What’s the issue with ‘hero worshipping’ in activism?

We hear the phrase ‘hero worshipping’ a lot in the animal activist community, especially with the recent rise of public celebrity faces in the movement. Usually it’s described as a problem, but I think there’s a little more to understand about the rise of celebrities in activism. So I thought I’d break down my thoughts on the concept of ‘hero worshipping’ –  is it a problem?

In short, my answer is yes and no. But more specifically, it’s not the ‘hero’ aspect that seems problematic, it’s the latter – the ‘worshipping’, which has more to do with the audience’s relationship with the activist. Let’s start with why it’s not problematic –

It’s okay to have favourite activists in the animal rights movement, or even those we describe as ‘heroes’. Most of us have a favourite celebrity, influential speaker, scientist, athlete, or someone in our own field of interest that we aspire to be like or who guides our thinking. It is inevitable that we will find and follow the stories of individuals we like, partly because that’s how we connect with stories. One of the reasons why celebrity activists can be so effective is because they’re personable; they put a face and human relatability to an otherwise abstract and sometimes complex topic. When we hear the story of an individual, we sometimes have more scope to connect with them and their experience of the issue rather than just the issue itself; we can imagine ourselves in their shoes, feel the emotions they feel, and start to develop what feels like a personal relationship with them- and by extension, to their message (particularly with platforms like social media that make us feel as if we’re sharing the space of those we follow). When this effect takes place, it can also lead to us wanting to further follow the person’s story.

Consider for example this video of an activist who chained herself in a slaughterhouse next to a baby calf awaiting slaughter as part of an awareness action. One of the most impactful aspects to this video is the interaction between the activist and the calf. We feel the distress of the calf surrounded by the screams of other animals and of the cold, grim slaughterhouse walls, but we also see the calf interact affectionately with the activist while waiting in fear, and through the activist’s lens and emotions, we get a sense of the true horror of this calf’s experience.

Aside from adding a human element to animal rights, leaders in the movement can also inspire us to do more, they can teach us skills in activism, provide us with a means for more methods, or simply boost our morale about some of the progress happening in animal activism.

So why the criticism of celebrity activists?

One of the criticisms is that celebrity activists get too much fame and recognition, but aren’t the ones doing the greatest amount of work. This may be true in some cases, but the amount of fame (and criticism) they receive is also a function of the type of work they do. Often, celebrity activists become celebrities because their method of activism involves a lot of public exposure (e.g. Vloggers, public speakers, Instagram influencers). And likely, they choose such a role because their skills match that role – they may be more confident, have public appeal, are good at public speaking, etc. and other factors may influence their position, such as cultural normative values that prop up particular members of society in leadership roles.

Another example of this in action is how we tend to have favourite film actors, rather than screenwriters, directors, or producers, because the former get more exposure. Having been exposed to the film industry for a number of years now, I can assure that the latter roles are just as important to the final product, and the ‘faces’ of the films are one small slice of its success. But, this outcome is understandable- An actor takes the role with more exposure, and we as viewers notice and remember them more easily. Unless they’re particularly incompetent, we don’t tend to begrudge actors their fame, particularly if they’re using their platform to do good (i.e. to entertain us well). Similarly, there are a vast number of roles in activism that involve little to no public exposure (web development, writing, graphic design, photography, campaign directing, business management, research, marketing, alternative food development etc) – these activists will be known less, but will also likely be held to less scrutiny.

I don’t see a problem with both of these approaches – admiring activists with public personas, as well as criticising the work of these activists. Both serve an important function. Scrutiny of public figures is important because it allows us to hold accountable those who represent our movement, and it helps aid them to keep refining their approach. But scrutiny shouldn’t be based simply on the fact that these individuals are famous. They may not always be doing a level of work that’s equivalent to their level of recognition, but it doesn’t have to be. We shouldn’t dismiss that they are doing important work too. Both admiration and criticism as you can see, have to do with how we as an audience relate to the activists, and so we should. Whether or not we like celebrity activists, if we’re part of the movement, their status should concern us as they incidentally represent our message. 

Sometimes the criticism of their work is based on the fact that these activists raise money, and don’t spend the money appropriately on animal rights – as some of their expenses are unnecessary (such as traveling), particularly in the case of social media influencers. This is an important question. It is unclear what the effectiveness of traveling or other expenditure is for these activists. If we have concerns about this as donators, then it’s important to do our research. There’s no harm in asking those seeking money for a breakdown of their financial targets and their methods of achieving them. 

The pitfalls of hero worshipping


The key problematic nature of hero worshipping is when individuals become so admired, that they go beyond consideration of our questioning, or when our views of activists become biased and oversimplified. This isn’t to say that they should be given criticism or shouldn’t, but we ought to all take a role in presenting the image of this movement, and that means keeping our representatives in check, particularly if their platform is wide reaching. Specifically, problems in admiring particular people arise when:

    • We blindly follow most things the person says or does without thinking critically, because our admiration for them skews our perspective. For example, when we have a preference for a political party, it’s important we don’t assume that we will like all of their policies just because we like the party. Some policies we may not like and that’s okay. You’re not betraying someone or quitting your support of them just because you disagree with some of their ideas.
    • We put ourselves or others down in comparison to the person in a way that hinders our own activism. For example, thinking “only he has the ability to do that!” or thinking that you shouldn’t do something because your admired activist is already doing it. If this has happened, keep in mind that there are many audiences out there, and doing something will more than likely be better than doing nothing.  There are many fields that demand competition or a unique approach because there is so much content out there (e.g. creative industries), but the fortunate thing about animal advocacy, is we don’t need to be different, we just need to be active and persistent. Every effective way we can get the message out there is important.
    • We see the person in a black or white way, that is, when we see them as good, we see them as completely good. As a result, we might defend any cracks in their arguments at all times, or refuse to believe they are capable of faults.
    • We confuse the person’s work for the person themselves, i.e. thinking that the person is their activism. It’s okay to admire someone’s work and accept that we don’t necessarily know much about them as a person. Most people who we think we know, we only tend to see one side of (e.g. celebrities). One example of this is when fans of celebrities become defensive or in denial when they learn that the celebrity has committed an offensive behaviour like domestic violence. This reaction can reflect the effect of liking the celebrity’s work so much that it is difficult to accept flaws in something about their character.
    • And lastly, we become so engrossed in the person’s work, that we forget to broaden our horizons and look for other perspectives that could help us develop as activists. I put this last because I don’t think this is necessarily a negative. Activists grow, and as their supporters, we may grow with them. So following one person doesn’t mean we stay stagnant in our approach. But it can be worth checking in with ourselves from time to time about whether our own views are being informed by only a select lens.

On an important note,  we can fall into these above biases both in our admiration of activists, as well as in our criticism of them – If we dislike something about a celebrity activist, we can falsely debunk their entire work; we can defame them or claim they should stop when they may actually benefit from feedback or encouragement to improve; we can paint them entirely as a ‘bad person’ or ‘bad activist’ because of a particular negative or misinterpretation of their work, rather than as capable of faults and change; and we can hone in on their downfalls when we present them publicly (which can be problematic for the movement too), and dismiss their positives. Again, because of their public position, they’re also going to receive a lot more criticism by default, sometimes overly so. In other wordshero worshipping can be just as problematic as hero bashing.

Have I missed something about the benefits or problems of activist following? Let me know in the comments below.


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