Celebrities talk about guns

Matthew McConaughey’s brief speech about the horrors of the last (at this writing) school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, made for a two-day story–at least. People will keep talking and taking pictures and arguing about the movie star’s take.

Of course, anyone can say anything they want about guns in the United States. Scroll through a few screens of any major social media platform, and it’s easy to find something inspiring or appalling. (There’s an abundance of passion, wisdom, and ignorance out there.) But virtually none of those posts will get any meaningful attention.

McConaughey is different because he’s a star. Celebrities carry their own platforms with them, the bigger the star, the brighter and broader the spotlight. There will be a burst of attention, and audiences will pick the celebrities who agree with their political stance, and then ridicule those who take an opposing stance. Virtually any news outlet or movement organization will promote the celebrities who take congenial positions–and then question the wisdom and talent of those who disagree, suggesting they “stay in their own lane” or “shut up and dribble.”

Celebrities take some risk of alienating their audiences or employers when they enter the political fray. Those with massive and reliable audiences (or “talent”) enjoy far more latitude than those without. (We must remember that the overwhelming majority of artists and actors are frustrated about their underemployment and have to come up with their own explanations for their status.)

And members of the audience draw their own lines about acceptability. I’ll happily watch a movie featuring Clint Eastwood or Susan Sarandon, even when I disagree with some elements of their politics. But Leni Riefenstahl? Eric Clapton? Maybe not.

It’s worth remembering that dramatic, athletic, or musical abilities are completely unconnected to political ideology or wisdom. And the more or less committed celebrity who draws a spotlight may obscure or misrepresent the larger movement.

Matthew McConaughey had more than his own star power. He delivered his speech from the White House press room, a platform unlikely to be granted to, say, Ted Nugent. The brief talk focused on the lives lost, and the personalities and unfulfilled dreams of the 10 year-olds and teachers killed at the Robb Elementary School. He didn’t take questions.

McConaughey published an op-ed in USA Today, outlining relatively modest “sensible” reforms in gun laws that would save lives, and justifying his presence in the political debate. He started with his qualifications: “I am a father, the son of a kindergarten teacher, and an American. I was also born in Uvalde, Texas. ” He makes the claim that he is not just another Hollywood actor and should enjoy more space in the debate than other celebrities, say, for example, Alec Baldwin.

The ongoing gun crisis in America is filled with people policing just who has the right to an audience, to have their views considered. I think it’s like the idea of “standing” in the legal system, the right to be heard. Unlike the law, however, the public sphere lacks explicit rules for standing. Living in America, we can find some of them:

Elected officials get audiences, as do celebrities from the arts, athletics, or business, regardless of their expertise on the law, the Constitution, public health and safety, or guns.

Rich people can claim the spotlight, again, regardless of experience.

Victims of gun violence, particularly including people who lost children, other relatives, or friends, claim standing in the debate by virtue of suffering harm. (This, by the way, aligns with the legal standard.) I am in awe of the grieving parents determined to honor their lost children by making the world a little better and safer, protecting others from what they’ve suffered.

And contenders argue about how much technical or Constitutional expertise one needs to have an informed opinion on appropriate policies–or whether parents or veterans deserve some special status in gun politics.

In movement politics, unlike the courtroom, standing is never unambiguous or uncontested. Effective activists have to make their case over and over, even knowing that people who disagree may never listen.

I’m glad Matthew McConaughey weighed in on the gun debate, and that his contribution expanded the window for discussion more than a little bit, but I have no illusion that he’ll change anyone’s mind. Still, encouraging those who agree is no small contribution.

Note: I’ve done some academic writing on this that might be of interest. Kaylin Bourdon and I wrote a long piece in the Emory Law Journal, “Social Movements and Standing in the American Gun Debate.”

Josh Gamson and I wrote a piece long ago on the celebrity problem, “The Challenge of Cultural Elites: Celebrities and Social Movements,” published in Sociological Inquiry.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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