The American TV broadcaster CBS has cancelled the debut of its reality show The Activist. Originally set to be hosted by Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Usher, and Julianne Hough, it was supposed to be a show in which activists compete against each other. The prize would be a place at the G20 summit.

The cancellation comes as a result of an uproar from audiences once the details of the show were known.

Chopra apologised: “The show got it wrong, and I’m sorry that my participation in it disappointed many of you…The intention was always to bring attention to the people behind the ideas and highlight the actions and impact of the causes they support tirelessly.”

Presumably, the show is offensive as it trivializes activists’ work, and the issues they campaign for. But those who have manifested disdain for this show are only scratching the surface.

Angry TV viewers should begin to ask how much of mainstream activism is nothing but commercialized publicity stunts.

Activism has long been in bed with showbiz. The Activist only took to it an unprecedented level, and the difference between the CBS producers and, say, the people marketing Greta Thunberg as a child prodigy, is in degree but not in kind.

Sociologists have long asserted that in the advanced phases of capitalism, counterculture becomes a commodity itself. That is the thesis put forth by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in their seminal book, Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture.

As they eloquently argue, “the overwhelming majority of what gets called radical, revolutionary, subversive or transgressive is nothing of the sort…This is the rebel sell. It’s a sell that has been used not only to sell ordinary commercial goods, but also to sell a myth about the way that our culture works.”

In this day and age, in order to sell stuff, you have to project the image of an activist. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, many Instagram influencers understood this, as they were eager to take posh selfies during Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Presumably, this stunt allowed the fashionistas to make a buck.

But the hypocrisy doesn’t end there.

Consider Colin Kaepernick. Being aware that his football career wasn’t going anywhere near greatness, he desperately needed something to stay in the spotlight. So he decided to reinvent his image as an activist for racial justice. The move was successful and earned him a huge deal with Nike marketing his own brand of shoes.

Never mind that each of those shoes are made under terrible working conditions in sweatshops across Asia. Kaepernick clearly doesn’t care about labor exploitation overseas. The only important thing is to stay hip by raising the fist.

Interestingly, one of the figures of the far-left who has expressed the greatest outrage against The Activist is noted author Naomi Klein. She tweeted: “I’m confused: Is this an advanced Marxist critique to expose how competition for money and attention pits activists against each other + undermines deep change? Or just the end of the world?”

Well, Naomi is not exactly the highest standard of pure dignified activism. In The Rebel Sell, Heath and Potter expose how Klein claims in her famous book No Logo that she lives in a working-class loft (so as to prove her activist credentials), when in fact, the place she describes is in the King-Spadina area of Toronto, one of the city’s most exclusive districts. Lots of people want to live there because it has an aura of authenticity vis-à-vis the city’s expanding urban condominiums. But because it is coveted by hip activists, that district has now become very fashionable for the elite.

Global Citizen, one of the companies producing The Activist, has been forced to issue a half-hearted apology: “Global activism centres on collaboration and cooperation, not competition. We apologise to the activists, hosts, and the larger activist community — we got it wrong.” Even more vacuous lip service. If anything, much of contemporary activism is all about competition. It is a race to the bottom to claim victim status, while denying it to others.

It is mostly a form of Oppression Olympics. If global activism really centered on collaboration and cooperation, then Black Lives Matter would be more than happy to embrace all victims of police brutality and would not object to the “All Lives Matter” slogan. Sadly, we know that is not happening.

Well-meaning TV viewers have every right to be offended at The Activist. But, this should be a wake-up call for them. A silly reality TV show is not the only way that just causes are trivialized. The bulk of activists engage in this sort of trivialization. The Activist is only the tip of the iceberg.

Gabriel Andrade

Gabriel Andrade is a university professor originally from Venezuela. He writes about politics, philosophy, history, religion and psychology.