The celanthropist’s dilemma

I recently came across a Guardian Op Ed by the British actor Colin Firth (Mr Darcy/King George) in which he argues that while celebrities attached to ‘causes’ (celanthropists?) are pretty much sanctimonious pains in the ass, he also wants to point out that famous people find themselves in a rather unique position, being the automatic recipients of both a “public voice” and a “new relationship with those who don’t have one”.

Firth says that when given this gift of a public voice (with its attendant instant access to public and media attention), anyone with a social conscience would find it weird not to put it to use.  Maybe he has a point. I can see how this could become a dilemma for a celebrity;  if you’re landed with a loud voice, perhaps you’re obliged to use it? And if you don’t use it, will you be perceived as solipsistic and uncaring?

Why do celebrity ‘causes’ grate on us so much? Is it because they are so prevalent that we perceive them as clichés, or is it that we suspect celebrities are mostly under-qualified to comment on their pet cause?  Are we also a bit jealous that celebrity voices are so often and easily heard above the voices of so many other philanthropists whose efforts in the aid and development space go largely ignored?

Admittedly celebrity-backed causes can sometimes be proved to be shallow, misguided and even quite unhelpful to the cause itself. In their blog on the Aidwatch website, Lisa Ann Richey and Stefano Ponte touches on the problems at the root of Bono’s Product RED (tis also partly a plug for their book Brand Aid), while pop star Madonna’s failing charity Raising Malawi hit the headlines in the New York Times last year. I’m sure there are many other examples of failed ventures along these lines.

Yet another very good Guardian article on celebrity and aid says that development experts mostly acknowledge that veteran celebrity activists Bono and Bob Geldof are actually really well informed about the causes they back. Certainly they have the politicians’ ears!

It’s easy to criticise celanthropists, but perhaps we should judge them on their individual merits and on a case-by-case basis, bearing in mind celebrities are also people with interests and concerns and emotions like everyone else. Their voices may be a bit too loud sometimes but I don’t think they should denied the opportunity to speak out just because they happen to be actors or singers or successful at sport in their day jobs. They live in the world like anyone else.  As Firth says, “We are not in a position to choose whether or not we have a relationship with our own society or with the world’s poorest people. We can choose the nature of those relationships, but either way they’re there.”


2 comments on “The celanthropist’s dilemma

  1. roblaurs says:

    Nice post Sarah. As cringe-inducing as it is to watch some ‘celebrigods’ attach themselves to crises du jour as if they were perfunctorily fulfilling a contractual obligation to promote their next film, album, book etc. (often suspiciously at the same time as they are hawking the aforementioned) by virtue of the media/pop cultural fixation with celebrity these individuals are uniquely placed to better shine a light on the world’s problems than most other mere mortals.

    However poorly it may reflect on the shallowness of modern life the likes of Lara Croft, Danny Ocean and Tyler Durden (or the actors who played them – it’s often a moot point where the fictional/real persona line is drawn in ‘charitainment’ land) have more ‘cut through’ and resonance with the public than a series of well-meaning but ‘grey-faced’ bureaucrats or anonymous aid workers (for all the practical good they actually may be doing on the ground).

    For every clued-up celeb there’ll be those who are totally ill-informed and/or self-interested but ‘consciousness-raising’ in the competitive ‘market-place’ of ‘aid and development’ issue areas has merit even if the selection of issues is seemingly arbitrary. Eg. Why do those in the West agitprop about Tibet and not the persecution of the Falun Gong or the Uyghurs? Why are social media campaigns mounted to bring Kony to justice and not the leaders of the janjaweed? ( Why African poverty but not South Asian?

    Is it because at some level a choice has to be made? As James Poniewozick writes: ‘In a world of endless woes, you can be overwhelmed into inaction. Or you can make, at some level, an arbitrary choice. That is where celebrities come in, because there is no phenomenon more arbitrary than celebrity.’


    Even if celebs don’t get it completely right (and may grossly oversimplify issues or highlight some to the exclusion of equally worthy ones), I’m inclined to go with paraphrasing Mary Anderson on this one: ‘Demonstrating that ‘celanthropism’ does harm is not the same as demonstrating that no ‘celanthropism’ would do no harm.’ And as Shearer noted: ‘the cost of not intervening is rarely calculated’.

    Or to relate it back to the world of celebrity, when it comes to championing/adopting causes, maybe there’s no such thing as bad publicity…

  2. henning says:

    I agree, with the causes picked by celebrities you could probably safely say that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, no matter how the publicity stunt may play out for the stars involved, at least the issue gets airtime. Some celebs get a disproportional amount of attention while others, like Brigitte Bardot, who since the early 1970s has championed animal rights, are already old news. A quick search provides an impressive overview of the many (unlikely) stars involved in advocacy and other charitable causes.1 Little did I know that Dolly Parton, among those celanthropists less celebrated, supports literacy programs, or that the Lord of War,2 Nicolas Cage, donated $2 million for the rehabilitation of child soldiers. For someone whose estimated net worth is $30 million (Cage), 2 Mio might not run his well dry, but seeing that he could as well have chosen to buy another Lamborghini instead I think it’s a good investment (he probably still ordered that Sesto Elemento). Maybe some celebs prefer to keep publicity about their charitable efforts to a minimum, which is commendable, though the Brangelinas of this world might not have that option. They do, however, have the option to choose which cause to support, which does require a fair bit of background information, as backing the wrong horse could certainly backfire. Maybe that’s why celebs prefer to bandwagon well established causes rather than breaking new ground, such as the Uyghurs or Falun Gong.

    In fact, while most Western celebrities happily confine their influence to advocacy and other charitable causes others lend their voice to political campaigning, as was the case with Winfrey, Springsteen etc. during Obama’s election campaign. Some venture into politics themselves and actually seek political office (enter the Terminator, or the man less known for his role in TV hits such as “Death Valley Days” or blockbusters like 1964’s “The Killers”).3 This is far more prominent in Asia (I’m not too sure if it’s equally common in Africa or Latin America). A good example is the Pac-Man, Manny Pacquiao, who rose from fly- to feather- to welter- to middle-weight boxer to representing his home province of Sarangani in the House of Representatives in the 15th Congress of the Philippines, all the while he lends his fame and glory to the Department of Social Development & Welfare’s poverty reduction program in Mindanao’s South.4

    Marsh et al. in “Celebrity Politics: The Politics of the Late Modernity?” argue that the prominence of celebrity politics has implications for the nature and future of democracy, with a majority in this debate arguing that celebrities compromise democracy while others consider the benefits celeb politicians provide. Come to think of it, my impression is that politics needs more glamour, so whether we see more stars enter politics or politicians attaining celebrity status in their own right in an arena outside politics some might perceive this as a welcome change. Many Southeast Asian politicians are known to turn to recording their favourite tunes; maybe John Key and David Shearer would consider a performance of ‘Monday Monday’ by The Mamas & the Papas, with background vocals by Celia Wade-Brown and the Real Slim Shady?

    5) Marsh, David, Paul ‘t Hart, and Karen Tindall. “Celebrity Politics: The Politics of the Late Modernity?”. Political Studies Review 8, no. 3 (2010)

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