As a philosophy major, I spend a lot of time reading and talking about what it means to be a “good person.” The short and disappointing answer is that there is no consensus we can follow. Diverse religious and philosophical viewpoints contribute unique ideas to our contemplation of moral questions and each tradition offers a widely different conception of what it means to be good. However, many theorists across these different traditions agree that a desire to be praised for your kind deeds negates any good you’re actually doing by centering yourself and a shallow, selfish need for validation.
CBS announced a reality television show, “The Activist,” Sept. 9 which would feature six “activist” contestants competing in challenges related to their work. Many people immediately saw the glaring moral issue that the show creates a competitive framework that praises individuals rather than the good deeds themselves. The show, which was to be hosted by Usher, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Julianne Hough, received immense backlash. CBS has since changed the format of the show to a single documentary special instead of a recurring series and said they would remove the contests. Regardless of format, the fact that this show was even greenlit as a concept reveals CBS’s corrupted view of activism.
Further, it is worrying that CBS thought audiences would want to watch this show. It makes me wonder if we as viewers have too often focused our attention on celebrity philanthropists, making “The Activist” seem like a profitable and welcome idea to elevate relatively unknown activists to a status of fame.
As someone who closely follows grassroots environmental activism in my home state of Minnesota, I am alarmed that the show being greenlit in the first place contributes to a view of activism that erases the essential work done by local leaders. For the past two summers I have watched and supported the efforts of Anishinaabe activists fighting to stop the construction of Enbridge’s Line 3 tar sands pipeline. These leaders are on the ground every day, often standing in the very rivers they are trying to protect. Even after enduring arrest and police violence, they always bring the focus back to the water, ecosystems and communities they advocate for — rather than themselves.
Real activists are humble and emphasize that fighting for justice is a communal effort. “The Activist” being approved by CBS shows the media’s contaminated view of activism and how easily our attention can be commanded by celebrities rather than local leaders making tangible changes.
Activists whom CBS asked to join the show have said they felt demeaned by its premise and approach. Clover Hogan, an activist with Force of Nature, said the producer who interviewed her about joining the show spent more time trying to develop an emotional and dramatic tone to how Hogan told her story, rather than asking about the actual content of her work on mental health and climate change. Hogan said producers prioritized the “likeability” of her personality over her work and collaboration with local communities, showing that CBS’s motivation for making the show was likely focused on entertainment value and celebrity presence.
The show promoted itself as an avenue for inspiring real change. Promotional materials claimed it would bring awareness to important issues — such as health and education accessibility and environmental conservation — and to the organizations working to address them. However, I am hesitant to accept this idea that all publicity is good publicity. The way we bring attention to important issues has just as much potential to harm as it does to help, as shown by critiques of the “white savior complex.”
Given the legacy of missionary work and “voluntourism“ throughout the Global South and within marginalized communities in America, it is especially crucial to be critical of “activism” from those who have no intimate knowledge of the communities they work with and who come from dramatically different backgrounds than those they claim to serve. The tendency to center celebrity philanthropists, such as the show’s hosts, often overshadows the important work local groups are doing to help their own communities.
I hope CBS will donate an amount equivalent to the expenses of making the show and part of the profit to community organizations working on the issues they are planning to highlight. However, we should not wait for media companies to catch up to our values. We have power as viewers. Resist the temptation to focus on “activism” that is competitive or individualistic, or that seems to exist only to be praised by others — as well as the media outlets that perpetuate this view.
Instead, celebrate local groups in your hometown or around Oxy, and ask directly what you can do to appreciate and support them in their efforts. While many philosophers agree praising good deeds diminishes their value, this philosophy major believes there are ways we can appreciate and celebrate genuine hard work without inflating egos. True activists won’t let the spotlight shine on them for long but I’m sure a thank you card or cup of coffee would always be a welcome sign of gratitude.