There is an ancient Egyptian proverb that translates to “Speech is silver, and silence is golden.” As a student journalist, I’ve always disagreed. I believe that words have the unparalleled power to move people and that fresh takes can facilitate productive discourse and cross-cultural understanding. There’s immense value in being outspoken. However, over the course of the last few weeks, with the rise of a social media climate plagued by a torrent of misinformation, I’ve begun to wonder whether the idiom actually holds some merit — especially when it comes to posts geared for social clout rather than social change. This is often the case with celebrity activism.
Over the years, the role of the celebrity has changed drastically. While stars were once seen rather than heard, today’s influential figures thrive on exposure, offering their opinions on everything from parenting to politics. TikTok clips and Instagram stories are no longer just a way to connect with fans; they’re curated marketing tools to shape a favorable image and maintain positive press. If there’s a global conflict or social movement in the world today, your favorite star is expected to post about it, regardless of whether or not they’ve taken the time to research the cause that they’re advocating for thoroughly.
Justin Bieber and Jamie Lee Curtis are the latest examples of celebrity activism gone awry. Following the terrorist attack launched by Hamas on Israel on Oct. 7, the Canadian singer and American actress rushed to show their support for Israel. Instead, they mistakenly uploaded images of Gaza in the process. When followers pointed out the locational error, both posts were promptly deleted, with little acknowledgment after the fact. This kind of impulsive posting is fundamentally unjust. The Israel-Palestine conflict is not a trend, and the suffering of innocent civilians should never be reduced to merely taking sides. If the likes of Bieber and Curtis exhibit this kind of behavior, their fans are sure to follow, inciting increased polarization. Further, rash posts such as these come across as poorly planned public relations moves, neglecting the complexities and nuances that comprise the intricate history of the conflict.
This type of performative activism also harkens back to the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement in 2020. After George Floyd was murdered in police custody, several celebrities responded to systemic racism with lackluster statements and empty platitudes. Notably, Emma Watson faced criticism for posting three black squares — edited to match her Instagram feed — with no additional resources linked. While the actress has long been known to speak up for feminist causes, her actions demonstrated that maintaining an Instagram aesthetic is her ultimate priority — not tangible social reform. The 1975’s Matty Healy also faced reproval when he took the BLM movement as an opportunity to promote one of his songs via Twitter. To call these actions tone-deaf would be an understatement. But perhaps most memorable of all celebrity activism mishaps is Gal Gadot’s “Imagine” music video, which was uploaded to Instagram during the initial outbreak of COVID-19. The clip featured three minutes of a star-studded lineup singing along to John Lennon’s classic hit. Although intended to promote unity at a moment when most households were suffering from the grave health crisis and ensuing economic insecurity, the post of upper-echelon stars quarantining in mega-mansions lacked any sense of self-awareness.
While you may think that you could care less about how celebrities and other privileged individuals react to pressing issues, the bitter reality is that we live in a world where certain voices garner more attention than others, and the actions of influential people have far-reaching consequences. When Justin Bieber posts that he is “praying for Israel” with an image of the Gaza Strip in May 2021, he is perpetuating misinformation upon impressionable young fans that can stoke the fires of Islamophobia and anti-semitism alike. This doesn’t mean celebrities shouldn’t share their opinions. On the contrary, individuals with a large platform have an inherent responsibility to spread awareness. But part of that responsibility also includes distinguishing between when your voice is necessary and when it’s better to simply listen and learn. Supermodel Bella Hadid, who is half-Palestinian, has also recently encountered scrutiny for her stance on the conflict. On Oct. 26, Hadid began an Instagram post by asking followers to “forgive [her] for [her] silence,” before mourning the innocent lives lost. Her statement faced criticism from both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian individuals, and this too highlights the limits of celebrity activism. Our culture shouldn’t be so morally depraved that we don’t allow influential figures time to fully process world events before speaking up about them.
Celebrities must end the era of virtue signaling, aligning with causes just to devise a particular image and accrue social capital. It’s evident that silence isn’t golden, but sometimes it’s still valuable. Just as there is a time for doubling down on your values, there is also a time for research, reflection and seeking nuance. Inauthentic posts do nothing to elevate the conversation, and instead, create a ceaseless cesspool of ignorance.
Although we cannot change how celebrities choose to engage with activism, we can alter our individual actions and unlearn our own biases. Audre Lorde famously said, “Your silence will not protect you.” I still agree with her, but I think that there’s something to gain from developing a well-informed, logical opinion rather than one based on what’s trending on your Instagram feed. Silence is not complicity if it means taking the time to seek context before responsibly speaking out. It’s not neutrality, and it’s not political indifference. It’s just common sense.
Safa Wahidi (23Ox) is from Sugar Hill, Georgia.
Safa Wahidi (she/her) (23Ox) is from Sugar Hill, GA, majoring in English and political science. She is an active member of the Emory Muslim Student Association and serves as Co-President of the Young Democrats of Oxford College. Outside of the Wheel, Wahidi enjoys writing fiction, watching rom-coms and anticipating the next Taylor Swift album. You can find her wandering around the nearest Barnes & Noble, tea and Jane Austen novel in hand.