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Actress Emma Thompson, in a contribution to The Times, discusses the pitfalls of celebrity activism, but why it’s worth it.

“When you are famous,” writes Thompson, "working for charity has become almost de rigueur, and while it can be stunningly effective (witness Brad Pitt in New Orleans) it can also be profoundly off-putting."

So can its overly-used terminology. Thompson notes: "Words such as “charity”, “cause”, “development”, “human rights” and “activism” can all become skewed with misuse. At best, overuse renders them banal. But at worst they become counterproductive. Say “human rights activist” and increasing numbers of people will just slam their hands over their ears. There is cause weariness even before you prefix “human rights activist” with that extra soul-sapping tag “celebrity”."

Nevertheless, Thompson sees all causes as connected to the human condition – the problem is that people don’t make that connection to their own daily lives. If only they would, they would see the return, not only to victims but to themselves:

“Thinking, and listening, and sometimes acting to help other people who may have survived and endured terrible situations can be (and this sounds very selfish, but it’s true) a fascinating practical investigation into how one can achieve some kind of progress in the business of being human. It takes only a tiny twist of consciousness to make the leap from a save-the-world complex to something much more honest, fulfilling and achievable.”

It’s fundamentally life-enhancing, she says, “how the survivor contributes to the development of human character – how the stories of those who have endured inhumanity can enrich us in the same way that listening to poetry can enrich us.”

Quoting Helen Bamber, who founded the human rights organisation Helen Bamber Foundation, Thompson says, “What she has always said is that the hardest stories to listen to are often the most rewarding stories to hear.”

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