In light of the recently heightened awareness surrounding the bushfires that have been wreaking havoc and tragedy in Australia, a number of stories have come across my desk about social media users dragging the Kardashian-Jenner family for what is perceived as hypocrisy between their support of the relief efforts and their lifestyle choices—such as wearing furs or commissioning private jets. To put it frankly, they are getting crucified via hateful tweets for allegedly not donating a large portion of their fortune to the relief, and for whatever believed transgressions in their past that internet users feel reflects the capitalist model which has gotten us into this environmental catastrophe in the first place.
This has led me to contemplate the question that many have written and theorized about since the social media boom began integrating with social justice work—what is the best way of holding celebrities accountable for their privilege, or possibly even recruiting them as allies, especially with the perceived closeness created by social media?
As someone who identifies as a liberal feminist, I actively support identifying and destroying harmful social constructs that marginalize vulnerable communities. I truly believe in getting rid of the harmful capitalist model that feeds society the idea that wealth and fame trumps (yes, pun very much intended) all, including questionable morality. As Megan Murphy writes for the Feminist Current:
“From Kim Kardashian to Madonna to Donald Trump to Steve Jobs, we offer ‘business savvy’ as the thing we should be most impressed by (and often as an excuse for a lack of ethics and/or intelligence).”
Despite the insidiousness of the skewed capitalist model, we have not yet replaced it with an alternative, and therefore, we have people like the Kardashian-Jenners, who have literally made their billions by being good at being famous. Audiences from around the world have made them what they are today by following them on social media, watching their reality shows, and buying their numerous products. This famous family has been born and bred by the consumers who have rewarded them for being over-the-top rich and famous, which in turn, has made them even more rich and famous.
It is because of this that I find myself wanting to defend the Kardashian-Jenners (something I honestly never thought I would write), because while the public is busy calling them out for being hypocrites, they are missing their own hypocrisy—how can the society who aided the Kardashian-Jenners in becoming one of the most affluent families in the world turn around and criticize them for being who they are?
That being said, I do believe in holding privileged communities accountable. I think we can and should exercise the power we have to encourage equality, especially by not staying silent about inequality. I think we can and should encourage the rich to donate and support important causes, and to lead by example. Most importantly, I think that the Kardashian-Jenners (and those in similar places financially) can and should change their lifestyles to help the environment. However, nitpicking past mistakes, making assumptions, and flat-out starting wars with celebrities online is just not the most productive way to encourage change.
More than that, this method creates an extremely problematic narrative that hinders one of the major goals of identity politics and social justice movements. By excluding a person from becoming an ally because of their prior beliefs, lifestyle choices, and/or mistakes, we are breeding fear, shame, and guilt around privilege, rather than awareness, acceptance, and action.
Dr. Michael Mascolo writes for Psychology Today that a better approach is to move away from this kind of “negative moral persuasion,” and to replace it with a positive one. He explains:
“Positive morality works differently. It involves appealing to other's sense of moral identity -- their sense of moral responsibility. This involves an appeal to the moral responsibility that comes with privilege…Positive morality means making appeals to a person’s moral sense of self: the moral, compassionate, correct thing for a person of privilege to do is to attend to those who are less privileged. It says, ‘Person of privilege, your privilege comes with a moral duty. If you do this duty, you will be enhanced, not diminished.’”
Next time the Kardashian-Jenners do something monumentally stupid (looking at Kim’s Kimono shapewear with a strong side-eye here), yes, call them out. But also remember that compassion is the key to learning and growing in any important movement, especially now, as the world literally burns.