By now, you must have come across dozens of opinions on the blowback actor Joke Silva received for fraternising with the All Progressives Congress presidential campaign. Much of the commentary, steeped in tawdry “woke” ideologies, did not take their analysis on the issues beyond trite arguments of Silva’s “right to choose” and “freedom of speech/expression.” The ostentatious grandstanding of political correctness seems to have inhibited reasoning. Unfortunately, their shabby apprehension of democratic rights turns Silva into a heroine standing against some unprogressive forces when she is the one playing reactionary politics.
One commentator even asked for social media regulatory laws to be promulgated to prevent a recurrence of the attacks Silva received. Are people so steeped in their conservatism that they do not even hear themselves doublespeak? How do you simultaneously advocate for Silva’s freedom to make her political choices and still ask the government to clamp down on others’ freedom to respond to her as they may deem fit? Why is it a triumph of democratic freedom when Silva picks a partisan side but a breach of that freedom when people respond to her? The concept of freedom of speech protects you from government censorship, not from individuals who can unleash a torrent of vitriol.
Also, the case of Silva and her social media critics is not merely reducible to “cyberbullying” or “cyber lynching” by an “intolerant” cyber mob as some commentators insipidly characterised it. What they witnessed is a dis-investiture of an actor by a segment of the public who thinks her values no longer align with theirs. It is not a totally unique phenomenon. There are some public figures whose political alliances or even public conduct attract a disproportionate degree of either praise or scorn and that is because those people’s public relevance is built through their moral relationship with society. Such people include actors, celebrities, influencers, traditional and religious leaders, activists, writers, public intellectuals, etc.
For the Nigerian film industry where their fixation with issuing moral instructions frequently outweighs the entertainment value of their productions, any actor that aligns with the national disaster called the APC betrays the same values they have constantly hawked to the public through the screen. If a film were to be written about 2022 Nigeria, it is doubtful anyone supporting the APC will be characterized as anything other than a villain. Silva’s choice to do so in real life makes her look like a hypocrite, and people are right to point it out. As someone who embodies values accrued through many years of acting righteous on television, Silva cannot expect that her real-life choices will not be interrogated through the images she sold on the screen.
Those who keep arguing that she has a right to her political choice and that her critics should let her be need to ask themselves—on what other basis did the APC select her (and her fellow actors) to be part of their campaign other than the fact that she has some social capital that they wanted to appropriate for partisan gain? Silva’s choice to publicly pitch her tent with the APC despite the pain and punishment they have inflicted on Nigerians since 2015 means she does not align with the desire of the fraction of the public who have committed themselves to overturn this present darkness. If the same people who invested her with the popularity that the APC is capitalising on to shore up their campaigns decide to withdraw it, why not? Social relationships are a transaction of value. When the currency of trade between the parties no carries mutual recognisable value, a bitter and publicly enacted split can ensue.
There is a reason even Hollywood actors are no longer making many public comments on politics. There was a time they had an opinion of virtually everything in society: Donald Trump, police brutality, racism, immigration, LGBTQ and so on. Virtually every show, every award ceremony, turned into an opportunity for some to highlight their virtues to the public. It got to a point where the posturing started backfiring. The people that held the opinions being disparaged began to revolt by refusing to consume their products. In this age of social media, it is not that hard for people to mobilise against an actor who throws their politics in everyone’s face. For instance, they can refuse to watch your films. By the time you start to suffer losses, you learn that you are paid to entertain and not to dish out Sunday school lessons.
Unlike Hollywood though, the Nigerian audience does not wield that much economic power over the agents of their film industry. The industry is not yet profitable enough for actors to survive without sucking up to patrons—most of them politicians—for survival. Nollywood actors hardly become rich through public patronage of either movie ticket sales, merchandising or movie tie-ins. For the most part, what their movie outputs do for them is to provide exposure, a form of social capital parlayed into economic gains. After they have become household faces through acting, some endorse products or take to other lines of business. Others find rich patrons to sponsor their lifestyle. Those patrons could be a politician or—as the many scandals that have recently unfolded about Apostle Johnson Suleman revealed—even a pastor. Thus, Nollywood actors do not “owe” their audiences neutrality in the same way a Hollywood actor does.
In Nigeria, you could be a famous actor for 30 years and still end up begging for donations to raise enough money to go abroad for some medical procedure. When the actress Moji Olaiya died in Canada years ago, it was a politician who paid for her body to be repatriated back home. In another society, that expense could have been borne by an insurance company, but here, you are likely to rely on the generosity of the same people who robbed you of dignity. Recently, we saw how the original Ololade, Mr Money, Olaiya Igwe (real name: Ebun Oloyede) prostrated before a glorified thug, MC Oluomo, when that one gifted him a Mercedes Benz. Olaiya has been in the industry for longer than many people of this generation have lived but never made enough to buy himself a luxury car. When that motor park tout beckons on Olaiya to join their campaign, can he refuse?
If there is any lesson in the drama of Nollywood, electioneering and the pushback against actors as political endorsers, it is not the “freedom of choice” or whatever being mouthed by those who seem to forget that choice does not go in a unilateral direction. Actors can make their choices, of course. Their followers too retain the right to respond to those choices with either approbation or opprobrium. The moral of this story is that the respect that an adulating public confers on a public figure is fickle. When the beneficiary diverges from the values s/he has always symbolised to the community, one can expect them to take back what they gave.
That said, even though such dis-endowment can get acrimonious does not mean anyone should spend their entire life pandering, afraid to take a stand that might irritate people. Anyone who wants to extricate from the expectations they have always personified to people should also prepare for a raucous breakup. If you are the kind of public figure whose values are consistent, you will ultimately be fine despite the tension. But if you are the one whose opinions on what constitutes good governance fluctuate according to which of your friends are in power, your hypocrisy will be revealed. Watching a jeering public withdraw what they endowed you can be humiliating, especially for an actor who has reached the peak of her career like Silva, but one cannot have it both ways.
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