Abolish the Activism-Industrial Complex

People are calling out The Activist, but sadly it’s an accurate portrayal of what “activism” has become these days.

Justin Ward

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Indian model-actress Priyanka Chopra at the Cannes Film Festival (Joan Hernandez Mir / CC-BY)

CBS just announced it would be coming out with an Apprentice-style competition reality show called “The Activist” in which six contestants will be paired up with celebrities like Usher and Priyanka Chopra to promote their causes. So far, the show has been widely ridiculed online — and for good reason.

It’s really beyond parody.

If it were satire, this utter bastardization of concepts like “movements” and “social change” would be a brilliant commentary on shallow celebrity advocacy and half-assed online pseudoactivism.

Just read this write-up in Deadline:

Activists go head-to-head in challenges to promote their causes, with their success measured via online engagement, social metrics, and hosts’ input. The three teams have one ultimate goal: to create impactful movements that amplify their message, drive action, and advance them to the G20 Summit in Rome, Italy. There, they will meet with world leaders in the hope of securing funding and awareness for their causes. The team that receives the largest commitment is celebrated as the overall winner at the finale, which will also feature musical performances by some of the world’s most passionate artists.

Where to even begin with this?

Let’s start with how “success” is measured: “Online engagement” and “social metrics.”

That’s not activism. It’s marketing.

The gains of social movements are measured in meaningful changes to policy and improvements to the daily lives that those movements serve. Of course, that’s hard to quantify in the context of a reality show.

Even more problematic is the fact that the final test of the show involves contestants tap-dancing for “funding and awareness” at the G20 summit.

Activism is supposed to be about challenging the status quo and going up against the powers that be — not walking up to them, hat in hand, begging for dollars.

But this is what activism has come to mean in the United States. This kind of…

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Justin Ward

Journalist and activist. Founder and co-chair of DivestSPD. Bylines at SPLC, The Baffler, GEN, USA Today. Follow on Twitter: @justwardoctrine, @DivestSPD