Priyanka Chopra has come in for criticism after she “gaslit” a Pakistani woman who questioned whether her humanitarian values squared with her unwavering support for the Indian military - even when it stands accused of war crimes in Kashmir.
Beyond attacks on Chopra and some of the far-right views she has been associated with, this has brought into focus broader questions of how humanitarianism and celebrity can co-exist in an age of post-truth politics - or whether they can co-exist at all.
Many actresses are proud of their work - both on screen, and out in the real world trying to make a difference. But we have seen too many artists’ activism make them into irrelevant novelties, or useful idiots for dark agendas.
As we take our humanitarian work around the world, we want to invite others to use their profile to focus on humanitarianism - not vacuous PR stunts or dangerous nationalism.
Humanitarian work when endorsed by a celebrity has to walk a tightrope; if it is too policy-oriented, it becomes an unelected individual trying to usurp power from elected leaders. On the other hand, if it is too general or purely values-based, one can fall into the trap of retweeting slogans that mean little in reality.
There is a middle ground where celebrity activism can be both practical and inclusive, workable and non-partisan, realistic and idealistic. That is the tight-rope we must try to walk.
To help make this possible, it’s important for celebrities to choose a cause that genuinely means something to them. This makes it easier for them to have some credibility on the subject and to explain their involvement beyond the inevitable media attention. For example, there is no obvious reason why Madonna would want to adopt children from Malawi in particular (there are currently 108,000 children seeking adoption in the United States).
And the actual activity needs to be more than just a photo opportunity or a retweet. Although there is clearly a need for media activity (both social and traditional media), this is no substitute for actually creating tangible results oneself. There needs to be skin in the game.
In our case, we have both committed to running the London Marathon as part of a charity effort, through Penny Appeal, that includes building five schools in Pakistan. A cause rooted in one’s autobiography is more likely to really click - both with the individual and their followers. A Pakistani actress focussing on building girls’ schools in rural Pakistan, for example, is a cause that makes sense logically, and is not so open to accusations of grandstanding or politicking.
Another challenge for celebrities is how to avoid falling into the trap of being a political surrogate, sometimes for causes or agendas that are explicitly hostile to the values they claim to represent. This is what has happened with Priyanka Chopra recently, leading to justifiable outrage around the world.
Humanitarianism is inevitably political. Whether one is addressing domestic inequality or global injustice, there is always an element of government policy that is either responsible for the problem, part of the solution, or both.
But it is still possible to be a humanitarian without becoming a political puppet. Even when it comes to the most painful, divisive subjects like Kashmir and the alleged war crimes surrounding the Indian army’s tactics, there is a universal human dimension that all of the players in the disputed territory - Pakistan, India and even China - should be able to agree on.
Like girls’ education - an issue that in our native Pakistan is interconnected to complex religious and cultural debates - it is fraught with risks to anyone wading into these conversations.
But silence is not an option. If you have 4 million social media followers, that means there are 100 countries in the world with fewer citizens than you have fans.
Staying quiet, or even apathetic, is itself a position. Indifference is an ideology, and a dangerous one at that.
Whether we like it or not, celebrities are an integral part of the media-political complex around the world. Those who deride Donald Trump’s celebrity background now that he is president were often less opposed to The Terminator becoming Governor of California, a state with the world’s 5th largest economy.
And for an example of how a celebrity background can give someone the rich experience and human touch needed to succeed in politics, just look at Imran Khan and his ongoing efforts to reform and renew Pakistan.
Stardust has always been part of how we try to change the world, and it will continue to be. If we can make it work for the good of humanity rather than a particular country or group, all the better.
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