In anti-racist and feminist analyses, the concept of empathy is often heralded as a powerful and transformative tool for change. Venerated thought leaders such as Brene Brown predicate their entire practice on this precept, with repeated reflections emphasizing empathy as the antidote to the ills of the human condition. This same construct has extended into the world of humanitarian aid and social justice, where emphasis is placed in sharing and documenting trauma as a means of providing a tangible measurement of suffering in the process of establishing significance and defining proper redress. This is the status quo in the new compassion economy; recognition for causes is based on assessing, categorizing and legitimizing misery.
Over the past decade, we have had a few such watershed moments. While the list of people lost to state-sponsored gun violence, poverty, and all of its byproducts — poor healthcare, homelessness, the prison industrial complex — may seem interminable, the names Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin are known nationwide. After 8 minutes and 46 seconds on May 25, 2020, George Floyd became a household name, posthumously anointed in the wake of his murder. Not long after, Breonna Taylor’s face landed on magazine covers across the country, a youthful and unwitting symbol of this latest “racial reckoning.” Social media was engulfed in empathy; the streets were, as people proudly reported, filled with a multiracial presence of protesters demanding justice for Black lives.
It is hard to dispute that the concept of solidarity is largely predicated on recognizing the humanity in one another; as Fred Hampton famously said, there’s power anywhere where there’s people. However, without a cohesive political intent, empathy is largely aimless; a blank slate for those in power to determine how best to assuage their complicity, funneled through designated ambassadors and delegates who negotiate compromises of diminishing returns. The devolution and capitalist commodification of people-led social justice movements becomes inevitable if those involved are united by imprecise sentiment instead of principle. This is how a phrase like Black Lives Matter – a phrase originally meant to indicate a desire for liberation and freedom of oppression for all Black people in America – can now be seen as a hashtag on a mask worn by a white person in a coffee shop in the continuously gentrified Flatbush, Brooklyn, without a hint of perceived irony.
While the above example may seem absurdist – although I did witness the scenario with my own two eyes – truth is far stranger than fiction. At present, many of the self-designated mainstream leaders of the acknowledged social movements have openly admitted to jockeying for engagement, patronage, and endorsement from corporate sponsors while claiming to work to dismantle white supremacy. They advocate for equities, and subsistence from within — while utilizing their acquired power to silence the communities that have long questioned it. The misgivings of the parents of those lost to state violence were dismissed as misinformed; inquiries levied on social media batted down as the petty complaints of those who don’t comprehend the ins and outs of on-the-ground work, despite being beholden to corporate funders themselves.
A cursory look at public figures will give insight into the current state of movement work. Of the $50 Billion pledged by corporations for the Black Lives Matter movement as a result of 2020’s racial reckoning, $45 Billion was in the form of loans or investments, and only $70 million of the remaining funds went directly to criminal justice reform. BLM’s 2020 annual impact report emphasizes social media, listserv, and website engagement, leading their year in review with metrics on views for campaign videos and Giving Tuesday fundraising. Social justice is a plotline in music awards shows and reality TV programs with large Black viewerships — such as Real Housewives of Atlanta and Love and Hip Hop, where Tamika Mallory’s organization Until Freedom gets plugged heavily — in serialized programming such as Grownish, and Patrisse Cullors has had a recurring role in the Freeform series Good Trouble, where the allusion to the Civil Rights Movement could not be more heavy handed.
What makes pop culture such rich fodder to explore is not just that it can be used to effect social change, although that can certainly be true; it can also hold a mirror up to how society perceives itself, which currently seems performative and incohesive. To that end, the latest announcement of the series The Activist, as craven of an entertainment enterprise as it may be, is not treading forbidden territory. It is simply following the path laid by the existing gatekeepers of the so-called social justice movement, who also “promote their causes, with their success measured via online engagement [and] social metrics” (as stated in the Deadline announcement), as part of the carefully constructed compassion economy that we passively participate in. The overwhelming backlash resulted in the series foregoing the reality competition format in favor of a docuseries; less Survivor, more Naked and Afraid. While this will certainly pacify many concerns, gamifying the experience is not the crux of the issue. Whether or not the designated activists are put in direct odds with one another, how successful activism is defined, measured, tracked and rewarded –including, of all things, an invitation to the highly protested G20 summit – is unchanged.
While the headlines lead with celebrity names – Usher, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Julianne Hough – this is yet another program that was created in collaboration with a popular philanthropic arm: Global Citizen, the team behind the annual star-studded concerts that are internationally streamed in exchange for petition signatures. The metrics are massive – 900,000 “actions” are taken on health, poverty, and women’s education, amongst other causes, but the returns intangible; the organizational commitment to end extreme poverty by 2030 is no closer a reality than it was in 2012, but the event is not in peril of declining in popularity.
There is a direct throughline between the erosion of principle into empty symbolism, and the process for the creation of a show such as The Activist. When language that leads with liberation gets softened to demand inclusion and recognition, it is one of a series of actions that are easy to minimize — and allow for empathy to be engaged on terms that are least burdensome for the powerful. A poet becomes heralded for declaring the return of democracy, while the working class continues to flounder with no end in sight; despite defund the police rhetoric, police budgets across the country have increased, with qualified immunity quietly being excluded as a provision in the George Floyd bill. An elected official can make a presence at a macabre tax-deductible affair of the elite such as the Met Gala, donning toothless aphorisms such as “Equal Rights for Women” or “Tax the Rich” — phrases that aren’t unpopular, and are commonly said on campaign and debate trails — while those who fight for their rights on the other side of the red carpet are arrested, and their constituents across the river continue to recover from a hurricane or fight for freedom from the inside of a jail cell.
The Activist, as a program and a concept, is obscene. But so is the state of our social justice and community work, an increasingly cartoonish conciliatory exercise where the power is intentionally concentrated amongst the leaders invested in preserving the compassion economy in its current condition. The challenge shouldn’t be to prevent the performance from transitioning to the screen; it should be stopping it altogether. It’s time to stop turning a blind eye to this crisis and demand more than empathy from those that are responsible for our suffering.