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The Activist, and why we must consider the cultural footprint of our work


The Activist, and why we must consider the cultural footprint of our work

What can we learn from CBS' axed show, The Activist?
This is a blog by Ruth Taylor
Ruth works for the Common Cause Foundation.

Have you ever had that feeling where real life begins to take on the semblance of a Black Mirror episode? Or when you’re reading a news article and have to triple check it’s not been published on The Onion and is in fact reporting something that has actually happened? Well, that’s how I felt when I first heard about The Activist – a new reality TV show to be aired on the American channel, CBS.

I first had the misfortune of finding out about The Activist – at the time, a fledgling idea in the producer’s mind – when I was leading the campaigns and mobilisation team at Restless Development, a global NGO that supports young people everywhere to demand and deliver a just and sustainable world. Someone from the show’s production team got in touch to ask whether I knew any remarkable young activists (yes – a whole bunch!) and whether or not I would like to recommend them for a new reality TV show that would see them go head to head for funding and airtime for their cause (what the @#$%&! – absolutely not!). I managed to quickly unravel myself from that conversation and move on with my life, until the 7th September 2021, when it appeared that the really quite atrocious fledgling idea had in fact hatched, spread its wings and be announced to the general public as an actual thing.

In case you haven’t had the bad luck of stumbling across The Activist yet, here is a description of the show directly from the press release from CBS:

“The Activist is an unprecedented series featuring six activists from around the world working to bring meaningful change to one of three urgent universal causes: health, education, and the environment. The activists will compete in missions, media stunts, digital campaigns and community events aimed at garnering the attention of the world’s most powerful decision-makers, demanding action, now. The competing activists’ success is measured via online engagement, social metrics and hosts’ input. The hosts will guide the activists through their journey, with plenty of surprises from high-profile public figures”.

Usher, Priyanka Chopra & Julianne Hough

Who are these ‘hosts’? Well, no other than the American singer-songwriter, Usher, the Indian actress, model and Miss World 2000 winner, Priyanka Chopra, and American dancer and actress, Julianne Hough (no, me neither) – all seasoned campaigners, with a wealth of knowledge and experience to drawn on, I have no doubt…

Not all is lost, as the show was axed after just one week due to an outpouring of criticism (the producers have said it will be reworked in the form of a documentary…). The show has been criticised for championing performative solidarity, for focusing more on celebrity than on the causes themselves and for trivialising grassroots activism and the many hundreds of thousands of people who are working on the frontlines, often in highly dangerous circumstances, to make the world a more just place.

All of these critiques are completely valid, but what I’m interested in exploring here is how The Activist can act as a mirror to practices and approaches that are firmly embedded in the work of NGOs today. It seems to me that although The Activist is at the far-end of the spectrum in terms of what is appropriate when it comes to the mechanisms and apparatus of social and environmental change, it is not so entirely off the scale that we are unable to draw meaningful comparisons with more mainstream ways of working. Let me unpack what I mean.

The values we engage in our work matter

The Activist’s raison d’être is entertainment first and foremost. If those involved in commissioning, producing and funding the show didn’t feel it would sell then that would have been the end of it – regardless of what ‘causes’ it is said to be championing. That is not to say that those involved did not care at all for the causes being spotlighted – in fact I’m sure they did, and I’m sure they hoped the show would act as a platform to increase awareness and engagement with those very causes. However, the production team believed that to be palatable to a mass audience, the activism at hand needed to be packaged in such a way as to be entertaining – in the form of a reality TV show.

To many, this example of taking serious, important and challenging activism and distorting it into the shape of reality TV was objectionable. However, the underlying premise of ‘selling’ activism and attempting to make it popular is something many NGOs are very well acquainted with.

You hear constantly in activism circles that we need to ‘meet our audience where they are’ – meaning that we need to stop assuming they’re ‘like us’ and instead tweak and adapt our messages to better fit in with ‘their’ values. This idea has been directly poached from the world of marketing, which aims to distill the very best ways to sell a product to unassuming members of the public. But the thing is, encouraging engagement on a social or environmental issue is not akin to selling perfume or the newest pair of trainers. Chanel or Adidas ultimately do not have to care about the wider implications of their communications, but NGOs – if they are taking seriously their intentions to better the world – absolutely must.

In a similar vein to The Activist co-opting a tried and tested reality TV format in order to better engage audiences with a handful of social and environmental issues, NGOs often employ tactics and approaches that do not align with the values that underpin support for their cause. Take, for example, the number of NGOs who run lotteries for their supporters, or who organise extravagant celebrity-dotted events to increase their brand recognition. It may not be quite as extreme as The Activist, but it amounts to a similar approach, whereby NGOs try to make their cause more popular via appealing to values they think are the most salient with the public.

An example of a supporter lottery from the RSPB

At Common Cause we work with a body of social psychological research that examines human values. We know that when people prioritise a specific set of values (what we call intrinsic values – things like equality, creativity, love for friends and family, unity with nature) they are more likely to express concern for social and environmental change. We also know that intrinsic values are in direct opposition to another set of values we refer to as extrinsic values (things like wealth, success and public image). We can picture these two groups of values on a see-saw – as intrinsic values are engaged in someone through their experiences and the communications they see, extrinsic values are disengaged, and vice versa. From this understanding we can deduce the simple principle that in order to grow public engagement with social and environmental change, we need to do all we can to strengthen intrinsic values and suppress extrinsic values. 

The Activist wanted to “inspire real change”, but they decided to do this by further reinforcing values such as wealth, through their focus on celebrity, public image, through their focus on individual changemakers, and success, through their focus on competition and ‘winning’ (this is perhaps hardly surprising, considering the organisation behind the show is Global Citizen, but that’s a whole other blog post!). They purposefully designed a show to engage these values, in the hope that they would generate support for social and environmental causes. From an understanding of values, we can see how this is harmful. Anyone wishing to help overcome the world’s most pressing challenges, would do well to consider the wider cultural footprint of their work and think carefully about the values they are foregrounding.

No Cause is an Island

Another tenet of The Activist’s format was to focus on competition. Competition is exciting and sexy and what we have come to expect from much of the TV shows we consume. And yet, I firmly believe that it does not have a place in the world of activism. 

Much criticism of the show pointed to how activism is about solidarity and how activists do not want their cause to be furthered at the expense of another. This feels intuitively correct, and yet, we have structured civil society in such a way that organisations are set up in silos and made to compete for funding and airtime – maybe not in the unabashed way affirmed by the show, but in other ways that have almost become invisible to those of us who work within it. 

We are encouraged to participate in brand positioning exercises, where we consider our organisation’s strengths and weaknesses in comparison to its ‘competitors’, to pitch for funding against other important causes and to fight for airtime, to make ‘our’ cause the most important. As organisations, we also rarely show solidarity to other causes that are not somehow directly related to what we’re working on in terms of policy or message. If it doesn’t fall under ‘our’ charitable objectives, we don’t want to know. 

The Activist saw different causes going head to head, where there could only be one winner, but when thinking about the many changes that need to be accomplished in order to lead to a world which is just, equitable and in balance, we can see that we need a multitude of causes to progress simultaneously. We shouldn’t be asking, ‘what can I do to make sure my cause is centre stage?’, but instead ‘what can I do to make sure my work is in service to the issue I’m focused on, while also helping to create the foundations of a world where numerous injustices can be overcome?’

The siloed nature of our sector ultimately weakens our ability to come together and become more than the sum of our parts. We know we cannot shift the numerous and interconnected social and environmental challenges the world faces through the work of one individual (no matter how impressive!), or indeed one organisation, network or movement. We need a cross-collaboration of actors, from the social and environmental sectors and elsewhere, all contributing (while advancing their specific causes) to building the cultural foundations required to make progress on not just one cause, but a whole host at the same time. 

It’s safe to say, I am not a fan of The Activist and I am glad it has been axed. It appeared completely at odds with the values which underpin the majority of activist work. But I do hope its emergence provides an opportunity for us to take stock of the ways that it is perhaps a magnified version of practices that are deeply embedded in the social and environmental sectors. It has long been known that simply ‘raising awareness’ will not solve the world’s problems. What we require is shifts in our underlying cultural narratives. And definitely not cringeworthy reality TV shows, which actually just further instill them.

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