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Power and principle

May 21,2018 - Last updated at May 21,2018

When Rock Hudson died in 1985, his legacy was not limited to having starred in over 70 films and TV series. Hudson was one of the first celebrities to be diagnosed with HIV and to die of AIDS-related complications.

Hudson’s diagnosis and death helped show that AIDS is a disease, not a divine retribution against homosexuality. Shortly after the announcement of his diagnosis, more than $1.8 million were raised in private contributions to support AIDS research and to care for victims, and a few days after his death, Congress set aside $221 million to develop a cure for AIDS.

Such is the power of star status, that the women who accused comedian Louis C. K. of sexual abuse, said they felt obliged to accept his advances because “he is a star”. In his apology, he said: “When you have power over another person, asking them [for sexual favours] is not a question. It’s a predicament for them. The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly.”

Abuse of power by celebrities is most unfortunate because, as the world sinks into polarisation, reductionism and superficiality, where resentment seems to have eliminated the middle ground and polarised society into "us" and "them” over all significant political and social issues, entertainment provided a space which we could all share. 

We could all enjoy the Bill Cosby Show or bab el hara, undisturbed by the big questions of the day. But today, it would be difficult to watch Bill Cosby or Kevin Spacey, outstanding performers though they are, without thinking of their alleged transgressions as sexual predators. It would also be impossible to watch any drama in a Syrian accent without suspecting complicity in the criminality that is happening in that country. 

Of course, one can quote Bertrand Russell’s philosophy that, when you admire a beautiful pearl, you need not think of the ugly oyster that produced it. Still, is it adequate to say that nobody is perfect? That would guarantee impunity for anyone with star status.

Fortunately, however, many celebrities use their status to set a good example. Take for instance LeBron James, possibly the greatest basketball player of all time. 

In 2015, James partnered with the University of Akron to provide scholarships for 2,300 children beginning in 2021. In 2016, he donated $2.5 million to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture to support an exhibit on Muhammad Ali. In 2017, the Akron School Board approved the "I Promise" Elementary School, created in partnership with the LeBron James Family Foundation to help struggling elementary school students stay in school.

Louis C.K.’s apology is important because it acknowledges that power carries moral responsibility. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But in today’s information scene, no amount of spin can cover up such abuses, so there is an added responsibility on all celebrities to lead society in morality. And as Aristotle said, the best way to teach morality is to make it a habit.


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