July 13, 2007

Celebrity Culture Lets Us Down

Posted in animal advocacy at 6:05 pm by nevavegan

It’s Friday. I’ve been reading and reading and learning all kinds of interesting things that haven’t managed to make it into blog entries just yet.

One thing that has been on my mind is the topic of “crazy celebrities.” I guess we’ve all observed this at some point. Individuals who act so out of control, so clearly not mentally ok, still go on to work more, star in more TV shows and films, direct, host TV specials, get hounded by the paparazzi and otherwise keep living their lives at the top. They get to do this because they are set aside as somehow better than the rest of us. They can do no wrong and so hitting assistants, wandering into someone else’s house as if it were their own, charges of domestic violence, drunk driving, racist or sexist statements is all water under the bridge. Brushed aside, forgotten, as people still clamor for an autograph and pay money to go to the movies.

I know what you might be thinking in reaction to this, because it kind of represents my feelings too. “Sure, that’s all really unfortunate, but it’s Hollywood, it’s nuts, you can’t draw any conclusions about human nature from what goes on there.”

Yeah, the same standards don’t apply to you or me, or Joe Schmoe down the street. But they might apply in some ways to other celebrities, the ones closer to our own lives than movie stars are.

As an example, a friend of mine who will remain unnamed went to work for a scientific research organization, working under a woman who had multiple degrees and publications and was in essence a star in this particular type of research. Instead of an ivory tower of learning though, my friend found a terrorized crew of researchers trying to cling to their jobs. “The star” henceforth known as Ms. RE, played favorites, allowing some extremely good-looking but unqualified men in the department to slack off, while demanding 80 hour weeks out of the other peons. She raged at her employees and threw things. She falsified data. She padded the resumes of her favorites, giving them credit for work done by others. If anyone spoke out they were fired and also blacklisted within the tight knit research community.

My friend was miserable. She had no time for herself, she worked impossible hours but saw the credit given to others. She started trying to save her life by planning an exit strategy. But everyone she talked to gave her the same answers. You can’t speak out against someone so well-known. You can’t keep working in this field if the “big people” don’t like you. You have to expect a certain amount of abuse from a genius, it just goes with the territory.

My friend finally did get out, but she did find herself blacklisted with other similar research outfits—Ms. RE was not above slander to take her revenge on an employee for jumping off the sinking ship. My friend remained depressed, and had to second guess herself all the time. She went on job interviews in unrelated fields, all the while trying to look for signs of a bad boss.

You’d think this might just be an isolated incident, but this kind of “celebrity,” where fame is used to cover up abuse and fraudulent behavior is actually more likely to happen in certain types of work. It happens in academia and the research community because publication and speaking engagements make minor stars. You might never ever hear of these people outside of their particular field, but inside “their world” they exercise a lot of power and influence. You also see this happen in the non-profit world where people with questionable credentials and shaky ethics might rise to the top because they’re inspirational speakers or become associated with a groundbreaking case or incident.

Bully online cites non-profits as one of the primary areas where workplace abuse occurs.

But back to the culture of celebrity.

Recently there’s been yet another scandal involving the head of an animal sanctuary. This seems to happen on a continuing basis. This “animal-person celebrity” has been in trouble for similar things in the past, misusing funds, putting the animals last, mistreating employees and volunteers. We saw another animal sanctuary scandal in the past where the bodies of animals who’d died from neglect and mistreatment were stacked up in the nearby woods as the people in charge of the sanctuary continued to collect donations for their care.

We let this happen because we don’t hold stars to the same standards as everyone else. These people, who give speeches and sign autographs, may rally the troops with their charisma and stage presence, but those aren’t necessarily the qualities that make them ideal to care for sick and vulnerable animals, to resist the temptation of easy money. Charisma doesn’t make them hold themselves accountable for their own action, and it blinds their followers, who as if stunned by the bright lights, keep defending the indefensible.

We hear about this more with sanctuaries because at some point, as it all falls apart, the mistreatment of the animals in sanctuaries becomes obvious. The bodies are found and photographed, the starving animals and the ones with open sores are spotted and talked about. But make no mistake, stardom obscures poor behavior all over, it’s just harder to prove in other cases.

Looking at this from the outside there is no real payoff to doing things the right way if you want to excel in the animal charity world. You can put in your hours, do your best, and then observe something that bothers you ethically. You can speak up and maybe lose your job and get blacklisted, or you can swallow down your ethics and keep your head low. If you’re a boss in the animal charity world you have everything to gain by bullying your employees and engaging in unethical behavior—you know nobody will ever question it and if someone unimportant ever should you can easily get rid of them.

All this is sold to us as being good for the movement. We’ve been told it’s bad to be divisive (translation: if something bothers you just keep it to yourself), we’re told we need to be a family and all get along (translation: if someone else’s ethics, philosophy or tactics aren’t making sense to you, that’s your problem, so you need to stay quiet and not upset anyone), and that there are so few of us we can’t afford to disagree (translation: the star in charge gets to tell everyone else how to think, act, and speak). When people are pushed out of the movement and marginalized because they disagree, again we’re told this is good for the movement, because they were disruptive, crazy, or agitators.

Um, by the way, since when was being an agitator a bad thing? I don’t think we should stir up trouble just for the sake of stirring it up, but did anything significant ever change without a few people standing up and making a lot of noise for their ethics?

Anyway, it’s interesting to see that this philosophy doesn’t actually hold up in research studies. Instead the studies tell us that poor management and workplace bullying cost companies money, and reduce both productivity and creativity.

In addition, allowing bullying and unethical practices to continue in our midst gives our opposition ammunition against us. We need to avoid, to whatever extent possible, even the appearance that we’re unethical, deceptive, or callous to the needs and concerns of human employees and volunteers. When we allow our stars to do whatever they like, unchecked, it fuels a stereotype of animal advocates that we’re all a little crazy.

It’s time we stopped supporting people just because they happen to be stars. All of these policies purport to be “what’s good for the organization.” In many cases they are merely what’s best for the founder/CEO of the organization, but we need to be talking about what’s best for the animals and what’s best for long term strategic goals.

More info, understanding workplace bullying

More articles on the effects of workplace bullying



  1. Sean said,

    Really the only thing you can do with “stars” in the workplace is to compile hard evidence against them, keep a diary of things they do, make photocopies etc. This of course isn’t always possible, but I have seen people do this and beat the *star* at their own game.

    Personally I think abolitionist organisations should look closely at some kind of anarchist model as a way of guarding against celebrity culture and the associated abuses of power.

  2. mary martin said,

    One of the three times I had a real job it was with a (non-animal) nonprofit headed by a quasi-celebrity in his field. I eventually brought him down, with the help of others, but I have to admit we were successful largely because we had nothing to lose and we weren’t star struck. Celebrities are, alas, just people, and should be held to the same standards of behavior as everyone else. The moment WE allow them to rise above us, we have contributed to an environment where they believe they are not subject to standards of decency.

    I think we need to look at what we do to create the atmosphere for stars to be cultivated, and do something about that atmosphere. When we have to result to whistleblowing, and when whistleblowing unfortunately ruins people’s careers and sometimes lives, that tells me we have to back up in the process and address the cause rather than the result.

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