Social Awareness & Justice: Whose Responsibility Is It? — Bek Hirschmann

A look into celebrities’ platforms and their use of them for political influence.

Bek Hirschmann is a literature major with women’s and gender studies and philosophy minors at University of Detroit Mercy. Music has always been a staple in Bek’s life, whether it be music production, lyricism, or piano playing. If you can’t find them on campus, you’d be sure to run into them riding their bike all over the city. Bek plans to continue on their education and become a professor, hoping to live a life filled to the brim with good literature and good conversation.

Janelle Monae on a throne surrounded by people
Still from Janelle Monae’s music video “Django Jane”

What is politics? One may say that it is only what goes on in the political sphere, but the political world is not a separate entity that only affects those outside of it when it decides to. The world influences politics, and politics influence the world in an endless cycle. With this in mind, is it possible to be apolitical? If the answer is no, what responsibility do those who are held on a pedestal in public life, such as celebrities, have to make their political leanings known?

“Fans want the music, but they want a politician,” rapper Aminé states in his song “STFU.” In the last 10 years, there has been a push for celebrities to stand up publicly for certain causes. Before social media, celebrities released their work and said their piece; there was less involvement in their personal lives. Now, especially in 2020, there are multiple ways to interact with and seem like one knows their favorite celebrity. Being a fan is more than liking their art; it has to be liking the whole person. People have always made public their adoration of certain artists by going to their concerts, owning their product, or wearing their merchandise, but with social media, people also have accounts dedicated to their favorite celebrities. When one connects themselves to an artist in such a way, they feel as though they have to support everything the artist does or else they are cancelled.

Cancel Culture is not as new a phenomenon as people think, but the scope of it and its use in the public sphere has grown. An early wave of Cancel Culture started back on Tumblr in the early 2010s, bringing popularity to phrases such as “Social Justice Warrior” and “problematic.” As Tumblr lost its popularity as a platform, this sort of discourse died down as well; however, it was picked up again to new heights on Twitter.

One wrong word, one wrong move, one wrong post–you’re cancelled. A popular way for people spread the news that someone is now deemed problematic and is cancelled are hashtags such as “#(insert name here)isoverparty.” Just in the past two days, there have been three separate hashtags of this nature trending–one for Demi Lovato, one for Conan Gray, and one for Adam Driver. Each one was “cancelled” for a different reason, but each cancellation was for a singular event in the person’s life. Whether it was a decision made when they were young or one they thought was private does not matter. In Cancel Culture, there is no room for growth; once you are deemed problematic, it’s over.

“I think a lot of people in the public don’t speak out about things that they could well use their platform to speak out with. They’re afraid of sticking their neck out because if you do, your head gets chopped off.”

– Jameel Jamil, US Weekly, 2019

Knowing this is the climate of celebrity culture, musicians have to make a choice–make their political stances known or stay silent. There can be no middle ground. If one only shares some beliefs, people accuse them of not caring, or even helping worsen, other social issues. Staying silent does not always mean an artist is free of criticism either. If an artist does not continually speak out on certain issues, no matter what their ideologies are or what they do in private to help, they are also deemed problematic by not using their social status in the way they should. Two artists that we will take a closer look at that each take a side of this coin are Janelle Monae and Harry Styles.

Janelle Monae has been known to be public and honest about the issues she supports and the causes she fights for. Her latest album Dirty Computer (released 2018) is overtly and purposely political. In her song “Screwed,” Janelle sings, “And I hear the sirens calling, and the bombs are falling in the streets. We’re all screwed.” She is clearly commenting on the state of the world and placing herself in the narrative by the use of the word “we.” As well, in her song “Django Jane,” Monae sings, “Black girl magic; ya’ll can’t stand it. Ya’ll can’t ban it, made out like a bandit. They been trying hard just to make us all vanish.” Once again, Monae is making a comment on the world that is going on around her but also on her own personal experience; she is unable to separate the two. As a queer black woman, Janelle does not necessarily have the ability to not pay attention to certain issues. There is constant legislation and fights for women’s rights and LGBT+ rights. To ignore these issues would be ignoring herself. As a member of a higher tax bracket, however, Monae still has more privilege than others in the world, which is why she feels even more compelled to share her beliefs.

“I want young girls, young boys, nonbinary, gay, straight, queer people who are having a hard time with their sexuality, dealing with feeling ostracized or bullied for just being their unique selves, to know that I see you. This album is for you. Be proud.”

– Janelle Monae, Rolling Stone 2018

Harry Styles, on the other hand, is very quiet about what he stands for, but he is not necessarily silent. There have been multiple times that he has privately donated money to charities, released merchandise where 100% of the profits go to help certain causes, and spoken out at his concerts about being yourself and acceptance. However, these are all things that if you are not a close follower of Harry Styles, you would never know. He goes on social media rarely, and when he does, it is to share a few short sentences, and then he disappears again. When asked in a recent interview with The Guardian why he doesn’t speak out more, he responded,

“Because of dilution. Because I’d prefer, when I say something, for people to think I mean it. To be honest, I’m still searching for that one thing, y’know. Something I can really stand up for, and get behind, and be like: This Is My Life Fight. There’s a power to doing the one thing. You want your whole weight behind it.”

There is truth to what Styles is saying, and it is good to know he won’t stand up for causes just because he is expected to, but it must be acknowledged that his answer is being said from a place of privilege. Unlike Janelle Monae, Harry Styles is a rich, white man, meaning that if he wanted to ignore politics completely, there is a strong chance his life would go on unaffected. I will not claim to know what he believes or what he does not, but the ability to pick and choose is not a luxury everyone has.

Harry Styles in a blue velvet suit with a guitar
Harry Styles performing at Stevie Nick’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction

What is the verdict? Should celebrities have to share all their beliefs to prove they care? Or, will we allow actions to speak louder than words? I wish I could give you an answer, but it will never be that simple. I do believe if you have a platform, it should be used somewhat to improve the society you’re living in, but the jury is still out on the best way to do so and to what extent. Should all your artistic endeavours and social media platforms be filled with moral and/or political messages? Or, is it enough to sprinkle it into a few songs, merchandise, and posts? There is no right or wrong answer, and we cannot control how others express their beliefs. All we can do is what we feel we must to make the world a better place to live in for everyone, not just ourselves.

A person standing in front of a body of water wearing a sweatshirt that says Teach me Empathy
The author

WGS Writing Prize Winners

Congratulations to all of the winners of Women’s and Gender Studies Writing Prizes! As always, the English Department was extremely well-represented among this year’s winners. These are the English majors/minors and students enrolled in English courses who won prizes in the categories of Academic Essay; Fiction and Personal Essay; and Poetry.

ACADEMIC ESSAY

First Prize: Diego Peralta (English minor)
“Resistance, Resilience, Alliance: Racism in The Bluest Eye”
Essay Written for ENL 2750: Diverse Voices in Literature
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Third Prize: Mary Elizabeth Johnson (English major)
“Culture, not Capacity:” Individualism and Paternalism in The Woman of Colour”
Essay written for ENL 3520: Nineteenth-Century British Novel
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FICTION & PERSONAL ESSAY

First Prize: Mary Elizabeth Johnson (English major)
“Is Lizzy Bennet a Cool Girl?”
Essay written for ENL 3000: Writing About Literature
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Second Prize: Nurzahan Rahman (English major)
“Beauty: Her Inner Beast”
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POETRY

First Prize: Aly (Alyssa) Porcerelli
“in a place that shames and other poems”
Poems inspired by ENL 2450: Study of Poetry
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Second Prize: Emily Tarchala
“Meditation from the Man Cave and other poems”
Poems written for ENL 2050: Introduction to Creative Writing
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Why Everyone Should Watch (or re-watch) HBO’s Chernobyl — Mike Jaafar

Mike Jaafar is a biology major and creative writing minor at University of Detroit Mercy. Mike is passionate about many things, including writing, reading, 3D pen art, and working out. He is friends with every single dog in a five mile radius and if you ask for a good place to eat pizza he can probably give you ten. Mike’s dream is to become a dentist, help as many people as possible, and make a positive impact wherever he goes.

Still image from the HBO series Chernobyl

April 26th is right around the corner, and if that does not make the hairs on your neck rise then perhaps you are unaware.

“To be a scientist is to be naïve. We are so focused on our search for truth we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it. But it is always there, whether we see it or not, whether we choose to or not. The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants; It doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions. It will lie in wait for all time, and this at last is the gift of Chernobyl. Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: What is the cost of lies?”

-Jared Harris as Valery Legasov

On April 26th, 1986, the Chernobyl disaster occurred. Many lives were lost, and it was deemed the worst nuclear disaster in history. HBO has recreated the events of this historic tragedy in a miniseries called Chernobyl, consisting of five episodes running at roughly an hour each. It has won a total of ten Emmy’s, two Golden Globes, and countless other awards. It currently stands at a solid 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. This show is without doubt the perfect way to pass the time during isolation, but the reasons have nothing to do with the critical acclaim. Still not even a year old, this show has already proven to be timeless in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Upon watching a second time, I even recommend those who have seen it already to watch again.

Chernobyl mirrors the reality of events that occurred and reminds us that reality is perhaps the scariest genre of all. Viewers will be captured, perhaps shed tears, and struck with grief in a show that emphasizes how the impossible becomes possible. Watch as a government and those in power work hard to protect themselves, only for its people to be left asking, “What is the cost of lies?”

While the cost of lies is especially pertinent to events like Chernobyl, this problem is omnipresent. After watching this show, one will see that the cost of assuming COVID-19 a hoax is comparable to the cost of authority figures refusing to believe that Chernobyl’s core did not explode. The cost of the United States refusing the World Health Organization’s testing kits and choosing to make their own (which were ultimately faulty) is comparable to the cost of Russia blocking communication with other countries in the aftermath of the disaster, in which more lives may have been saved if help was given. Think of the Chinese government and Li Wenliang, the Corona virus whistleblower that ultimately died from the virus, as you watch Chernobyl authorities refuse to believe their own powerplant employees. Our lack of respect for healthcare workers at this time is paralleled by the disregard to a nurse’s orders in the show, which results in more tragedy. Think of the race against time to get more ventilators to New York as workers try to prevent the nuclear meltdown from causing another explosion. The cost of people not staying home and underestimating the wrath of this virus is comparable to that of Russian citizens not wanting to evacuate the nuclear powerplant’s exclusion zone. Need I go on?

  “Every lie you tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is payed.”

   -Jared Harris as Valery Legasov

In the end, I have come to the conclusion that the cost is precious lives. I ask you: What is the cost of lies? This question is posed in the opening lines of Chernobyl. At a time like this, I have come to believe that we need only look around and observe to identify the true cost of lies. Thus, we continue to pay the debt now. To the future writers, teachers, doctors, news reporters, and lawyers: what will you do to help change the course of mankind? Will you work to get us out of this debt of lies? Will you search for truth? This may not be the world we signed up for, but it is still possible to make it a better place. I highly suggest making good use of your time, watch Chernobyl, and begin asking yourself these same questions. Above all, maintain hope.