When an average citizen avidly supports a cause, there is little in the way of questioning or scrutiny. It is perceived as a noble act when someone who has little helps those with even less.
However, when a celebrity uses their visibility and clout to do the same thing, it is often a perception that there are ulterior motives behind the act.
If someone has the ability to turn their spotlight away from themselves and shine it on a worthy cause, they should be heralded for doing so.
Even so, there is always a hint of the disingenuous or that feeling that more can and should be done by those in an elevated position.
Perhaps that’s part of the whole “being visible in the media” thing that they have going, but the implication seems to be that celebrity activists appear to be more concerned with their self-image than any real cause they are championing.
Take the arrest of George Clooney last month.
Clooney and his father were part of a larger protest outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington, D.C. on March 16, attempting to bring greater attention to ongoing strife in Darfur and the newly-founded South Sudan — certainly a worthy cause and one that many activists and organizations have been pushing for several years.
It was Clooney’s comments to NBC’s Andrea Mitchell prior to his arrest that were a bit head-scratching. It is also a great example of the selective moral outrage that characterizes much of celebrity activism.
Clooney was quoted as saying, “At one moment in time, when people ask you ‘where were you and where did you stand,’ I want to say I was on the right side of history.”
This was not long before the actor was dragged away in handcuffs and was apparently not released on bail until some three hours later.
The image we’re left with is that of a man who is more interested in martyrdom, with what people’s perceptions of him will be, than someone who really has a deep investment in the Sudanese people he is championing.
Clooney should have pushed the motif of why he is on “the right side of history” and why this is a just cause that people should care about.
In a way, much of the misunderstanding is the media’s fault. After all, Clooney did coherently make his point heard by participating in the rally itself.
It is the power of the media that can angle a story one way or another.
Countless reports, lists and features exist with the outlets portraying why celebrity ‘A’ is stupendous because they are active in cause ‘B.’
The headline is always the celebrity’s name because that’s really what the target audience cares about.
Thus, we have the side effect of celebrity activism ringing hollow.
As an audience, we are meant to feel good about a celebrity for taking part in a worthy cause. But do we truly care about that cause? Or do we just want to feel better about liking someone who is good looking and making much more money than the majority of us can even imagine making in multiple lifetimes?
Another more recent example of this happened on the March 28 episode of The Colbert Report. The episode’s guest, actor Mark Ruffalo, was on to discuss not his role as Bruce Banner/the Hulk in the upcoming Avengers film, but the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing.
Despite the show typically being played for laughs, Ruffalo actually got fairly heated in his condemnation of oil and gas companies.
Again, when viewed through the tunnel vision of a media lens, does this seem like a genuine moral stand or like an easily defensible straw man argument?
More importantly, is it even possible or conceivable for most celebrities to select a moral stance that would be difficult to defend within the span of a five-minute interview?
And maybe that is the call to action — for those with a spotlight to wield it more effectively. Perhaps these celebrities also need to promote their causes just as much as they are promoting their latest movie or music album.
If celebrities portray a sense of being and take a hard-line stance against something that is not so clear cut, then the hubbub surrounding celebrity activism will seem, at least, justified.
After all, it is we who are truly the deciders on who ends up on “the right side of history;” we should probably ask a bit more from those we let in.