Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Jeff Goldblum, Dr. Phil and the Clumsy Art of Celebrity Contrition

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After saying something dangerous or ignorant, public figures tend to double down or give snarky non-apologies. The Hollywood Reporter columnist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar offers them some advice.

One of Jeff Goldblum's most famous movie lines is from Jurassic Park, when, as Dr. Ian Malcolm, he admonishes: "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should." The same can be said about stars when publicly offering their opinions to millions of people: They are so focused on the entitlement to speak, they don't stop to think if they should. Now Goldblum faces media backlash for saying something that some argue is anti-Islam. He's part of an ongoing media Geiger counter that tests every celebrity utterance to see if it's radioactive. That's as it should be, because their words can have a healing or harmful effect. And when it's harmful, some choose to apologize, some to double down, and some offer a snarky non-apology.

Goldblum appeared on RuPaul's Drag Race and, while judging a contestant's stars-and-stripes-themed hijab and caftan, mused, "Is there something in this religion that is anti-homosexuality and anti-woman? Does that complicate the issue? I'm just raising it and thinking out loud and maybe being stupid." The internet exploded with accusations of malicious Islamophobia. As a Muslim who has faced insults and threats for more than 50 years, and has consistently called out anti-Muslim sentiments in politics and popular culture, I'd have to say this is not such a case. That doesn't mean it wasn't dumb. It just wasn't malicious.

Everything depends on context. In this case, Goldblum wondered aloud — oblivious and ill-informed — about the contrast between the traditional Muslim outfit and the treatment of women and homosexuals on a show that celebrates both. He voiced a common myth about Islam, as well as about Judaism and Christianity: that they are monolithic religions with only a single viewpoint. Orthodox Judaism, Catholicism and evangelical Christianity often espouses what some would consider homophobic and misogynistic teachings. But there are many versions that teach acceptance. That Goldblum didn't know this is disappointing; that he expressed the movie-villain version of Islam is dangerous because it perpetuates misunderstanding and hatred of Muslims.

Clearly, that was not Goldblum's intention. Anyone who knows him from his interviews or watches his addictive The World According to Jeff Goldblum on Disney+ knows that part of his appeal is his quirky charm and think-aloud, off-kilter musings. Unfortunately, on RuPaul's show these musings were not charming. But the backlash and the backlash to the backlash are merely the left and right flagrantly brandishing their street cred.

But there are plenty of examples of stars who have offered some heinous opinions and, when called out, refused to take responsibility or offered an insincere apology, despite the possibility of violence, injury or hate. Many of them take their lead from President Trump, who in recent weeks touted an unproven medicine for COVID-19 that resulted in an Arizona man dying (and causing a shortage of the medicine for lupus patients) and wondered about the potential of disinfectant being ingested or injected (resulting in three men drinking liquid cleaning products to ward off the virus and NYC Poison Control receiving twice the usual amount of calls). When asked whether he takes any responsibility for these men, Trump said, “No, I don’t.” The first step in a sincere apology is to take responsibility for your actions to show you are smart enough to understand the repercussions. Refusing to do so doesn’t make you look strong or right, it makes you look foolish and reckless.

Dr. Phil recently appeared on Fox News' The Ingraham Angle to proclaim that the country was overreacting to COVID-19. Despite not being a medical doctor (his Ph.D. is in clinical psychology), he felt qualified to tell 3 million viewers that "45,000 people a year die from automobile accidents; 480,000 from cigarettes; 360,000 a year from swimming pools, but we don't shut the country down for that. But yet we're doing it for this? And the fallout is going to last for years because people's lives are being destroyed." First, his opinion is contrary to all the data-driven medical opinions from experts. Second, his facts are wrong: According to the CDC, 32,000 Americans die annually from auto accidents and 3,536 a year die from unintentional drownings. Third, it's a false analogy that doesn't relate to how a contagion works.

His clarification was even worse: "Yes, I know those are not contagious, so probably bad examples. I referred to them as numbers of death we apparently find acceptable because we do little or nothing about them." Now, he falsely claims we do nothing about these problems. Is he not aware of vigorous anti-texting, anti-drinking ads to curb auto accidents or pool safety campaigns in every state? Worst of all was his apology: "If you didn't like my choice of words, I apologize for that." It blames the viewer for taking offense, for not being smart enough to understand his true meaning. This is the Real Housewives Syndrome: Every apology is phrased "I'm sorry that you were offended …" and not "I was wrong."

Two celebrities who got it right when it comes to apologizing are Miley Cyrus and Lizzo. In 2017, Cyrus complained that rap lyrics were too lewd, adding, "I can't listen to that anymore. That's what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little." YouTuber Kenya Wilson, a Cyrus fan, responded with a video saying, "It wasn't the right thing to say, it was bad, it was racially insensitive, it had racist undertones and it wasn't OK, point blank, period." Afterward, Cyrus wrote in Wilson's comment section: "I am aware of my platform and have always used it the best way I know how and to shine a light on injustice. I want to start with saying I am sorry. I own the fact that saying … 'this pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little' was insensitive as it is a privilege to have the ability to dip in and out of 'the scene.'" 

In September 2019, Lizzo tweeted, "Hey @Postmates this girl Tiffany W. stole my food. she lucky I don't fight no more." Further investigation showed the driver had tried to deliver the food but no one answered the door, and Lizzo promptly apologized: "I apologize for putting that girl on blast. I understand I have a large following and that there were so many variables that could've put her in danger. Imma really be more responsible with my use of social media and check my petty and my pride at the door."

Both were humble, contrite and mature. 

Even though I don't believe Goldblum had malicious intent, in the end, he does owe an apology, because he perpetuated a harmful myth that could put people's physical health in jeopardy. But equally important is how he expresses that regret. Lizzo stated it perfectly: "I understand I have a large following and that there were so many variables that could’ve put her in danger."

The biggest lesson in the art of the celebrity apology is to realize the consequences of what you say before saying anything. But because stars speak in public so often, it's inevitable that they'll sometimes say something offensive or harmful. When that happens, they need to embrace their mistake and apologize without caveats, stipulations or limitations. The word celebrity comes from celebrate. They need to make sure they're worthy. 

A version of this story first appeared in the May 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.