Awareness, My Arse

Ignorance is bliss

A breast cancer awareness campaign this week plunged the campus into fertile discussion. “Big or Small, Save ‘Em All,” the poster read, and the impact was immediate. “Are you not aware of my breasts?” one person was reported to have asked in the newsroom of The Harvard Crimson. “I’m trying to be as aware as possible,” came the titillated reply.

This is awareness on a grand scale—an outbreak of awareness even—and whatever cleavage exists between the enlightened and unenlightened is quickly narrowing.

In the past month, campuses have been graced not only with Breast Cancer Awareness Week, but AIDS Awareness Week and Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week (it seems that even the conservatives are doing it). There are now so many things to celebrate that each fête is starting to encroach on the other. Last March, one Harvard student group’s open-list was the site a somewhat concerned email:

“Gaypril is also going to be Mental Health Awareness Month,” the person noted. “How do people feel about this?”

How indeed. April has always been the cruelest month. Now it is also Irritable Bowel Syndrome Awareness Month. In fact, this last may be the most pressing matter.

Explosions of “awareness” are a new thing. In the last serious decade of student activism—the 1960s—people tended to campaign for more concrete reforms. Curiously, this spate of “awareness” arrives at the nadir of political participation among college students in recent decades. The more “aware” we are, it seems, the less we actually do. But why?

Blame perverse incentives. Organizations need to create noise to show that they are doing something, which needs to happen if individuals within those organizations want to be seen as exhibiting “leadership.” Despite the fact that awareness campaigns persuade nobody—when was the last time a poster display in the Science Center changed your mind about anything?—they continue to occur. They are simple, half-hearted means to show you’re Making the World a Better Place.

If you don’t buy the cynical argument, then here’s a pragmatic one: awareness campaigns are collectively self-defeating. The more campaigns there are, the less effective they become—there is only so much a person can be mentally aware of at a given moment. Activism on campus has now become like the Magic Faraway Tree from the Enid Blyton stories. Every so often, a new themed-land emerges at the top, a silly, fanciful, senseless thing like the Land of Do-As-You-Please, or Take-What-You-Want. Like at Harvard, these then disappear and are forgotten.

There are, Faraway Tree aside, two cases in which awareness campaigns are neither useless nor self-interested. For underreported incidents like rape, campaigns are a reasonable method to spur more reporting. Events like Take Back the Night, however smug or shrill, may in fact be serving a useful purpose. For crucial public health measures too—the shortage of Asian bone marrow donors comes to mind—such campaigns might also be helpful.

There remains the million-dollar question of why “awareness weeks” have come to be the most popular form of social activism on campus—why they have basically replaced vigils, large protests, or sit-ins as the most common unit of action.

It comes not only from the need to make noise but more deeply, I suspect, from a misplaced faith in the inevitability of progress. Americans have always been constitutionally prone to unwarranted optimism, but especially this generation, which, perched atop the long century that saw outrageous economic growth as well as the inclusion of women, blacks, and gays into the public sphere, now behave as if progress were inevitable.

Today, among the students here at least, there is no urgency toward anything.

The exception is Darfur, which still retains the power to shock and move. But the intensity of the crime marks it as the exception. Only genocides move us now.

Sahil K. Mahtani ’08 is a history concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.