CBS has announced a new reality show called The Activist, in which Usher, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Julianne Hough will co-host a five-week series where six activists go head-to-head to compete for causes and OK, hold the phone, what is going on here?
Obviously, activism has become a very big deal in recent years as social media has provided both a lens for the world to get a better look at oft-ignored issues and a voice for the historically oppressed to tell their stories. And obviously, nothing can become a big deal in America without the entertainment industry trying to make a quick buck off of it. But did any of the geniuses at CBS ever stop to wonder if this deal was the best way to make this buck?
The Activist is a competition series that features six inspiring activists teamed with three high-profile public figures working together to bring meaningful change to one of three vitally important world causes: health, education, and environment.
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.
Good grief. “The world’s most passionate artists.” Can’t wait for that. Should be very fun to see performances from passionate artists who could fund any one of our competitors’ causes with spare pocket change if they really felt like it. But then, not every cause is worth funding, as we’ll learn on The Activist, where the importance of issues is measured via “online engagement, social metrics and hosts’ input.” Can’t wait to see one of our activist-hopefuls’ dream of bringing clean water to Flint, Michigan dashed because she didn’t get enough TikTok likes or whatever.
The commodification of activism has been at work for a while, with vital causes turned into trendy fashion statements or shallow political platforms. Often, this is done under the vague guise of “raising awareness” — a dubious claim given younger generation’s extensive, exhausting and frankly traumatizing awareness of just about every social ill taking a dent out of their quality of life. We live in a society saturated in consumerism, so nothing is too sacred to be up for grabs. Activism is used to generate likes, shares and revenue everywhere. That’s been a problem for a while. But The Activist takes the whole thing to new lows in a few ways: first, by forcing activists to compete for causes, which reinforces a false notion of scarcity. Second, by tying social media engagement to the competition, reinforcing a false notion that popular causes are more deserving of attention than unpopular ones.
But the problem facing humanity is not scarcity. We have the resources to provide hungry people with food, sick people with medicine, homeless people with housing, poor people with money and oppressed people with justice. There is no need to make people fight over them.
And good causes are not measured by social engagement. For decades, how many issues which are now recognized as vital failed to generate interest at the time. White people largely ignored the plight of Black Americans during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. Should its importance have been measured by social engagement? Are we so sure that we’re now smart enough to determine which causes are and are not important that we should use it as a determining factor of when and how to act? Very recent history would suggest otherwise.
The announcement has been met with a lot of backlash online, and rightfully so, but it’s hard to imagine a better metaphor for the current state of morality in the U.S., in which every problem is seen as potential entertainment and one person’s plight is someone else’s payday.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.