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In my opinion, the purpose of television is to illuminate and entertain. News broadcasts inform viewers of what is happening in the world while comedies and dramas are forms of escapism from our world’s current problems that often seem too great to bear. So where does this leave the “The Activist” TV show, where six activists compete in a set of challenges to promote their causes to the general public and obtain “measurable” results? Sounds like a quest to see which activist is the most marketable. Is the show meant to be educational, or is it just pure entertainment meant to mock the work of activists everywhere around the world? I’d argue that it’s the latter. 

According to the original announcement from CBS, “The Activist” was going to be produced by Global Citizen, Live Nation, and Deviants Media, with celebrity hosts Julianne Hough (dancer), Priyanka Chopra (actress), and Usher (singer). Notice how none of them are “(activists),” let alone consistent advocates of any human rights campaigns? Hough even admitted in a recent Instagram post about the reality of her and her co-hosts, saying: “I am not qualified to act as a judge.” Between Hough wearing blackface in 2013 as part of a Halloween costume, Chopra’s blind Indian patriotism in the face of hostile Pakistan-India relations, and three sexual battery allegations aimed at Usher in 2017, it is evident that none of the three do have the authority to choose which activists win a game show focused on philanthropy, and which do not. 

To make things worse, CBS announced that winners would be chosen by a slew of social media analytics and data, which basically sends the message: if you don’t have enough likes, comments and shares on your Instagram, Twitter, or TikTok, why should “The Activist” endorse your cause? If you are not a cis, straight, white (or white passing), conventionally attractive activist with a strong social following and special connections, what does “The Activist” gain if they side with the movement you hope to share with others? How can you benefit CBS? How can they claim your success as an activist if you have little to show so far?

If the judges award one activist over another, it sends a message to the American people that some causes just aren’t worth fighting for.

For low income organizers — who likely don’t have the means to fund much of their work outside of donations — “The Activist” was posed as a chance to have all expenses covered if the judges deem that you’re “worth it.” The problem with this, though, is that all of the power lies in the judges’ hands rather than the people’s. If the judges award one activist over another, it sends a message to the American people that some causes just aren’t worth fighting for, simply because they said so. In some ways, the appointed judges would not only decide whose pain is valid enough for the money, but their judgments might also be indicative of our society’s morality.

But there lies a greater problem than the way winners are chosen: the TV show’s concept as a whole. In an ideal world, there would be no such thing as an “activist” let alone a sole “winner” of activism; instead, we would work together towards the common good. But this show was going to send the message that we can carry on our own individual lives without giving care to those around us — in other words, let the activists handle it. In watching activists carry a social movement’s burden all by themselves, it will make viewers feel as though there is no need to act — that global issues are already being addressed by the most qualified individuals, so there’s no need for oneself to pitch in to the movement. 

It’s like when you have a potluck at a party. Everyone wants to eat baked garlic parmesan puffs, but they know person X is bringing them. So, they just wait for her to arrive with the dish. Little do they know that person X is trying to cook meals for her children, finish her biochemistry homework, and still has to pay rent for the month. 

However, the climate crisis, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Me Too movement, and violence against Black and Asian communities right now are not a damn potluck — they are life threatening social issues that must be addressed by not just person X, but everyone who is attending. When an American commercial broadcast network decides to turn our generation’s fight for a livable future into a ditzy competition for human rights, winners and losers being dictated by unqualified individuals, it’s undeniable that “The Activist” seeks to pacify the people. 

On September 10, Ayisha Siddiqa, a Pakistani climate justice advocate from Coney Island, NY, wrote an Instagram post highlighting the biggest problems about “The Activist” on CBS. She compared the show to her own experiences with large organizations trying their hand at activism, and referenced a recent situation in which she and her team were preparing for the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26. In the caption, Siddiqa said, “Just last week, while I was trying to acquire COP badges for myself and members of Polluters Out, an organization by the name of ‘One Young World’ reached out urging me to apply for their climate resiliency grant. The grant money could have funded all of the Polluters Out executive team’s flights and hotel accommodations for COP26.” 

One Young World had also offered Polluters Out money when they generated a Twitter storm exposing financial ties between the fossil fuel industry and the UN. Siddiqa wrote, “I think we struck a nerve with the oil companies that time, so much so that the CEO of BP requested a meeting with us. During the meeting, we told BP to get out of COP, and Bernard Loony told us to apply for funds through One Young World. There are immensely powerful entities, who have branded themselves as advocates for positive change, but are in fact the bad guys-attempting to sabotage the climate movement. One Young World is an example of a group that works so closely with the people who blew up the Gulf of Mexico, that their mission is to buy out activists. They know organizers need money…people who’ve caused [societal] cancers want to give people money to find cures.”

“The Activist” feeds you people’s trauma as entertainment.

Beyond just being a show to dismiss viewers of their guilt, “The Activist” makes it seem like there is a kind of “oppression Olympics” to be won. Can you imagine being an activist who left their family behind in the name of trying to win money for their cause so that they can salvage what is remaining of their community, only to be told by Hough, Chopra, and Usher that the genocide or violence they are facing back home is negligible compared to the activist who was onstage five minutes ago? Can you imagine being told that your struggles just aren’t good enough to take up any more of the American audience’s time, despite the fact that all of our societal issues are indisputably intertwined (like the impact of climate change and racial disparities in health)? It reestablishes the societal dynamic we have today, where the 1% dictate what crumbs they’ll “generously” and “benevolently” share with the working class. 

“The Activist” fails to actually provide a platform for change, but instead reduces champions of human rights to beggars who must weep and plead on behalf of their community. Who has the saddest and most depressing story to share with the world? Like a coliseum where spectators gleefully watched the gladiator attempt to survive amidst great suffering and enslavement, “The Activist” feeds you people’s trauma as entertainment. The truth is, being an activist should not be a niche career that only a handful of people have. Instead, we should all be active and activists in our own communities, fighting for equality and equity. 

CBS’s “The Activist” propagates the myth that an activist works on their own and can absorb the world’s guilt like a sponge, as long as they have a big enough social platform. Once they’ve acquired the blue tick by their social handle and have triumphed over other activists in being chosen by unqualified individuals, the rest of the world can be admonished of their sins and continue polluting our communities, socially, psychologically, and environmentally. Advocacy work cannot and should not be trivialized by a multibillion dollar broadcasting company aiming to take advantage of hard working activists’ efforts. 

After much backlash, “The Activist” was rightfully cancelled; the public’s outrage convinced CBS to officially pull it. Instead, CBS intends to produce it as a documentary rather than a competition. Global Citizen, Live Native, and Deviants Nation — organizations that produced the show — have announced that the negative talk online of ‘The Activist’ had pushed them to rethink the original design. “It has become apparent the format of the show as announced distracts from the vital work these incredible activists do in their communities every day. The push for global change is not a competition and requires a global effort.” The documentary will instead showcase the work of sx activists and their impact, and each activist will be awarded a cash grant for the organization of their choice. 

Whether this is doomed to fail may not be fully known until the first episode is aired, but I think the choice to showcase activists’ work is substantially healthier than what they were originally planning. However, it hasn’t been revealed whether there will still be judges. Regardless of how CBS alters the TV show, it still feels very performative in the sense everyone watching can somehow be absolved of their absence in global matters — that they don’t have to be guilty because someone else is doing the work for them. Even without the “competition element,” the show still intends to pacify the public; it soothes viewers into believing that climate change, sexual harassment within institutions, or the lack of clean resources in BIPOC communities can all be absolved by another person. In reality, it won’t just take six activists on a show to address social inequalities and inequities — it will require all of us.

Jennalynn is a non-binary, Asian American student at St. John's University located in Queens, New York. While they are a Pharmacy (PharmD) major, their passions in life are climate activism, photography, and writing. They have been featured in Teen Vogue, The Luna Collective, SUSTAIN The Mag, and are a staff writer at their university newspaper. Check out their website and socials (@jennuinn) to see their work!
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