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Passing harsh judgment on people we liked

By Tim Kroenert - posted Friday, 1 February 2008

There’s a line of thought that suggests an object is defined by its function - for example, that a spoon used in a cutting action becomes, by virtue of its present function, a knife. If that's true, it's no wonder conscientious celebrities become figureheads of whatever cause they stand for. Their prominence is a potent tool when directed towards the purpose of advocacy. In promoting human rights or environmental awareness, they take on an air of expertise, or of epitomising an idealised version of the values they espouse.

When such figureheads fall, it's often their followers who feel most injured. Disillusion breeds contempt. Among former admirers, adoration turns to aggro in the blink of an eye.

Just ask any Aussie environmentalist how it felt to watch Peter Garrett join the Labor Party, then studiously toe the party line on issues such as the Tasmanian pulp mill. In the church of celebrity role models, such backflips from the clergy leave the parishioners reeling.


The latest celebrity who seems set to receive pariah status is British rocker, Sting. A longtime supporter of human rights and environmental causes, from Live Aid and Amnesty to the Rainforest Foundation (which he co-founded) and Live Earth, Sting (aka Gordon Sumner) is a veritable rock 'n' roll saint.

How unfortunate then, that John Buckley, an adviser from global warming resource website, should declare Sting and his band the Police to be the "dirtiest band in the world".

"At the Live Earth concert in New Jersey where the Police played, the biggest contribution to carbon emissions wasn't from the concert itself, it was the fans," said Buckley. "The Police played lots of big stadiums (on their recent international tour). They need to be careful over where they play, and make sure it's near public transport."

Tabloid headlines immediately dubbed the reputed greenie Sting a "hypocrite". That, surely, is a tad harsh. After all, the fans share some responsibility for how they choose to travel to the gigs. Any accusation of hypocrisy levelled at Sting should be qualified as inadvertent at worst.

But the underlying question is a valid one. Under such circumstances, at what point does the good achieved by a celebrity outweigh the negative side effects of apparently contradictory behaviour?

Buckley's allusion to Live Earth underlines this question. The aftermath of the Sydney leg of these "concerts for a climate in crisis" were marred by images of a stadium littered with discarded plastic cups. Ostensibly, the event had contributed unforgivably to the very problem it was trying to tackle.


On the other hand, despite any peripheral negative environmental impacts, arguably the powerful message of environmental responsibility Live Earth reinforced is worth more than the undesirable waste byproduct left behind by merry music fans. Your opinion on this matter will largely be determined by your existing sympathies.

In the case of Sting, things seem a little more clear-cut. An energy-intensive concert tour does not negate the good work he has done in the past. In 2006 alone, Sting's Rainforest Foundation, in its efforts to preserve rainforests and the rights of their indigenous inhabitants, spent more than a £1 million on projects, campaigns, information, education and fund-raising. That kind of green cred is hard to bleach away.

But Sting is not the only celebrity advocate whose actions have threatened to undermine their message. For example, it's always been difficult to reconcile U2 frontman Bono's incessant and sincere humanitarian soap-boxing (and highly effective advocacy for the cancellation of Third World debt) with his own admittedly extravagant rock-star lifestyle.

Bono has rightly pointed out that from the perspective of the Third World poor, there's little difference between Bono the wealthy rock star and any comfortable white Westerner with a big-screen TV and a car. Still, he does himself and his message of personal responsibility no favours when he, with his band, heads a consortium to build Ireland's tallest skyscraper in Dublin, the narcissistically named U2 Tower.

A monument to capitalism backed by these poor Dubliners who came good, or to Bono's own self-confessed massive ego, either way the numbers speak for themselves: a construction cost estimated at £200 million ($A447 million) translates to a lot of hungry mouths fed; or, if the name of the game is development rather than aid, it's a lot of interest-free loans to help communities in Africa and elsewhere develop self-sustaining infrastructure.

Still, even in this case, accusations of hypocrisy may be ill-founded. A hypocrite is one who feigns virtue; as far as the casual observer knows, Bono's construction aspirations and Sting's dependence on petrol-burning commuters to attend his concerts may fit perfectly well with their personal beliefs about what constitutes virtuous behaviour. We should not judge them because they act in a way that contradicts how we think they should act. After all, a spoon used as a knife is still a spoon at the end of the day.

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First published in The Age on January 25, 2008.

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About the Author

Tim Kroenert is the Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.

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