Comment: Hermione's opinion and the philosopher's tone

Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint arrive at the world premiere of 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1'. Source: EPA

When those who entertain us with their dazzling talent and charisma go one step further and give us their not-so-sparkling opinions, why do so many people get upset?

This week, two popular actors have made unfortunate noises with their celebrated mouths.

Emma Watson, known chiefly as Hermione from the Harry Potter franchise, reportedly said that “some of the best feminists are men” and Matt Damon, known chiefly as MATT DAMON, reportedly said that homosexual persons should not feel necessarily inclined to report their homosexuality to a large audience.

To discuss the moral veracity of either of these statements is pointless and so, for two primary reasons, I really shan’t. First, every Internet Outrage enthusiast has already held forth with an opinion on each claim and the world is in no further need of analysis. Second, we are talking about Matt Damon and Emma Watson.

I understand that these are attractive, popular people, considered by many as the glossy face of liberalism. And that any statement they make beyond acceptable margins is felt by their liberal fans as a duplicitous knife in the heart.

Fans of the dramatic arts should thank whatever genetic trick produces such marvellously empty and beautiful creatures.

I also understand that a world that elevates agreeable-looking actors to the post of its moral guardianship has gone completely barking mad.

In news that, surely, should shock no sentient blob, actors aren’t terribly bright. They never have been, they never will be and fans of the dramatic arts should thank whatever genetic trick it is that produces such marvellously empty and beautiful creatures.

While it is true that there are some entertainers who seem capable of writing their names in the sand without spell-check, these persons are the exception. The general rule is that those who are gifted of great charisma and physical charm are otherwise lacking in powers of analysis. Actors, in particular, are often vacant of thought or internal complexity. This makes room inside them to contain the complexity of the others they depict. Emptiness is a great asset in the performing arts.

Even if it were not so - and even in the case that all entertainers were required to pass a basic course in moral philosophy before publicising their films on the Ellen show - this peculiar and fabulous breed of people would still not be entitled to the respect we now routinely accord them.

In an ideal world, where there was no division of labour, we could, all of us - including pretty actors - perform the occasional role of moral philosopher. As things are, though, actors act and entertainers entertain. That we expect them to fulfil any function beyond this is not, largely, their doing.

Of course, we can lay a little blame at the self-important feet of Bono or of Russell Brand for promoting the idea that entertainers have some function other than to entertain. Otherwise, we must face the fact that the disappointment and outrage we direct at celebrities when they say the “wrong” thing is largely our fault.

We can lay a little blame at the self-important feet of Bono or of Russell Brand for promoting the idea that entertainers have some function other than to entertain.

Let’s say that you are the sort of person whose thoughts are largely occupied with morality and social justice. Good on you. This is a noble pursuit and I am, for one, very glad that you expend your intellectual energies on the matter of ethics. I encourage you to explore this difficult territory in either an amateur or a professional context and I believe these efforts, when rigorously applied, may provide some positive echoes in history.

But I also believe that when you spend your time fretting about what Hermione or Jason Bourne has to say, or you deliver screeds about the “ethics” of Game of Thrones, or you either venerate or chide football players, or commentators, for their perceived morality, that you have wasted your time and your thought.

There is a popular view that good ideas come from the top of popular culture. I have come to believe that this perception of trickle-down ethics is as false, if not falsifiable, as trickle-down wealth. Just as those wealthy in assets seize their fortune from those at the bottom, those wealthy in moral influence do the same.

The ideas, offensive or not, are always taken from the masses. They cannot be given back. And so to accuse celebrities of influencing us badly, or to celebrate them for influencing us, well, makes no sense of which to speak.  Honestly, they’re just repeating some stuff they heard elsewhere and their wealth - or indeed their poverty - of ideas is illusory.

If we want to refine our ideas, whatever they are, there are those living and dead whose work it is to help us do just that. Despite the fact of a world that has no clear use for moral and political philosophers, they continue to exist. These people are not necessarily good-looking and they are not, in general, famous. But they are not empty and it is to their currently valueless capital we must, unfortunately, turn, if we really want to make sense of the world.

Of course, you could keep looking to Emma and Matt for moral leadership. But I am pretty sure you are going to be disappointed.  

Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster, and publisher of the blog Bad Hostess.


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