I wholeheartedly support the concept of free speech, and proudly served as a council member with the Free Speech Union for a busy four-year term. During my tenure, I acquired valuable insights into this defining Western principle, met some heroes of mine (former ACLU president Nadine Strossen being one), and felt that I personally made substantial contributions to the movement in New Zealand.
Together with the union, and some passionate, committed supporters, we achieved many noteworthy victories, and the team has only gone from strength to strength since my departure.
They now even have their own wine brand!
But it is crucial to understand that having the right to speak does not automatically necessitate an obligation to speak.
Sometimes your silence truly is golden.
Allow me to expound.
John Edwards held the position of Privacy Commissioner from 2014 to 2021. Regrettably, his presence on Twitter was marked by self-aggrandizing and often downright obnoxious behavior. His political activism often targeted individuals – citizens – such as the former Herald columnist Rachel Stewart, in this case, over her views on gender.
Stewart astutely questioned, after an encounter with Edwards, whether she could ever rely on the commission he led to provide her with impartial support should she ever need their intervention. While one might hope Edwards would have shown impartiality when it counted, he’d stirred up enough doubt – doubt that would never have existed if he’d exercised restraint and refrained from engaging in partisan provocations that – let’s be real now – offered absolutely no dividends. All his Tweets achieved, and were ever going to achieve, was to erode trust in his office.
Did he have a right to speak? Of course. But roles like the one Edwards held demand political impartiality. He blew that. Completely.
In my own industry – entertainment – the stakes may appear lower, but the potential risks to one’s personal brand from excessive commentary are often severe.
I am not referring solely to the phenomenon of cancel culture, either. Consider Mark Ruffalo, best known for his portrayal of The Hulk in the Marvel universe. I admired his acting when he burst on the scene, but then he chose to articulate his political views and revealed himself to be a bit of a dummy who frequently flirted with antisemitic tropes. While I wouldn’t cancel the guy over anything he said, I am now inclined to avoid his films. This isn’t a decision rooted in principled objections either: he’d robbed himself of neutrality. He has baggage that he now drags onto the screen with him, every time I see him. I can no longer take the ride with him as a performer.
Acting doesn’t happen in a bubble. We, the audience, are partners in the process. Acting demands an audience’s ability to suspend belief, with an actor’s neutrality being a fundamental pathway. Yes, celebrity culture has long challenged this notion, but for the longest time it did so by promoting fantasies and innuendos about performers, not by sharing their political views. We often tell each other stories about actors – their sexual misadventures etc – knowing full well they are likely untrue. Bullshit heaped upon bullshit. That’s the magic or was the magic, of the movies.
But now it’s become all too real, thanks to social media. And the era of bullshit was better.
In the wake of the Hamas terror attacks on October 7 and Israel’s subsequent actions in Gaza, Melissa Barrera, a young actress who was set to become a mainstay in the “Scream” horror film franchise, took to her Instagram to express her views on the conflict, including sharing posts accusing Israel of “genocide and ethnic cleansing”. In response, the production company dropped her from the series.
I feel sorry for the actress. I disagree with what she said, but she is young, was likely caught up in the moment, and was no doubt writing with conviction. But the world was not crying out for Ms. Barrera’s perspective on this particular conflict. Her public stance risked alienating a significant portion of her fan base, and her views would’ve hung like a cloud over all her future portrayals for many viewers. In the world of entertainment, fans are paramount. Why needlessly estrange them?
A number of times now I’ve watched my young son have to deal with antisemitism from a Hip Hop or sports star he had previously looked up to. A young fan investing in a performer, only to discover they likely hold regressive views of their people is incredibly shitty.
It is crucial to recognize that actors are not politicians. Neutrality in politics is often seen as weak or unprincipled. But in the arts, you really do take a position at your peril.
Some reading this may question my own outspokenness on various issues. I have indeed shared my views openly on a number of topics. I am hardly a household name, but even so, I probably would have been advised to heed the advice I’m sharing in this piece. One thing is for certain, not a single view of mine – once known by an audience member – would have lifted the experience of seeing my work for them. They could have only served as a barrier.