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.”