The “artists’ letter” on Brexit, actors with political opinions, and Richard Armitage (?)

I am aware that this is a fraught topic, but I hope we can talk about the meta-issue. To wit: I think the question about artists and the legitimacy and effect of making their political opinions public, with the subset of Richard Armitage as the example we can discuss, is the interesting one — not whether or not the UK should remain in the EU. I’m hoping we can stick with that problem, as it’s come up here several times over the years and commentators often say interesting things. I don’t want a repeat of what happened last time, in light of the #nowalls post, which is that some people insisted on commenting on the actual political issue and made personal attacks that break the comment policy, and I blocked them. If you’re in doubt about the appropriateness of your comment, please make sure that it isn’t ad hominem.

Tweet of 2/25/16, deleted on 2/28/16.

Tweet of 2/25/16, deleted on 2/28/16.

This week, 250 British artists published an open letter in which they urged UK voters to vote “remain” in the upcoming referendum about whether the UK should maintain its association with the EU. Perhaps most notoriously, Benedict Cumberbatch signed, as have some other UK artists with whom Armitage has worked (Tim Pigott-Smith and Anna Maxwell Martin from North & South, for instance; Richard Curtis from Vicar of Dibley; Andy Harries from Strike Back) or people that we know he knows either well or superficially (Chiwetel Ejiofor; Kristen Scott Thomas; David Oyelowo; Helena Bonham Carter, to name a few). Equally, many people with whom Armitage has worked did not sign. Some names that come to mind quickly: Martin Freeman, Peter Firth, Iain Glenn, Dawn French, Lesley Manville, Ian McKellen.

We can’t typically say why someone didn’t sign — perhaps they weren’t asked, for instance, or the request didn’t cross their path. Perhaps the signatories reflect a pattern or social circle whose signs are opaque to me as a non-initiate (like most class divisions in the UK). Perhaps the letter’s organizers sought a particular profile of artist. Perhaps non-signers are pro-Brexit. Perhaps non-signers think actors should not express political opinions (or at least certain kinds of political opinions — because some non-signers certainly support other political campaigns). It’s always interesting to speculate. For instance, Derek Jacobi and Patrick Stewart both did sign, which makes it seem likely that Ian McKellen was at least asked, as he is old friends with both and he is of high stature in the British arts world. Moreover, he has expressed an anti-Brexit opinion, although it hasn’t been widely reported. Perhaps some artists see a difference between expressing an opinion when asked and signing a petition to be widely publicized that might be seen as a prescription.

Of course, any speaker with a large audience might be understood to be speaking prescriptively when expressing even an opinion to which he is entitled as an individual. In essence, it is difficult for us to speak separately from our occupations and expected audiences, one reason that I could not state a political opinion while I was a professor at a public university, either in public or in the classroom, without repercussions. In Texas my primary vote was a matter of public record. Armitage seems to have been dimly aware of this difficulty in his longer message on the refugee situation, leading to the counter-productively defensive posture that he took in those remarks. (I say this because at least 15 percent of the tweeps who responded to him reassured him he did have a right to an opinion — which meant that his defensiveness distracted readers from what I assume was his main point about the need to address the refugee crisis. Lesson one of English composition — there are few occasions when it is effective to undermine yourself as a speaker; if you choose this route, don’t do it clumsily). His remarks at least since the beginning of the Hobbit press indicate his concern over the question of the wider significance of what actors say about what they think about issues other than acting.

Richard Armitage is not a signatory of this recent letter, and we will never know why. I do remember someone wondering at some point in February (I can’t find the comment now) about whether he would express a direct opinion on Brexit and my surmise that he wouldn’t; he referred obliquely to the UK referendum in February, and so perhaps he thinks he has hinted at what he thinks on this topic when he concludes that section of his marks with the note that he’s writing about the kind of world he wants to live in, which does not involve him speaking prescriptively as an artist but only as a human. Still, at the time, some fan observers were angry because they felt he was not sufficiently informed to speak on the topic. (This reaction mirrors the situation in Fall 2013, when Armitage spoke out on the political situation in the United States after he had lived here for about a year.) So one line seems to be drawn around what one can say in terms of one’s expertise, and it’s true in my own case that I read his statements about acting and the creative process with more automatic sympathy than I do his rare statements on politics.

From the light of personal stance vs. expertise, the letter from the 250 itself treads a fine line; it is definitely more than a collection of personal opinions, as it talks about the potential consequences to the arts if the UK left the EU, but it also limits itself to speaking on that issue, upon which an artist may be reasonably assumed to be a qualified commentator. One facet of democracy is that citizens are allowed, even encouraged, to speak out on political issues that affect our well-being and interests, and so the charge that artists only defend the EU because they have benefited from it puzzles me me a bit. I also defend the United States on the grounds that I have benefited from being a citizen! The opinion of anyone speaking as an individual may be charged to be arbitrary, but surely actors speaking on the arts are at least potentially as qualified to express themselves as teachers speaking on education (whether or not the reader agrees with the judgment expressed or the information provided). If no one spoke in the name of expertise or personal interest, and everyone chose simply on the basis of whim, it’s hard to see how that could be seen to be more fair in itself, let alone lead to a better result, since presumably concerns about the benefits and negatives of the EU are susceptible to reasoned evaluation and the identification of better or worse arguments.

It is also plausible that one might think that as an artist, one could use one’s bully pulpit for good (beyond the realm of establishing what the most effective way to play Macbeth is) — although that probably only works in situations where near-unanimity already exists on the goodness of the thing one is urging, in which case the urging is at least superfluous and potentially sanctimonious if not done well. The difficulties with good intentions rarely occur at the level of rhetoric, but rather at the level of execution, at which point the speaker is most often long gone or was never planning to be there in the first place. And most humans, not just artists, would prefer to express our good intentions rather than have to make sausage, which is a great deal more difficult.

All this leaves the artist in a confusing bind, since it’s hard to know how to express a personal opinion about politics that isn’t understood as a larger political intervention — indeed, depending on the size of one’s audience and one’s professional prominence, it may not be possible. Like most ordinary mortals, many celebrities (with some notable exceptions) lack the time or inclination to become more than pretty faces for charity. On top of that, our relationship as fans with celebrities is confusing and liable to quick jolts. Many of us identify with them or find them interesting to the extent that they have features that make them seem like us despite the distance between us, or to seem be an extension of the fan’s self, so that when they do not fulfill this need, the turn to anger can be quick and irreversible. It’s amazing how quickly an artist’s well-intended political position can bring one to the breaking point; I’ve noticed this spring that I have an extremely short fuse when it comes to the Bernie Sanders campaign, and that Susan Sarandon’s remarks about the presidential primaries burnt me out on both celebrity comment and on her as an artist. Would I take her more seriously when speaking on the NEA, though? At least potentially. But a celebrity I admire who ventures an opinion that touches negatively upon my sense of self risks severing that connection of identification. At that point she stops becoming an aspirational figure and changes in the blink of an eye into yet another wealthy, powerful person trying to enforce her opinion on me. This problem — and not the inherent reasonability (or not) of the arguments about art made by artists– explains the venom in Simon Jenkins’ editorial linked above.

Will anyone change his opinion on this matter solely because Cumberbatch is pro-EU when it comes to the arts? Prominent people raising the issue, at least, is a positive development; perhaps everything about the decision to stay or go isn’t or shouldn’t be based on agricultural subsidies or the granting of work permits. Still, I hope people don’t change their opinions solely on this basis — or rather, that they would weigh these arguments along with the others they are aware of and do some research of their own. Presumably a Brexit’s effect on the arts is but one facet of the decision a voter makes. As far as I have seen (and I didn’t do tons of research on this, admittedly), responses to this letter have been largely negative, and particularly to Cumberbatch (who was rather vocal about his frustration with the Syrian refugee situation of late). This isn’t so surprising as affirmation does not make an editorial of particular effect; there may be less reason to come out in support of a position one already agrees with simply because it doesn’t sell papers. On the other hand, Cumberbatch and his fellow signatories clearly triggered that impatience that comes from the fact that professionally, he’s ceased to be everyman and joined the ranks of the apart.

So here’s another dilemma for the artist — the celebrity artists about whose opinions the public might be assumed to care most are simultaneously more likely to attract attention to their causes for that reason and more potentially likely to provoke negative responses when their opinions touch on identity issues precisely because they are powerful enough to do so. Famous artists are more likely to be able to afford or at least weather these consequences (one thinks of the Dixie Chicks’ trouble with their audience after 2003), which suggests that they have a greater obligation to speak. Conversely, so many artists (including Armitage, at times) have remarked that widespread, detailed knowledge them may hamper their identity to work successfully in that audiences find their role changes less convincing. So they may have a greater obligation not to speak, so as to preserve their capacity to create great work.

This was supposed to be a short post and it’s really looking like one of my old lectures — where I weigh one argument against each other ad infinitum. I know that I personally found it difficult to live in a situation where I was not really allowed to speak politically, so I do not envy celebrities making this decision. Maybe the best I can say is — when artists speak, even or including on areas of their own expertise, they are subject to the same constraints as all of us. They are free to speak but they are not free of the consequences. Still, for them, inevitably the consequences are different both in quality and magnitude.

~ by Servetus on May 24, 2016.

31 Responses to “The “artists’ letter” on Brexit, actors with political opinions, and Richard Armitage (?)”

  1. Just re your second last paragraph: (a) audience’s assumptions about artists’ ability to weather controversy are invariably flawed. Dixie Chicks is a bad example because that one remark – not even planned – ruined their careers (unjustly imho). Not because it offended their audience or was out of tune with their lyrics but because it offended the higher ups in their industry who decided whether their songs went on radio or not. They are only starting to tour together now.

    (B) following on that, it’s not so much the link between artist and audience that might get damaged but more the link between the artist and whoever funds their art. I don’t think Richard really cares whether his audience knows his personal opinions on gay marriage, cyber bullying, Donald Trump, or the Syrian refugee crisis. Ultimately at the end of the day it’s not the audience that gives Richard his job. I do think his feelings were a little hurt or maybe taken back at the vehemence at which his expression of his opinion was greeted. He likes to be liked. But I don’t think those opinions effected his ability to get/keep a job. We’re all the same – we all do what we must to keep on working.


    • re: Dixie Chicks I agree that the consequences of the remark were unintended in that the remark itself was spontaneous, but re: it was the industry who decided their opinions were unpalatable, I disagree. I was in Texas when that happened and I would say it seriously offended their core audience. In an almost frightening way that stretched across a lot of political boundaries that one wouldn’t have expected. They not only got axed from the big big radio networks, but our local public radio station — a bastion of liberalism in a very conservative state — also canned their music. A lot of people in the center or on the left also disagreed with that statement in Texas. Any place where there were a lot of army bases (of which TX is one) lay in the region of “genuinely offended” (not “offended because someone told them they should be” or “cut off from their music because the industry decided to do it”). But the Dixie Chicks had other (artistic) problems as well, as I recall. I don’t know whether it ruined their careers, either. It ended them as a prospect for non-stop play on big country stations. So in response to (b) I would say that the issues of what the audience wants to hear and who pays for it are not connected in a one to one relationship, but neither are they disconnected.

      Given that Armitage is at best a reluctant tweeter, I don’t find the argument that he doesn’t care whether his audience knows his personal opinions on the topics you listed convincing. He could have said nothing about politics beyond continuing his support for four rather innocuous charities — as he did for years and years — so why say anything at all if he didn’t care? I think there is a plausible argument (although very shaky) that some piece of his tweets on those topics are PR related, but if that was the case he handled them poorly.

      re: do his stated political opinions affect Armitage’s ability to get a job — I agree that they don’t, but not because they couldn’t. I think he’s not at the point in his career where he is notorious enough for his opinions to matter to a potential employer and his opinions as expressed publicly do not fall outside of the mainstream of actor opinion generally in any way, so they are unlikely to be problematic for larger audiences either. If Cumberbatch has problems getting employed (which he doesn’t seem to be having at the moment anyway) I doubt that his opinions will be a reason. (I do agree that Cumberbatch seems much more inclined to share or prescribe his opinions than Richard Armitage has ever been.)

      re: “we are all the same, we just do what we need to do to keep on working” — I think that is a huge generalization. What one is willing to do to keep on working changes over the course of one’s career, I think. Armitage fell clearly in the “I won’t turn down work camp” until 2012, at which point something changed.


      • Ever read Hugh Grant’s tweets…he apparently doesn’t give a flip what anyone thinks. But then again I don’t think he’s worried about being employed..


        • I haven’t read the tweets but I can totally see that possibility.

          Then again we do have people in our immediate sphere (Michelle Forbes comes to mind) who are not on that level of their profession and presumably do have to be concerned about work who tweet away …


  2. I think it’s difficult to avoid making one’s position known on political and social issues. These issues are so important to our own lives. They affect our existence on the most basic level — and if we are brought up in the knowledge that the bell tolls for us all, that what happens to others also happens to us in ways that are real even though we may not be able to perceive how, then how can we stay silent when our leaders are taking us in the wrong direction?

    I have the same trouble in my own life when I post stuff on Facebook and certain of my friends disapprove. Then I’m faced with the issue of either taking a stand, or going back to posting cat videos and ignoring the world at large.

    Should celebrities just pipe down and be the pretty and enjoyable figures that we like? I don’t know. That position feels wrong. They are as entitled to their views as any other human. That said, however, I can’t help but lose respect for those celebrities who espouse a view on a political or social position that I disagree with.

    But it seems to me that individuals, private and public, must follow their own beliefs and act according to the dictates of their own consciences. Especially the public figures: they’re going to be judged anyway, so why can’t they be judged for who they really are?


    • I know what you mean, because on some fundamental level I really don’t understand people who are completely uninterested in politics. People don’t need to be as interested as I am, and i can make myself shut about them (as I do on this blog, or have in the classroom) but I don’t get the “it doesn’t matter anyway” attitude. In essence IRL I have more respect for people I disagree with than those who indicate they don’t care — but I suppose in the case of a celebrity I don’t know, I assume ex silencio that we share a position until the contrary becomes clear.

      re: why can’t they be judged for who they really are — good question. Although I also vote with my feet. I think though that often people make monocausal attributions of how these things will or won’t affect a career. If you take someone like Mel Gibson, for instance — it’s clear that growing awareness of his opinions about Jews affected his career. But other factors were working at the same time. Or — to cite the example of an actor who is clearly image obsessed, people keep going to Tom Cruise movies despite everything (and he’s now in position where he produces practically everything he’s in — so certainly he is less negatively affected by perceptions of the real Tom Cruise than he would have been thirty years ago.)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s always interesting to hear what a celebrity has to say about popular topics, although I can’t imagine basing my vote on their opinions. The one person I think gets this thing right most of the time, as far as public perception, is Angelina Jolie but that’s probably because her main emphasis is humanitarian issues.


    • yeah, I agree she gets more flack for her lifestyle and childrearing than for her politics. It’s hard to go wrong with something like UNICEF.


  4. I did a little research and as far as I could tell, many British actors (including Richard) who reside and/or work in the US are not on the list. Maybe they were not asked, or maybe they were avoiding the inevitable criticism: “Your opinion is irrelevant because you will not be impacted by this. You don’t even live here.” I am not saying this is a legitimate point, it is just one that is often raised to dismiss opposing opinions.


    • that’s a good point. And I remember reading at some point that UK citizens who are non-residents lose their right to vote after 15 years away — that doesn’t apply to Armitage but it might apply to a lot of British actors in the US. However, if he pays taxes in the UK at all, he would be impacted. Admittedly one theory I had about the NYC move was that a good reason to do it would be to avoid the UK taxman.


      • Yup, that’s correct:

        Is the UK taxman worse than the US taxman? Mind you, the “nicest” I encountered so far was the French one 😉

        I think Kathy does have a good point. He doesn’t live in UK anymore, so he wasn’t asked. There is an annoyance on social media going around about rich people not living in the UK voicing their opinions. Some tweets that, for instance, JK Rowling got…oh my word.


        • I think they’re something along the lines of 8% higher in England at the high end of the spectrum. And I’m guessing Armitage qualifies for health ins through Equity so isn’t paying a huge amount for it out of pocket (so to speak).


  5. Artists often reach people whose politics are very different from their own, so this is both the risky situation you mention, and an opportunity to impact people who don’t already agree with you. My impression of Richard’s fan base is that it skews older, and is probably on average more conservative than Richard is himself. I thought he handled the Syrian refugee situation very well — he made it a very human story, and showed his own personal connection. Other times he has expressed a political position without any skin in the game, and then I think it has been more controversial. And he doesn’t help matters by being so apologetic. My personal philosophy is to own whatever you say, and only apologize if you said something wrong, so his apologies and self-deprecating language sometimes irk me. But overall, he projects such a positive and decent image, that I cannot imagine he is going to be hurt by what he is doing.


    • I don’t think that actors’ opinions are likely to have much impact on people who disagree with them. I can see an argument for them swaying the undecided.

      re: fanbase — I am not sure. It’s definitely noticeably younger now than it was pre-Hobbit, but then very young fans don’t vote and may not follow these issues with the same attention as those of us who do vote. I am sure what you say was true of the legacy fans and I think that definitely contributed to his stance on certain issues.

      re: apologetic — yeah, I get that it is a British cultural trope but it’s a basic rule of argumentation worldwide: don’t apologize for speaking or making use of your right to speak. It is also a typically feminine behavioral pattern in the US and something I used to have to drum out of women in the classroom (in speech and in writing). There are situations when it makes sense to undermine yourself as a speaker, but if you do so, you should do it humorously or satirically. If we are already suspicious of you, pointing out the tenuousness of your position as speaker makes us even more suspicious of it.


      • Ah, so is my reaction (and perhaps yours) to his apologizing an American response to something that would be more standard or appropriate in the UK? I thought it was just how he was, and it never occurred to me that it might also have a cultural component.


        • It’s a sort of required move (particularly in the class circles from which Armitage comes) in England to self-deprecate (and his British fans tend to be much less annoyed by it, although my observation of those reactions is purely anecdotal). That said, most Brits will do it jokingly.


  6. I’m not that familiar with the British being apologetic, but I suspect it might be so. We Canadians tend to apologize for everything….if someone bumps into us, we almost always say “sorry,” just because we were in the way! 🙂


    • Also the Canadian apologizing for wanting anything like information or stuff they paid for. Canadian goes into a tourist information kiosk and says “I’m sorry, could you give me some information about the fishing around here?” Hilarious. It’s extreme in Canada.


  7. Interesting post, Serv – the question whether artists ought to speak out on political questions, and the consequences they may face because of that, is often on my mind (although less with Armitage, who seems to shy away from it). I have never really felt that artists’ opinions carry less weight in the area of politics because that is not their perceived area of expertise. We are all political beings, by definition, as we live our lives governed by politics, no matter whether we are rich or poor, celebrities or unknown. We can’t escape politics, thus, we all have opinions on it which have value in their own right. This also applies to issues that are outside our sphere of influence or outside our geographical placement. As in: I am not a UK citizen but I live in an EU country, thus I am affected by their decision on whether to leave the EU or not. Or in the reverse: I have an opinion on Irish politics because I live here and Irish laws affect me even though I cannot vote here. That does not keep me from being a member of an Irish political party and agitating for issues and policies that affect my life. Any political development anywhere in the world has the potential to affect us – thus we are entitled to have an opinion. RA may be an ex-pat and a US-resident, but nonetheless the Brexit issue will affect him – thus he could voice an opinion that carries equal weight to the opinions of UK nationals, UK residents, EU citizens, other countries’ citizens.
    It slightly disappoints me when prominent people shy away from expression of political views. I understand why, but it appears like the waste of a good opportunity to me. Whatever is prominence for, when you don’t use it for good purposes? Only an end to itself? Having said that, I am not advocating the obligation of political activism – no one should be forced to do anything. But the self-imposed gag when it comes to politics to me looks like using the path of least resistance. “It’s easier that way… Better not stir any sleeping hounds… If I ignore it, it will go away…”
    Granted, being politically outspoken leaves the possibility of disagreement with the voiced opinions. But when it comes to potential dissent, I believe it is less about the speaker’s intent, but more a question of the audience’s ability to tolerate differing opinions. If we all agree on the right of the individual to (voice) an opinion, then why do we take it so personally if the voiced views differ from our own? Maybe we need to work on our ability to tolerate differences in opinion, and learn to separate our assessment of someone’s character/talent/artistic worth from the statements he/she makes on matters that have nothing to do with their work?


    • Long answer.

      There’s a little slippage in your remarks between the categories “right to have an opinion,” “right to express an opinion,” and “have a vote” (insofar as votes express opinions). I do think politics is an area in which expertise and particularly informed judgment are factors (or should be). I do take more seriously a scientist’s political opinion on climate change (assuming it has been researched) than (say) my father’s, even if both of those are equal at the ballot box. What an artist says about arts funding is interesting or convincing to me in a different way or on a different level than what an artist has to say about immigration (keeping in mind that all people speak or think about ethic whether consciously or not — obviously a poet might move me to think about immigration one way while a government immigration official might have other information that convinces me to vote a particular direction more than an artist would). However, living through the US presidential campaigns at the moment is maximizing that reaction for me, as inexperienced outsiders to the parties are trying to take over or manipulate both parties to the detriment of the entire country. While I certainly don’t think the government should be run exclusively by technocrats, neither am I willing to go so far as to say that whatever a democratic populace chooses is good, or that any political result is equally good as long as it is determined in the correct way (i.e., some political results are better than others in my opinion) and so it follows that some people have more qualified (for whatever reason) political opinions than others. Everyone is entitled to an opinion but not all opinions are created equal and, as you note, sometimes people are disqualified for structural reasons from expressing their opinions via vote (and should be, IMO, although we could debate the reasons, or ask whether structural disqualifications correspond to real categories, e.g., as a long-time resident and parent of two citizens, shouldn’t you be able to vote?). If Armitage had an opinion about (say) hunting rights in Wisconsin, given what I know about him, and unless it turned out that he owned a hunting lodge in Waupaca County and had been harvesting deer for the last five years, I wouldn’t take it very seriously and I think it’s correct that he doesn’t vote here. For me personally, the “do I live there” question is actually pretty decisive, which is why I haven’t expressed my opinion about Brexit here (although I certainly have one), and of course I don’t get to vote in the UK, so I will never express it in a meaningful way. I don’t think my opinion is equal in weight to citizens of the UK, nor should it be. Now, if I happened to be an expert on that question because I was a scholar, I might try to write an editorial about it, and thus to potentially influence the outcome, but as a non-UK citizen I would still not think that my opinion should carry equal weight at the ballot box. If an important definition of freedom is the ability to live under the laws we have made, then I would be legislating for someone else without potential consequence to myself.

      I also think that our reactions to opinions different from our own (and our level of toleration for these) vary based on the speaker and on the opinion in question as well as the context of the statement. What I might tolerate formally in the newspaper (in the sense of Bodin, let’s say, or even of the US Bill of Rights) is not something I’m necessarily willing to accept in my personal sphere. Family members whose opinions differ from mine bring forth a different reaction than strangers because our relationships are different and so I put those statements in different contexts. Some opinions (AfD) are simply not tolerable to me whoever expresses them, and I have occasionally ended friendships over politics, but family relationships are permanent. It is a serious problem for me socially, ethically and personally, for instance, that Flower is a Trump voter. I feel minimal obligation personally to tolerate opinions that are themselves inherently intolerant, although of course free speech and freedom of opinion are democratic rights. In that sense I would defend a racist’s right to speak his political opinions publicly but not allow such things to be expressed in my home.

      In the case of celebrities, certainly for hard-core fans and maybe for casual ones, I think lack of toleration occurs because the celeb is on some level the extension of an identity construction and certain elements are simply not compatible with that construction (although what is objectionable differs from audience member to audience member). I think this is one reason many actors will say that they are better off if audiences don’t know much about them, because it’s not per se that Armitage is different than I thought, but rather that the dissemination of political opinions make my picture of Armitage different than I thought, and my picture of him is important to me for various reasons. (A harmless example — the whole accent question. It’s jarring for me to hear him “speaking American,” not only because it’s not what I expect, but because I have constructed him as British with elements that include his accent and I really like that accent, even if I doubt that it’s quite how he grew up speaking. On some level his American accent, I fear, will never be as convincing to me as his English one. In comparison, with someone like Hugh Dancy, he can speak with either accent and I am not troubled because I don’t really have a construction of him in my mind that I’ve spent hours on. At most I marvel that his US accent is so convincing, but I never find myself assessing whether it’s convincingly real or not or feeling concerned about the quality of the accent.)

      re: the latter question — whether an artist’s identity elements are separate from his performance, I am not sure. It might differ case by case. I doubt it, though, since as you note, we are political beings by nature and many of us cannot easily separate our politics from our identities. Ideally, perhaps — e.g., Gary Oldman is a great actor even though his political opinions are pretty reprehensible IMO. But he’s not a crush, and he’s not a US citizen as far as I know. I can recognize that Céline is a talented writer, but his politics permeated his writing and I never got warm with him. In the case of Susan Sarandon, I find her opinions frivolous expressed and dangerous and when I hear her speak about the current campaign, I find myself hoping that no one is listening. I don’t think anything will change in my evaluation of things she’s done in the past that I really admire (“Dead Man Walking”), but absolutely, when someone is IMO trying to destroy the political sphere, I might tolerate what they are saying as a consequence of their right to free speech, but I will absolutely not separate that from my willingness to consider their future work. Obviously a version of this question has been at issue with my Armitage fandom a lot in the last year, and the fact that I have struggled to speak on the issue at all is a signal of how important it is to me.

      So do I tolerate differences of opinion? Sure, as it is my legal obligation. It is not, however, my personal obligation and I am not sure why I should, particularly if someone espouses a position that I find dangerous or unethical.


      • One thing on the “citizen” thing. Your reasoning is logical but only to a point. It is true that if they are speaking about hunting in Wisconsin the opinion of someone who doesn’t live there isn’t much important. But, considering something as big as the US President campaign, there might be people who don’t live in the USA, do not have a right to vote, but all the same are highly influenced by its outcome. I’ll only say this: there a big US army base just outside my city. I am very interested in who is going to rule the USA and THAT army base by consequence. So, were I an Italian celebrity (and some of our celebrities have spoken in the years about US military bases in Italy receiving a lot of bad comments like “Bad commie go back to eat children”) would I be allowed to have an opinion or I should go back and eat my children in silence? (I’m not a communist by the way, but anybody criticizing the US here in Italy MUST be a communist!)


        • I acknowledge this particular problem (and if you were to look back through some previous posts you would find me recording my German friends’ feelings about this, that he’s President of the whole world but only US citizens vote for him). To some extent we’re back at Guylty’s problem — that she doesn’t have a vote on questions of substantial interest to her as a non-citizen of Ireland — although this specific problem is several orders of magnitude larger. I think you’d be allowed to have an opinion and should express it. But I still don’t think that you should get to vote.


  8. I wanted to comment, but then you ended up with: “They are free to speak but they are not free of the consequences. Still, for them, inevitably the consequences are different both in quality and magnitude.” Which was in fact my comment (though with other words of course). I think your analysis of the matter is really thourough. Thanks, because that’s exactly what I was wondering about two seconds before I found the link to this post on twitter!
    For the following comments, I’m sorry I’m not able to read all because my eyes have already strained enough with the article, but I’d only add one thing on the Dixie Chicks (my favourite country band, though I’m Italian): no matter what was the cause of their diminished presence on stage after 2003, it is true they received threatening letters because of that comment. This was also the topic of one of their songs (I’m not ready to make nice). Can we agree that no matter the role, no one should be afraid for their own safety because of what they say?


    • Thanks for the comment and welcome.

      It’s not only celebs who receive threats for their opinions; three years ago, I received threats due to things I had written on this blog, after I refused to remove them or stop blogging. I won’t go into it, but it interested me at the time that many people apparently thought that Richard Armitage was more vulnerable than I am. Do I think personal threats are a valid form of political speech? No. I don’t know of any rational political theorist who would disagree, either. Nonetheless, there are always consequences to speech. I don’t approve of this type of consequence (obviously) but I don’t know how it can be stopped, either.


      • No, I don’t think they can be stopped, just like that. But they should be acknowledged and openly shamed. I live in a place, Sicily, where speaking your mind can and has meant blowing up, literally. And I’m really sorry to read what you wrote about your own blog. It’s unbelievable and scary at the same time to think people would do such a thing. Maybe, it is a matter of education first of all: teachers and parents should be able to help kids to react sensibly to any disagreement. I have little hope for grown-ups I’m afraid. But this would be probably the topic for a whole new blog post. Only one last thing: I don’t think celebrities are more vulnerable. Just, as they have more followers, the chance to receive such threats is probably statistically higher. In the same way, you have more chances to receive threats than I have, because you speak your mind on a blog, I only do that on my facebook page. All is relative.


      • Sorry, I only read the first comments and now I’m only reading all these last because they get to me on my email and I can read them on a friendly background (white on black doesn’t work well for my eyes, sorry!) Of course, it would be impossible to make everybody who is somehow influenced to vote. One of the questions dear to my heart regarding UK and getting out of the EU or not is the question of the many (and they are many indeed) Italians who live in UK and have been able to do so until now because we’re all part of the EU. What is going to happen to them if things change? Is it fair that most of them – those who have not felt the necessity until now to file for full citizenship and they are many view that they didn’t need it as EU citizens – have no right to vote in this referendum? It is not a political comment, but a technical one, view that some of them do not like EU as much as some UKers, anyway! But, they benefited all the same of something that was inherent to being inside the EU and might not be true anymore if the referendum’s outcome is “out”.


        • Sorry again, but I must blame the black: I intended this comment as a reply to the one above, not this!


  9. I think that some kind of legal prohibition on making death threats would be worth exploring (and I think that there are some kinds of provisions for this in US law, although I’m no expert, depending on the means of making the threat and the credibility of the threat. I know that certain messages are not allowed to be transmitted through the US postal service for instance and that people who call in bomb threats to schools are prosecuted when they are identified). But we’d also have to have a discussion about how we feel as a society about frivolous speech, insofar as the vast majority of people who make death threats are “blowing off steam,” even if I don’t care for that particular form of it. Until I figured out who it was and confronted the person, I used to get comments here telling me I should throw myself off a cliff, for instance. I can’t imagine that those people really wanted me to do that; they were just so angry about whatever I’d written that they couldn’t either respond rationally or decide to ignore what I’d said, and a language barrier was involved.

    I think one way in which celebrities are more vulnerable to death threats (aside from the issue you raise) is that they are forced regularly into random interactions with crowds in a way that someone like me is not. Then again, a celebrity has a score of people trained to deal with that particular issue (whereas an average person doesn’t).

    And I think one important difference implied by your comment about FB is that most of the people who comment on one’s FB are known to the poster (or at least one can limit encounters with relative or total strangers). Someone who’s blogging, or a celebrity who makes huge mass performances, can’t assure that everyone in the audience is either friendly or has some kind of personal obligation not to act or speak unreasonably.


  10. […] to comment more specifically on my relationship to the political tweets. The relationship between actors, their politics, and their fandoms has been on my mind recently. I was surprised but pleased that Armitage spoke so clearly about his […]


  11. […] whether the journalist tricked him into doing it. After that he was still quiet until 2016, when he had quite a bit to say about the refugee question and about Brexit. It was unlikely that Armitage would influence many previously held opinions. […]


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