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Opinion Ricky Gervais teaches Hollywood what speaking truth to power really means

Actor and comedian Ricky Gervais joked about Jeffrey Epstein, Felicity Huffman and more at the 2020 Golden Globes on Jan. 5. (Video: The Washington Post)

If you had “host Ricky Gervais becomes a conservative darling” in your office Golden Globes pool, congratulations, because you must have won a bundle. The rest of us will continue our slow, astonished blink as we contemplate the fact that this year’s most talked-about speech slammed not oil companies or gender inequality, but Hollywood hypocrisy:

“You say you’re woke,” said Gervais, “but the companies you work for — I mean, unbelievable: Apple, Amazon, Disney. If ISIS started a streaming service, you’d call your agent, wouldn’t you?

“So if you do win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech, right? You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg.”

Conservatives ate it up. The left understandably liked the swipe at Big Tech but not the implications that entertainers should stop lecturing the rest of us about political causes, an argument Spencer Kornhaber of the Atlantic called “incoherent and regressive.” But whatever the merits, it was refreshing to see someone stand up at a Hollywood awards ceremony and actually speak truth to power — by which I mean the actual powers in their own lives, not a hypothetical power structure with no real prospect of striking back.

Take, for example, Patricia Arquette’s famous 2015 Oscars acceptance speech, which she used to call for wage equality for women. Time magazine captured the general media reaction when it called this “a brave political statement.” Brave? Arquette might be right, but is there anything less brave than supporting a liberal cause in a room full of fervent liberals?

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There are certainly famous people who have taken genuinely brave stands for social justice. You may disagree with Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem. But you can’t deny that Kaepernick was actually taking a serious personal risk, one that ultimately cost him years of playing football and a great deal of money. The awards-show grandstanders, on the other hand, cost themselves nothing and, indeed, get a great deal of attention for themselves as well as their causes.

What Gervais did, by contrast, was genuinely risky. He didn’t call out some shadowy villain who is perpetuating the patriarchy or warming the planet; he attacked people right there in the room, ones who could affect his future employment prospects. Moreover, he hit them where it hurts most: in their pocketbooks and their politics.

In the process, Gervais neatly illustrated exactly why so many people so resent the increasingly ritualized ceremonial sanctimony. Because it turns out that this may be exactly what makes people hate hypocrites so much: They fool us into giving them credit for holding potentially costly moral beliefs without actually paying those costs.

A 2017 paper from the journal Psychological Science reported a series of experiments demonstrating that we give people moral credit for condemning bad behavior — more credit than we give them for just stating that they themselves behave morally. But by the same token, we resent people who condemn others while privately indulging the same vices even more than we resent those who falsely claim to do the right thing. In fact, the people they studied seemed willing to give people a pass on hypocrisy if they admitted they didn’t live up to their own ideals.

What bothers us most, this suggests, is not the disconnect between values and behavior, something we’re all guilty of, but rather trying to gain social status by pretending to be more moral than you are. And that is precisely what Hollywood so often seems to do. It complains about the patriarchy, and then we find out it was sheltering a Harvey Weinstein; it lectures us on global warming while quietly flying around on private jets.

Hypocrisy isn’t the worst vice, but it is one of the most grating, especially from them. The people on that stage are already better looking than most mere mortals, and richer, and more famous, and better loved. But somehow that isn’t enough; they also want credit for being more moral than everyone else, and there they cross the line.

Well before this year’s Golden Globes, Gervais told the Hollywood Reporter, “I try and play the outsider. . . . I’ve got to be the bloke sitting at home who shouldn’t have been invited.” As that bloke might have said, “Okay, Hollywood, maybe you’re right, but you’re no better than the rest of us, so for God’s sake stop putting on airs.”

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