Gates: Expertise should outweigh celebrity status


Matt Gates, Columnist

Publicly voicing support for political and social causes is a popular endeavor for Northwestern students. Although support for these causes can be voiced through many mediums, social media makes it far easier for the common person to disseminate his or her views. But while an NU student has a limited base of friends or followers, a celebrity has the massive following across numerous mediums to reach large swaths of the population.

It has become extremely common for celebrities to voice their views on social and political issues over social media and television. I do not oppose celebrities who advocate for causes, but celebrities should not be the first people from whom to take advice on matters of public interest. What gives entertainers, athletes or other public figures any special knowledge of these issues? Why not instead focus our attention on those with expertise — whether personal or professional — on the issue being discussed?

When celebrities’ voices begin to advocate for causes I support, I question why no one listened to prior advocates for social change. According to Gallup polls, most Americans did not consistently support the idea that gay people are “born that way” or that they should be able to marry until the last few years. Yet people had been fighting for marriage equality for a long time — long enough that the issue first went to the Supreme Court in 1971. Perhaps the massive wave of support for gay rights coming from the entertainment industry during the last decade played a role in this transformation of public opinion.

One might argue that the effect celebrities have on public opinion is overstated. However, a study by an assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management found Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama may have given him 1 million votes over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary election. Perhaps this is why celebrities show up at each party’s national convention and candidates vie for celebrity endorsements.

It is strange to think we would listen to celebrity endorsements when it comes to politics. Many people are cynical about being persuaded by celebrities who advertise a certain brand of clothes, cars or other goods. Shouldn’t we be even more opposed to the possibility of celebrity endorsements affecting decisions that help determine our nation’s future? Most people advocate looking at the price and features of a car before they make a decision rather than considering a celebrity endorsement. Shouldn’t we look at the costs and benefits of political and social outcomes rather than who supports them?

Celebrities are not wrong to use their massive platforms to advance social and political causes. But perhaps we should not lend their views any more weight than anyone else’s, especially when there are people that are more or equally informed to look to.

Matt Gates is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].