Do-Gooder Celebs Can Aid —and Irritate

Emma Thompson on the conflicts of charitable stars

By Jason Farago,  Newser Staff

Posted May 5, 2009 7:39 AM CDT

(Newser) – These days every celebrity is a do-gooder, but for Emma Thompson, using star power to fight disease or injustice can be not only "stunningly effective" but "also profoundly off-putting." In a column for the Times of London, the actor and screenwriter describes the tension between charity and celebrity, and offers advice for both fellow stars and the general public: "Ask yourself why you want to do it and remember that self-righteousness irritates rather than inspires."

For Thompson, part of the problem lies in the vocabulary of altruism: say "human rights activist" and "increasing numbers of people will just slam their hands over their ears." Instead of thinking of individual crises available for adoption by a celebrity advocate, we should see violence, poverty, disease, and other problems as interconnected. That more holistic view of charity can transform "a save-the-world complex" into "something much more honest, fulfilling, and achievable."

Sean Penn and Emma Thompson pose prior to the annual 34th Cesar awards ceremony in Paris, Friday, Feb. 27, 2009.   (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)
British actor and writer Emma Thompson speaks during a working session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Thursday Jan. 24, 2008.   (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
Emma Thompson, a cast member in "Last Chance Harvey," arrives at the premiere of the film during AFI Fest 2008 in Los Angeles, Saturday, Nov. 8, 2008.   (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Actress Emma Thompson arrives at the 66th Annual Golden Globe Awards on Sunday, Jan. 11, 2009, in Beverly Hills, Calif.   (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)
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A public service announcement by Emma Thompson for a charity fighting human trafficking.   (LinxProductions)

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The question I dread most is: 'What’s your favorite charity?' You might as well ask: 'What’s your favorite war zone?' To talk about charity in this way compartment-alizes it, separates it from the day-to-day stuff of life. - Emma Thompson

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