Celebvocacy: A tool for social justice

On July 8 a number of eyes were drawn to their computer screens to watch a graphic video of a human rights abuse that occurs every week on American soil.

Surprisingly, noted rapper and activist Yasiin Bey (also known as Mos Def) was the subject and creator of this video. In the video, he underwent the gruesome force-feeding processthat is forced upon prisoners in Guantanamo Bay: feeding via a tube that is inserted down the esophagus through the nose.

The video was released to help bring attention to two things. One aspect it highlights is the military’s method of dealing with a Guantanamo hunger strike which has now been drawn out to over 150 days.The release date also helps to highlight the force-feeding of fasting prisoners during the Muslim month of Ramadan (the video was released the day of the start of Ramadan), which forcibly violates one of the core tenants of the Muslim faith.

Force-feeding in Guantanamo is, unfortunately, nothing new. However, for many in the public this may be the first exposure they have received to this specific type of violation. As of now, Bey’s video is the only video of prison force-feeding that exists in the public domain.

It is possible to write entire books on the violations that occur in Guantanamo. However, what is really interesting to look at is the method through which this was done: through celebrity advocacy.

Of course, celebrity advocacy is not a new thing. Celebrities have often taken up pet causes, ranging from actor Michael J Fox’s effortsto support research on Parkinson’s disease, to athlete Lance Armstrong’s efforts to fight testicular cancer, to Bono’s support of seemingly every cause for social justice in the international world.

Celebrity advocacy can be a great way to promote a cause. In addition to the large amount of personal wealth and public following that they can contribute, celebrities can also pursue causes with a degree of creativity and unorthodoxy that may not otherwise be possible through a more “official” foundation.

For example, it should be noted that Bey’s video was not even the first example of a celebrity willingly undergoing abuse for a social cause. In fact, notable political commentator and author Christopher Hitchens had previously published an article in which he voluntarily underwent the process of torture known as waterboarding, after which he claimed, “If waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.”

Could this type of sensationalist public advocacy be possible with a more grounded, strictly journalistic organization? Most likely not.

Of course, most celebrities are entertainers, first and foremost. As such, most cannot be categorized as “experts” of knowledge regarding many of the issues that they support. There have been scores of misguided causes pursued by high profile figures, and scores of instances in which the public may have been duped into false information as a result of the efforts of celebrity advocacy. For example, we should never forget comedian and commentator Bill Maher’s effortsto “save” the public from what he perceived was the danger provided by swine flu vaccinations – beliefs that were scientifically proven wrong.

Even in cases in which advocacy is seemingly done right – such as in Bey’s video – it could be questioned whether they prompt the type of public discussion that was originally intended. When looking at the comments of Bey’s video, one can see a number of horrifically offensive Islamophobic comments – comments which were almost certainly unintended and unapproved of by the Muslim Bey.

Ultimately, as viewers of media and consumers of celebrity lifestyles, it is up to us to take the actions of celebrities with a grain of salt. There are a mind-boggling number of charitable causes that are headed by celebrities, and these can function as a way to introduce a reader or viewer to an issue that he may not have been previously aware of. However, it is just as important for us to do our research afterwards, and not take a celebrity’s word as final.

As means of prompting public awareness, though, celebrity advocacy should be praised and utilized as a valuable tool for promoting issues of social justice. For the sake of numerous social and charitable causes, we can only hope that other celebrities follow Bey’s example and creatively use their resources as a tool for advocacy.