Ashton Kutcher has been making waves lately—but not for slapstick humour, celebrity relationship dramas, or “punking” anybody.
For the last several years, Kutcher has become a public face of the anti-trafficking movement. In February, his activism culminated in an emotionally-charged testimony during an anti-slavery hearing on Capitol Hill. His impassioned speech went viral, earning him widespread praise—equally, it seems, for both his work and his display of emotion.
But it didn’t sit well with everybody.
Laura LeMoon, a survivor of human trafficking, wrote a powerful rebuttal to Kutcher’s speech, contending that he represents “exactly the problem with the global anti-trafficking movement today: paternalism and the trafficking savior complex.” She argues against having privileged, male, non-survivor spokespeople like Kutcher, since it reinforces patriarchy and boosts his ego while sidestepping what could’ve been opportunity to bring survivor voices into the spotlight.
This presents a dilemma I’ve been struggling with for years: What qualifies people to be an activist in the anti-trafficking movement?
Should Ashton Kutcher as a wealthy, white, American man be able to represent survivors of human trafficking, the majority of whom are female?
Can I be an anti-trafficking advocate even though I’m not a trafficking survivor?
And what about activism beyond human trafficking?
Can Emma Watson befittingly stand for the rights of women in developing countries while being worth $70 million?
Can you be an activist if not every item in your cupboards or closets was made by a fair trade company?
Do you have to achieve a particular level of training or frontlines experience or selfless suffering?
What about the burgeoning trend with for-profit companies launching their own charitable foundations and campaigns? Are those legitimate contributions to the work of activism?
Can we trust the validity and efficacy of Pepsi and Starbucks, Dove and P&G’s cause-driven crusades when we know their bottom line is sales?
Can multinational corporations like Chevron credibly claim corporate social responsibility when they’ve also been known for oil spills, labour abuses, and exploiting Indigenous ancestral lands around the world?
Maybe the question goes deeper than who gets to call themselves an activist?
Maybe the real question is: how do we know when the compassion of activists is authentic?
Is our definition of activism too narrow?
I’ve been involved in some sort of cause for the last twenty years, and the anti-trafficking movement for the last six. Along the way, I’ve noticed how we’ve created a pretty singular definition of activism.
The typical list of characteristics someone needs to have in order to be a bona fide activist these days is exhausting:
Boycott there, buy only from here.
Give to these charities but not those.
Be politically correct.
Sit on this side of the political continuum when it comes to these issues, or else you’re part of the problem.
If you stand for these beliefs, you can’t belong to that faith or denomination.
Either you side with us or you side with them—it can’t be both.
It’s ironic, really, because we in the justice movement consider it our job to support and empower people in vulnerable circumstances, while shaming and isolating people who aren’t “good enough” or “committed enough” activists. We compartmentalize and polarize, creating divisions that immobilize us instead of seeking unity that would strengthen us.
For those of us who work full-time in caring professions or in the non-profit industry, we sometimes believe there’s an hourly quota a person needs to fill in order to meet the activist criteria. If you’re not meeting that time threshold, or if you haven’t suffered for the sake of the cause enough, then you can’t call yourself an activist.
For those who don’t have that kind of time or expertise, it’s more about how much fervent passion you display for a cause. If you don’t give a certain amount of your tears or righteous anger to a cause, or if you don’t share enough posts about justice issues on your Facebook page, then you can’t call yourself an activist, either.
Our limited definition of activism is problematic. It keeps some people out of engaging in important work because they don’t feel qualified enough—while keeping others imprisoned by it, demanding perfection and martyrdom of themselves and veering dangerously toward burnout and compassion fatigue.
In either case, we’re being counter-productive.
Where does this leave us? Is there a place for celebrities and stay-at-home parents and business leaders and amateurs in the justice movement?
I think so. Because to me, activism is less about how many charities you support, or how many hours of volunteer work you chalk up each year, or how much money you make, or if you use the right lingo and support the right political party—it’s how you live your life.
Does your compassion extend not only to issues overseas, but to issues within your own community?
Is your struggling neighbor or the homeless person you pass by on your way to work as worthy of your help as the victim of human trafficking?
Is the refugee fleeing Syria as deserving of your time as the Mexican immigrant family that moved in down the street?
Do you make room not only for supporting the organizations at the frontlines of survivor care, but for making an effort to ensure the products you buy don’t fuel forced labour?
Letting go of assumptions
Yes, in the case of Ashton Kutcher, there are implications with having a white, upper class, male celebrity at the helm of survivor advocacy.
It can be disempowering for survivors who don’t feel that Ashton Kutcher’s advocacy is in any way representational of them, both in terms of their complex experience of abuse and their universally shared experience of being a human, not just a ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’.
There truly is a danger of an ‘outsider’ creating a narrow, singular narrative—such as the helpless, Asian female trafficking victim in need of a savior—something that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie argues can lead to “a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity … [which] robs people of dignity.”
Admittedly, it’s also frustrating for anti-trafficking non-profits that work tirelessly for little pay and with minimal resources to create awareness and garner support, but don’t have the connections or power that quickly propelled Kutcher into the spotlight and in the company of legislative influencers and world leaders.
But maybe it’s less about his qualifications, social status, and ethnicity and more about what his intentions are.
Maybe activism is not about where you come from—your education or career or tax bracket—but WHY you do it. Where is your heart? Who is it really about? What are you hoping to gain? What are you willing to lose?
Maybe it’s less about WHAT you do, but HOW you do it:
Are you considering multiple perspectives and including different voices?
Do you share other people’s stories appropriately, with their permission and without embellishment or sensationalism?
Are you crusading on your own or working collectively in community?
I’ll be honest. When I first watched Kutcher’s speech on Capitol Hill, I was skeptical. I questioned the sincerity of every crack in his voice, the validity of his work, and the motivation behind his activism.
And good grief, is judging other people’s motives ever exhausting.
I’m 100% on the Brené Brown bandwagon, and one of the most important things I’ve learned from her is giving people the benefit of the doubt. I may be wrong about them, but I’m at far greater peace when I assume the best in others instead of scrutinizing their intent.
Maybe some celebrities get involved in causes for self-promotional reasons. Maybe corporate charity campaigns and foundations are a marketing ploy. Maybe there are CEOs of non-profits who seek to build charitable empires that feed their own ego. Maybe people tout the activist title in order to validate their self-worth.
Intentions do matter. I think they matter a lot. But it’s not up to me to judge other people’s reasons for joining the anti-trafficking movement or fighting for any other cause. I’m only responsible for evaluating my own.