Over the last 22 months, the world (sort of) learned how to cope with a massive pandemic, and social justice movements became more necessary than ever. To much dismay, in September 2021, popular broadcaster CBS decided to announce a 5-week reality show, “The Activist,” featuring activists from around the world competing in various activism-themed challenges until appearing before a summit of world leaders. Just five days later, following backlash, CBS announced “The Activist” would instead be re-conceptualized as a documentary series.
One might be tempted to think a big-budget show hosted by high profile celebrities like Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Usher, and Julianne Hough would help put the spotlight on activists working on issues like health, education, and environmental justice. However, what did not sit well with potential audiences was that the platform would make activists compete for funding, essentially turning people’s real-life struggles into a money-making game.
Upon reflection, it is not surprising that such a show was conceived. There are some larger ideas that feed into this conceptualization of social justice that need to be eradicated for any real progress in the world.
Turning activism into a competition
At the household level, would you make your child compete to receive education and healthcare? Yet, when it comes to a macrosocial scale, we have accepted that there is always going to be a choice when it comes to resource allocation for basic necessities. For example, when it comes to housing affordability, it is common to say people should just save more or earn more to eventually afford housing as if it is a luxury. Similarly, below living wages are justified by bringing in capitalist ideas of working smarter or harder to make ends meet instead of finding ways to create an economy that serves the people who work in it. After all, “resources are scarce” is the first thing economics students learn. While this may be true in some contexts, when it comes to imagining a world where problems like hunger, femicide, or lack of primary education do not exist, we assume that these basic necessities will always compete with each other.
Prioritizing multiple issues at the same time may contribute fewer resources to each cause, but at least it will not place a moral choice upon people to decide which one is more “deserving.” In “The Activist,” a large sum of money as a grand prize would have made a big difference to the winning cause, however, so would that same prize money if it were divided across multiple causes. The key is to understand that the world functions in more interconnected ways than we are trained to believe. The global pandemic is the most recent and alarming example of how aspects of life like healthcare, education, and food security all go hand in hand. Perhaps now is when we take a moment to rethink the way we have been conceiving of social activism. Human lives and systems are not neatly organized into segmented problems and are instead experienced in an interconnected manner.
One of the arguments given for competitive funding in the social development sector is innovation. A theory of economics is that scarcity can be leveraged to find the cheapest, most innovative product through competition. While this may be true between Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy phone, it can be problematic that competitive innovation is considered the only solution for global issues. Yes, governments launch bids to invite innovators to pitch their solutions to various problems – but having issues competing with each other signals to low-income communities that they will always have to choose between amenities.
Along with this goes the mindset that governments simply providing basic services is an indicator of laziness among people because tax dollar spending on welfare is demonized. This line of thinking is also extended to the idea that when the wealthy continue to accumulate wealth, becoming billionaires as a reward for their hard work, redistribution of their wealth thus takes away from their effort.
Problems as entertainment
Every time we watch a news item or advertisement about a part of the world that is suffering, are we being shown the full picture? It is the nature of media production that certain images will be plucked to present an emotional call for help. However, this approach can lead to the dehumanization of entire populations and a loss of nuance about the systems at play. For example, whenever images of malnourished children are shown on advertisements of humanitarian organizations, they are often children from marginalized communities, thus priming viewers to associate those problems with only a certain population.
Poverty porn is a term used to describe the objectification of the Global South through images of hungry children, unsanitary conditions, and extreme poverty. These images are subsequently used by many non-profit organizations and NGOs to draw sympathy for humanitarian aid. While this approach can bring attention to inequality, these images also create lasting perceptions on the basis of stereotypes, such as that every community in the Global South is helpless and requires intervention from the West. The kind of coverage that media brings to social issues places a burden on both the creators and viewers to be mindful of the way these issues are depicted. Poverty porn thrives on sensationalism much like “The Activist” creators thought the best way to celebrate up-and-coming activists would be to set up a competition.
Solution or attention?
Janice Gassam Asarem, a critic of “The Activist,” argues that the show actually takes away the spotlight from the broken systems that create inequality in the first place, and shifts them onto the people advocating against them. In addition to this, viewers associate causes based on their affinity for celebrities endorsing them as opposed to the reality of those issues or the people working on them behind the scenes. In the world of social media activism, individuals become representations of systems, which is a huge oversimplification. If Priyanka Chopra is a UNICEF Ambassador, people’s personal opinions of her should not affect their support for girls’ education.
Until we as a society stop believing that there are limited resources when it comes to solving global issues, our scarcity mindset will not shift. Meanwhile, wealth will continue to grow in the hands of the few, and many people will believe that their success is a result of their hard work rather than the exploitation of people and systems. Moreover, treating global issues as singular issues instead of lived realities of people dehumanizes those that it impacts. The uplifting of activists and others who work tirelessly to alleviate social issues must be dealt with sensitivity and empathy, instead of under the principles of resource allocation and scarcity.