Recent publication of the TIME 100 list triggered my reflection on a recurring topic: What drives a person to desire recognition and fame? And to what extent does this motive drive social activism as well?
A well-known scholar and champion of dignity, Dr. Robert Fuller, proposes that frequently the inner drive to acquire fame is the result of experiencing humiliation and indignity. Children bullied by peers and professors, adults by bosses, women by men, members of one ethnicity by those of another- all exemplify abuses of rank. Someone with more power -- i.e., higher in rank abuses their status, triggering the division into "somebodies and nobodies." The only way to fight this systemic indignity is to delegitimize abuse of rank, which requires a broad social reform. Often, however, individuals resort to another strategy, which is to secure a place for themselves among the "somebodies" by acquiring fame, money, power and recognition. Fuller writes: "accrue enough fame in life and you may even attain immortality and [...] 'life forever.'" Clearly, this "solution" merely deals with the symptom, doing nothing to root out the cause, and is the equivalent of a member of an oppressed group trying to blend with that of the oppressor.
In her keynote address at the TIME 100 gala, Hillary Clinton said of those who found their names on the 2012 list:
You've been deemed as influential. And I think it means that, [...] people are inspired by your grace and your grit, moved by your refusal to give up even when the challenges appear insurmountable, motivated by your focus on solving problems that actually matter in people's lives, showing us all what it means to work hard, to innovate, to advance our common humanity, to lead.
I'm not sure if one can apply this definition to the entire list, as it runs the gamut from Barack Obama to the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and E channel's funny lady, Chelsea Handler. Yet, those who drew my attention were the somewhat less famous choices, at least for the time being: social activists, who reached celebrity status by doing good. One such example is Pete Cashmore, the 26-year-old CEO of Mashable, a hugely successful social media news website, with more than 50 million monthly page reviews. It's described as a "one stop shop" for social media, and it has around three million followers on Twitter.
Inspired by the Internet's democratizing potential, this self-described geek opted out of college to found Mashable, at the tender age of 19. By the time he was 23, he used social media fundraising to build freshwater wells in Africa. Cashmore says much of his work drive comes from his illness that had him bed-ridden when he was a teen. "The Internet was appealing partly because it was something I could do out of bed and feel like I was achieving something," he said in an interview.
However, Pete Cashmore of today, touted as "the Brad Pitt of the blogosphere" does not seem to resemble the geek he refers to from his earlier days. And even though his work has nothing to do with celebrity culture per se, his photos and overall image might suggest otherwise. Living in a society where personal projection, ego-management and soft-skills account for much of one's success, I wonder to what extent will celebrity status motivate future online activists? More importantly, will the successful personality management and icon status make a difference in the success of the organization itself? What helps some cross the fine line that lands them a place among the TIME 100?
Dr. Pamela Gerloff, who has written about dignity with Fuller, referred me to a quote that I think offers an interesting insight into this phenomenon. This passion or drive to do good that motivates social activists can be likened to an artist's need to create. Famous Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman said that art lost its basic creative drive when it got separated from the religious process of worship. Bergman tells the legend of the building of the cathedral of Chartres, which was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Thousands of people from different lands then gathered to rebuild the cathedral on its old site and they worked until they finished the building. Yet, they all remained anonymous, and even today no one knows who built the cathedral of Chartres.
Bergman concludes that "regardless of whether I believe or not, whether I am a Christian or not, I would play my part in the collective building of the cathedral." At the time, the work of an artist remained unknown as its sole purpose was the glory of god; the ability to create was a gift, and notions of recognition, masterpiece and immortality did not matter. One artisan was not more important than others. Today, on the other hand, it is precisely an artist's individualism, subjectivity or wounded ego that is considered to be holy, and is therefore an important driver behind the act of creation. I think the same motivation might be at play when it comes to social activism too.
What's the alternative? Business psychologist and Huffington Post blogger, Dr. Douglas LaBier, argues that the key to well-being in an increasingly interconnected and unpredictable world of today is to focus on common goals, and something larger than oneself, than one's own ego. I think this process of "forgetting yourself" is what Bergman describes when he says that recognition and leaving an ego footprint are not important -- what matters is the pure joy of work that's being done. In an era where online movements and social media offer much promise for precisely this kind of motivation, I wonder what those who have already found their place in the hall of fame would say in response to this question.