Does celebrity activism do more harm than good?

6 May 2020

US pop star Madonna reacts during the opening of her Mercy James hospital in Blantyre, Malawi, July 11, 2017. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
US pop star Madonna reacts during the opening of her Mercy James hospital in Blantyre, Malawi, July 11, 2017. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Making the case for YES is Andrés Jiménez. Andrés has worked for NGOs in Costa Rica and Uganda in the fields of transitional justice and conflict transformation, his writings featuring in Waging Nonviolence and The Peace and Conflict Monitor. He currently focuses on issues related to responsible travel and community tourism.

Arguing NO is Paul Cullen, a talent specialist whose career started in BBC drama casting ahead of representing award-winning actors as an agent. He continues to work closely with talent, securing their support and advocacy for good causes.

ANDRÉS: It is clear to me that we are generally guided by our feelings in our day-to-day lives. We become interested in events that evoke powerful emotions within us. Celebrities are often highly skilled at tapping into this natural human tendency. However, the skills or qualities that make a person thrive in the high-power and fiercely competitive world that celebrities inhabit, are often not those that lead to an understanding of the complexities and nuances of a conflict on the other side of the world.

Furthermore, celebrity activism is based on the premise that if we only knew about an issue, we could do something, anything, to make a difference. That awareness is the first step towards making a change. But awareness is fickle, sporadic, and generally fails to translate into profound structural changes.

Ultimately, celebrities tend to direct their actions towards what they know best, which is to generate attention from a global audience. But this often presupposes that solutions need to come primarily from the outside, from benevolent or concerned actors who feel compelled to become involved.

My experience has been that complex issues are much better addressed through patient and long-term commitment with greater focus on locally-led and organized initiatives that address specific grievances and issues, not grand celebrity-led awareness campaigns that seek to let the world know about a certain issue they have decided to become involved in.

PAUL: Whether a sprinkling of stardust on an issue has any impact or does any good continues to be a topic that attracts significant attention, and surely that’s the point. Celebrity support of worthwhile causes and issues is in no way a new phenomenon. As far back as 1929, J M Barrie gifted the rights of Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital, providing it with a significant source of income in perpetuity, and Harry Belafonte has given his voice to civil rights and social causes since the 1950s.

Classifying celebrities as a homogenous group whose skills and qualities are best suited to surviving the showbiz bubble does a disservice to a broad and diverse range of individuals whose capacity for understanding complex issues extends beyond following the stage directions of a script.

Fame alone can’t make someone best prepared to explain an issue to the world, but it can equip them to make people sit up and take notice

A healthy cynicism exists when it comes to celebrity endorsement of charities, NGOs and other not-for-profit or­gan­­izations. Few celebrities will become involved with a campaign where they may be seen as an advocate or activist without either having had first-hand experience of the issue themselves, or the opportunity to get under its skin. 

Knowledge, they say, is power. If we have no knowledge of something, then we certainly cannot do anything to make a difference. I believe it essential for celebrities to use the spotlight they enjoy to illuminate important issues to a global audience, as opposed to hiding their starry light under a bushel.

ANDRÉS: To be informed about what is happening in our community or in places far away is indeed important, and celebrities can certainly play a role in bringing issues to our attention. And for sure, it’s a disservice to paint all celebrities with the same brush, or to diminish their desire to make use of their status to give back and to help bring change in the world. Bill Gates, for example, has been a prolific philanthropist for decades.

Deciphering the complexities of local realities requires time and humility, and most celebrities simply do not have the long-term dedication

However, good intentions and the resources to put them into action do not necessarily make someone the best prepared to explain an issue to the world. Who gets to speak about a conflict is just as important as what is being said. Whose voices and explanations are heard already says a lot about how an issue is framed and addressed. Celebrities inhabit a world fundamentally different than those who they often try to help. It is not surprising then that their views of what should be done often do not quite align with what local actors are actually calling for. Deciphering the profound complexities of local realities requires time and humility, and most celebrities simply do not have the interest or long-term dedication required to embark on this journey.

PAUL: I frequently advise that not all celebrities are great speakers, and not all great speakers are celebrities. So I agree that it requires more than good intention to be capable of explaining an issue effectively. Charities who use celebrities to deliver their messages have also been known to court controversy. In the UK, Comic Relief has faced criticism more than once for its use of ‘white saviours’ in their appeal films, despite the use of famous faces being key to the charity raising more than $1 billion in its 30-year history. Engaging a celebrity as a mouthpiece may be considered a short-term strategy, and even viewed as self-serving. However, it’s important to remember that celebrities are unlikely to be operating in isolation when they nail their colours to a cause-related mast.

The level of fame where a celebrity is likely to be considered an activist opens doors to the most influential and well-informed. Ahead of going public, offering their insights and opinions, even those celebrities most willing to exercise their right to freedom of expression are likely to have sought wise counsel. Fame alone can’t make someone best prepared to explain an issue to the world, but it can equip them to make people sit up and take notice.

ANDRÉS: While we have argued about the merits and the limitations of awareness, we have hardly discussed the role that power imbalances play when addressing an issue; and in this respect, Bill Gates represents a good example of precisely this point.

By all accounts, Bill Gates is an extremely well-informed and committed individual. His level of dedication and interest in addressing some of the most important issues affecting the world is unquestionable. He could be considered the ideal celebrity activist.

However, he is also a clear example of precisely the problem. When the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation becomes involved in an issue affecting a remote community in a certain part of the world the power imbalances between this global institution and the different local actors are likely to be vast both in terms of resources and influence. It is no secret that generally the policies that are promoted and eventually implemented at a local and international level are those that are better funded and that manage to generate considerable interest from other relevant actors. Celebrities and powerful personalities certainly have a free right to express their views on the issues they feel passionate about, but I wonder if many realize the extent to which they can easily drown and overpower many other radically different views and approaches that are fighting to be heard. In the battle for ideas celebrities clearly have the upper hand.

PAUL: I agree conflicts of power present themselves when a well-known philanthropist identifies issues they feel equipped to address, though this is unlikely to be confined only to celebrity activists.

Madonna is a global superstar whose involvement with Malawi demonstrates where philanthropic efforts can become fractured. Raising Malawi, the non-profit organization she founded, has on its website a quote from Madonna saying she ‘felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility to get involved and bring awareness to the situation’ [of over a million children orphaned by AIDS].

Courting controversy is something Madonna’s involvement in Malawi has managed to do from the outset. Accusations of law-bending to enable her to adopt four Malawian orphans, millions of donated dollars squandered due to mismanagement, and a personal attack from former President Joyce Banda informing the world her government was not obligated to give Madonna state treatment just because she is an ‘internationally renowned star’.

In spite of this, people in Malawi reportedly support what Madonna has given to the country. Her celebrity has not only brought investment but ‘little-known Malawi gets to be known’.

Being overawed by fame is no excuse for local decision-makers to absolve themselves from putting to work the significant awareness and altruism that celebrity activism generates, in the ways they consider best.

What do you think?

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New Internationalist issue 525 magazine cover

This article is from
the April 2020 issue
of New Internationalist.
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