Recently, a number of celebrities were implicated in a scandal surrounding their recent visit to Saudi Arabia for a 3-day music festival called MDL Beast Fest.
This wasn’t just any regular music festival, however. This was an event funded and organized by the Saudi government intentionally produced as a PR stunt to generate positive press that would mitigate the major backlash the government has received this year in response to their many human rights abuses.
In an effort to “normalize” the Saudi regime and rehabilitate its image, they invited celebrities from America and Europe who have big social media followings. The celebrities were expected to create favorable posts and promote the country’s supposed newfound “progressiveness” and liberalism.
The celebrities, including actor Ryan Philippe and fitness model Pietro Boselli, both of whom have large followings in the LGBTQ community, received a swift and forceful negative response. Many commentators felt betrayed that the celebrities would essentially condone the actions of a government that over the last year beheaded several gay men and dismembered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a persistent critic of the government’s corrupt and inhumane policies, as well as their widely publicized atrocities.
Almost all of the celebrities were defensive in response to the criticism. Instead of apologizing or trying to make amends for their actions —some on social media suggested that they should perhaps donate the money they were paid to attend the festival to non-profits that defend the rights of LGBTQ people or journalists — they doubled down and made excuses. They pointed to the fact that women in Saudi Arabia were finally allowed to drive cars last year and they cited the government opening its doors to foreigners for the festival as in itself a sign of substantive change.
“Saudi is undergoing tremendous changes, for the better,” Pietro Boselli said on an Instragram post. “Of course, this does not mean forgetting the wrong that happened there. What is wrong should be condemned. But a positive change, and in this case openness, should be seen as progress, and a welcome one.”
The celebrities also said that we all are guilty to a certain extent as almost all of us use cars and planes that are largely fueled by Saudi petroleum. This argument, of course, ignores the obvious fact that there is a big difference between simply driving a car and actually visiting the country while taking money directly from the government.
As I wrote in the comments on Pietro Boselli’s post defending his actions — the money he received is stained with the blood of Jamal Khashoggi and all those who have been savagely tortured and murdered by the Saudi government.
The argument that we are all hypocrites because we drive cars fueled by Saudi oil is one that I heard while helping lead the fight for the boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel, which is owned by the LGBTQ-hating Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, after he instituted Shari Law that punishes homosexuals by stoning us to death.
My detractors said that because we couldn’t be perfect in our fight against the Sultan and the Beverly Hills Hotel/Polo Lounge-loving heterosexuals, we should basically give up altogether and have zero conscientiousness when it comes to where we put our money. Additionally, there are often those who say that boycotts don’t work, even though evidence — such as the Coors Beer and Chick-fil-A boycotts — show otherwise.
And, thanks to the work we did on the boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Sultan put a moratorium on the implementation of Sharia Law in Brunei.
The issue of whether celebrities should be given a pass or held accountable during a boycott is similar to whether politicians cross a picket line. Most don’t, wanting that union vote. The issue was huge in the 1980s when celebrities were called out if they violated the boycott of South Africa during apartheid. But ultimately most supported that boycott and ultimately, world pressure succeeded in ending that horrible government practice of racism.
The fact is — boycotts work if you have the patience and determination to stick to them over time.
As the saying goes: perfect is the enemy of good. We may not always know, for instance, if a business we patronize is owned by someone who we disagree with politically or who institutes policies in their country that we disagree with. But we can all at least try to make good decisions and support businesses that we know are owned by good people who do good things.
Nobody is asking for perfection. We’re just asking for people to be informed and do the best they can in an effort to advance LGBTQ equality.
Another lame excuse the celebrities deployed is that by boycotting the country we are somehow demonizing the people. This argument is also foolish. To the contrary, by boycotting Saudi Arabia we are putting pressure on the government to treat their citizens with dignity, equality and the rights that all human beings are entitled to.
People like Ryan Phillippe can say that we’re “virtue signaling” by calling out those like him who condone injustice, but if virtue signaling means having a conscience and standing up for those who don’t have a voice, then count me in.
James Duke Mason is an activist who helped lead the fight for the boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel.