Yesterday your Twitter timeline and Instagram feed were likely cluttered with pictures of celebrities in orange shirts, because yesterday was National Gun Violence Awareness Day.
The campaign is organized by the nonprofit organization Everytown for Gun Safety. The orange theme is in conjunction with another group, Wear Orange, which was started by a group of teenagers in Chicago to honor their friend Hadiya Pendleton, who was just 15 years old when she was shot dead in the back just after taking her finals—a week after performing at Obama’s second inauguration.
From the celebrities who posted selfies tagged #WearOrange—a group that includes Kim Kardshian, Ron Howard, Brooke Shields, Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Zoe, Max Joseph, Rita Wilson, Sarah Silverman, Ike Barinholtz, Adam Scott, Melissa Joan Hart, Amy Schumer, Julianne Moore, Chelsea Handler, Spike Lee, Perez Hilton, Gloria Steinem, Kimberly Elise, T.I. and Ruby Rose—you would think that selfies were the beginning and end of what Wear Orange and Everytown for Gun Safety were asking for. Just awareness—like, “Hey, don’t forget that gun violence exists.”
I am skeptical of awareness-raising as a goal in itself. Nobody is unaware of cancer or heart disease, and certainly, no one is unaware of gun violence one day after a major American university is put on lockdown because of a gunman on campus.
But—and again, not that you’d know from the celebrity selfies you saw yesterday—Everytown isn’t simply asking for awareness. They’re also asking for your money, a fact that seems to have been lost in almost all of the social media posturing.
There is an apt if now trite Theodore Roosevelt quote about service: “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.” For a group of teenagers in Chicago, wearing orange to honor their friend and galvanizing their community is absolutely what they can do, with what they have, where they are. But that scope of ability doesn’t necessarily apply to the rest of us—if we are past our adolescence and working, we can likely do just a little bit more than put on some orange and post a photo—and it certainly doesn’t apply to the rich and famous.
(Some celebrities didn’t even “wear orange,” strictly speaking, but simply put an orange filter over an old photo instead.)
What has been accomplished here? If you were a wealthy celebrity looking to do some good—if you had a sincere desire to do something about gun control and gun safety in America, rather than a narcissistic urge to participate in something resembling goodness—it is damn near impossible for a #WearOrange selfie to be your best shot.
We put a deeply inflated sense of value onto entertainment and the people who make it in our culture. Actors and musicians and entertainers make a great deal of money. Their wealth and what they do with it makes Americans feel good; it does not increase public welfare the way that good laws do. We know this and largely accept it and often celebrate it, because that’s the way capitalism works.
But there’s a reason we expect a lot of rich people outside the entertainment realm. Billionaires like Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and George Lucas have pledged to give away their fortunes to philanthropy because, presumably, they recognize that their insane amounts of wealth, while perhaps earned—insomuch as a one human can singlehandedly provide billions of dollars of value—do not make for a fair, healthy world when accumulated in a single pile. So they give.
Of course, we don’t know for sure that these celebrities didn’t donate to Everytown or Wear Orange. But the fact that none of them urged others to donate is a very damning clue. (Though a few did encourage their followers to vote for gun reform.) Perhaps all of these celebrities like to keep their charitable donations private, and that’s fine. Or, perhaps we have also gotten to the point in our culture in which it actually needs to be pointed out that a Twitter account will never be more helpful than a bank account. It is money and not “influence” that makes the world go ‘round.
Here, let’s consider gun violence specifically. One of the reasons gun control that actually results in fewer people getting shot is so difficult to achieve is because of our cultural proclivity for weapons, yes, but also because gun control laws and policies rarely get passed. The reason those laws are not passed is because organizations like the NRA are able to rake in massive amounts of money—$30 million between 2013 and 2014—to stop them.
Last summer, the Boston Globe reported that pro-gun lobbyists outspent gun control organizations by a factor of seven. Fortune notes that the NRA is the tenth biggest political spender in America. That money is spent not just lobbying politicians, but donating directly to the campaigns of gun-friendly lawmakers.
The other side is tackling this fight with money. Money is the only tangible way that those of us who don’t want elementary school students gunned down in their schools can match them. If you happen to be a wealthy person interested in doing some good in the world, it is obtuse not to recognize that leveraging your wealth is the most useful way to do it.
Kim Kardashian can tweet at 45 million people, or she can donate, say, $45,000 from her immense $85 million fortune, or she could ask her followers to donate, and tell them where. “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.” When you consider that responsibility seriously, the “what” is not going to be a sexy selfie or a Tweet that also serves as a advertisement for your husband’s clothing line.
And people will still always argue that the influence and reach of these celebrities is as important as their ability to give financially. Influence is good and necessary—or, to say what’s really at the bottom of this argument, it’s better than nothing—but it has obvious limits. No one who opposes gun control is going to see Ron Howard or Brooke Shields or Amy Schumer in an orange shirt and suddenly change their mind about the Second Amendment.
And, again, with no prompts to donate to the cause, what good is raising awareness about something we are all hauntingly familiar with?
Fame is a privilege to be leveraged, but wealth is true power in America; it’s where that privilege can come to life. One of the few silver linings of Prince’s death was learning that he secretly gave away millions of dollars to charitable causes. And as an outspoken activist for specific causes, it was easier to believe that he practiced what he preached. When you saw him perform at a Black Lives Matter rally, you believed he wrote a check as well. But what are we to make of celebrities who participate in every trending hashtag or Facebook filter that happens to have a charitable tinge?
I’m not interested in asking the bare minimum from people who have been afforded a great deal of privilege. And for people with millions of dollars, a tweet with a hashtag is the bare minimum. Without a distribution of wealth, this type of celebrity activism becomes performative for the sake of looking like a good person, which is not, it turns out, how good people actually behave.