Yesterday I praised Viola Davis’s Oscars speech for being memorable without being explicitly political—for simply talking about her job in a moving and well-written way. Twitter quickly let me know I missed something. On social media and conservative-leaning news sites, Davis’s speech had in fact sparked outrage.
After explaining that she felt her mission was to “exhume … the stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition, people who fell in love and lost,” Davis said this:
I became an artist—and thank God I did—because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.
This claim has become one of the discussion items of the right-wing internet following the Oscars ceremony. “Art is wonderful; art is enriching; art can connect us with each other,” writes Ben Shapiro at Daily Wire. “But the utter arrogance of stating that artists are ‘the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life’ is astounding. How about doctors? How about stay-at-home mothers, who help shape lives rather than pursuing their own career interests? How about morticians? How about pretty much everybody in a free market economy, giving of themselves to others to improve lives?”
Variants of that sentiment have ricocheted online, with Davis sometimes misquoted as though she’d said only “actors” celebrate what it means to live a life, or, worse, are the only ones who “know” what it means to live a life.
Are people right to be offended? Did she say artists are better than anyone else? Reading her words literally, within the context of her speech, and extending her the slightest benefit of the doubt, it’s hard to see backlash against Davis as anything other than a symptom of our overblown culture wars.