking comedic writer who has opened doors for many women, Trevor Noah is a very talented comedian whose new role as host of The Daily Show is important to the visibility of people of color in the media, Lena Dunham is a very talented writer who has accomplished great things at a young age and has changed the way we view young women in the arts. These things are also true.
So can we just talk about it?
Our reluctance to have an honest and open conversation about the flaws of celebrities we love stems from a simple fact: we see ourselves in them. If your favorite smart, talented, successful celebrity can be classist, sexist or racist then what does that say about you? Well, it says that you can be classist, sexist, racist, homophobic, or transphobic.
But you can and you are at least some of these things sometimes. So am I. Own it. Learn from it. It’s not an attack, it’s the truth. Nobody is a perfect example of civil rights virtue. If you aren’t screwing up, you aren’t trying.
You’ve made a misogynistic joke, you’ve had a classist response to a homeless person, you’ve felt unjustified fear of a black man, or you used to say “That’s so gay” as an insult. You did these things, and they were shitty things to do. I don’t care about your motives, I don’t care how long ago it was. You did them, and in that moment, you were sexist, classist, racist, homophobic, ableist, whatever. You have hurt people, even if you didn’t mean to. And if you are a grownup truly committed to your values, you have admitted it and done your best to learn from it. But chances are, if you can’t handle facing it in a celebrity you don’t even know, you haven’t been able to face it in yourself.
We are not our intentions. Our intentions don’t mean squat. We are our deeds. Everything we do, good and bad, makes us who we are. Our honesty and integrity are what matter. Being anti-racist doesn’t mean that you are never racist, it means that you recognize and battle racism in yourself as hard as you battle it in others.
Just like our celebrities and ourselves, the movements we champion are also problematic. Our feminism is racist, classist and transphobic. Our anti-racism is sexist. Our LGBT rights movement is racist and classist. They are all ableist. Acknowledging this isn’t divisive: ignoring it is.
But oppression isn’t really upheld by virulent bigots, it’s sheltered in the intentions of “good” people like you and me. People too concerned with seeing themselves as good to recognize where they have been bad. It’s time to hold ourselves accountable to the values that shape our movements. Grow up, own up, do better.