he Academy Awards were Sunday night, and we all know what that means: the year’s best films, high fashion on the red carpet, and a heavy dose of moral scolding from Hollywood stars.
Brad Pitt, who won the Oscar for best supporting actor, kicked off the night by addressing the recent impeachment trial of President Trump: “They told me I only had 45 seconds up here, which is 45 seconds more than the Senate gave John Bolton this week. I’m thinking maybe Quentin (Tarantino) does a movie about it and in the end the adults do the right thing.”
Comedian Ricky Gervais recently made headlines at the Golden Globes for criticizing this tendency to moralize at awards shows, telling his fellow celebrities, “You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything.” Such warnings aside, this year’s award ceremonies extended the long tradition of stars using Hollywood’s biggest nights to signal both to their peers and to the folks at home that they have the right moral values. After Pitt, Oscar winners Renée Zellweger and Joaquin Phoenix gave their own heartfelt speeches about moral ideals.
Moments like these can become a cultural touchstone. Think, for instance, of Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes performance. Saying she had lost her voice “in screaming and lamentation” that same weekend, she went on to decry President Donald Trump for mocking a disabled reporter in 2015.
Impassioned pleas like these are often sincere. But frequently, people who use moral talk this way are also engaging in moral grandstanding — trying to show off how good they are. This may seem paradoxical. But someone can sincerely believe they have the best moral values and still use their public discourse to try to project an impressive image of themselves.
It’s often difficult to know whether someone is using their moral talk for show in this way, just like it’s hard to know whether people who sincerely mention their large incomes in conversation over dinner during tax season are also trying to brag.
But just because we can’t always see it doesn’t mean grandstanding doesn’t happen. It does, and it’s not just happening at the Oscars, or on one side of the political aisle. Preening moral talk may seem like a special fault of Hollywood, but we’re all guilty of it — and it keeps us from having the sorts of moral and political discussions we should.