October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which means it's time to briefly contemplate getting a mammogram while munching on a pink cookie. But it's also Domestic Violence Awareness Month, so you should probably tweet angrily about the NFL. And AIDS Awareness Month, so why not finish watching The Normal Heart?
Don’t forget October is also Rett Syndrome Awareness Month, Selective Mutism Awareness Month, and Vegetarian Awareness Month. And Dental Hygiene Awareness Month, which means you should feel extra guilty for forgetting to floss. With so much heightened awareness, who needs LSD?
All these good intentions seem harmless enough, but beneath the T-shirts and cookies and colored ribbons lurks a silent threat. It's hard to detect, harder to contain, and extremely contagious. It can lead to compulsive "liking" and hashtag abuse. In the advanced stages, it can cause Facebook profile pictures to spontaneously mutate.
It's time to sound the alarm: we need an Awareness Awareness Month.
"Awareness" is a virus that preys on well-meaning minds. It tricks us into thinking that thought is the same as action, that acknowledging something is the same as fixing it. Awareness is a problem masquerading as a solution.
Of course, awareness is a necessary first step in getting anything done. We can't cure breast cancer, or end domestic violence, or fight AIDS unless we're paying attention to them. But awareness should be the first step towards action, not the last. It’s the means to an end, not the end in itself.
And that's exactly the problem-- Now that “awareness” is so trendy, we seem to have forgotten about that pesky second part, the part where we actually do something. How convenient to think that awareness is enough! How satisfying for us to think that a momentary synapse twitch in our brains counts as a meaningful step towards change. It's part of a crisis of tangibility, where we confuse mental thoughts, or digital clicks, for real action. "Awareness" is a direct descendent of the "if you can dream it, you can do it!" mentality on which Millennials were weaned. Only we've got it mixed up now-- we think dreaming it is doing it.
Newsflash: only Roald Dahl's Matilda can move things with her mind.
Take, for example, the HeforShe campaign that the United Nations launched in September with a "groundbreaking" speech by Emma Watson. The goal of the campaign was to get 1 billion men to sign the HeforShe pledge, in a "solidarity movement" to stand up for gender equality. Watson's speech was a beautiful, articulate defense of feminism that went appropriately viral. But it promised no concrete action towards educating women or stopping gender-based violence--no funding, no organized policy strategy, no legislation. More than 171,000 men have so far signed the HeforShe petition, but what does that even mean? They've just pressed a button saying they support women--that's like pressing a button saying "I'm not a racist." It's easier than checking "agree" on the iTunes Terms & Conditions.
Meanwhile, an entire page of the program accompanying the UN event was dedicated to explaining why UNWomen had chosen a particular color of magenta to represent HeforShe: "Viscerally alive, iconic and fresh, daring and courageous, HeforShe Magenta walks the fine line between male and female, making it the ideal shade to speak to the elimination of gender inequality."
The magenta sounds lovely, but somehow I doubt Boko Haram has been waiting to release the girls until the UN developed the perfect shade of pink.
Or look at the new testicular-cancer-awareness #FeelingNuts campaign, which was recently endorsed by Hugh Jackman when he tweeted a picture of himself holding his own (clothed) balls. The scrotum-squeeze has gone viral, but how much money has been raised to fight testicular cancer? It's hard to tell, because the campaign doesn't require any kind of donation, unlike the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. And there's no evidence that the thousands who take pictures of themselves holding their balls are doing any kind of actual screening-- they could easily be using the campaign as an excuse for a crotch-grab selfie.
"Awareness" has quickly become another way to be holier-than-thou. Didn't change your Facebook picture to support marriage equality? You must not care about the obstacles gay people face. Not going topless naked in Times Square? You must not care about the censorship of women's bodies. Have you seen how many causes I support? Were you aware that I am hyper-aware?
Of course, some awareness campaigns actually do a lot of good, like the aforementioned ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised more than $100 million to fight the debilitating disease. But for every brand that that actually donates to a cause like breast cancer research, there are dozens who "pinkwash" their products, labeling them with pink ribbons while donating only a tiny portion of proceeds or continuing to use carcinogenic chemicals. "Awareness" has become more of a branding opportunity than a public service.
Besides, issues that are well-publicized enough to have Awareness Months are usually already being addressed, somewhat efficiently, by well-funded Western organizations. When is Ebola Awareness Month? What about Child Bride Awareness Month? How about Female Circumcision Awareness Month? Might I suggest January?
See, it's only a certain kind of cause that gets a whole month of "awareness." Causes that are big enough to be taken seriously but not too disturbing to display on a yogurt container. Unfortunately, that means lots of big problems-- problems that are too terrifying to fit onto a T-shirt -- get ignored. And when we congratulate ourselves about how "aware" we are, and jump mindlessly from one cause to the next, we lose sight of the bigger issues that need fixing.
So let's raise awareness about the danger of empty "awareness." Let's spread the word about only spreading the word. I propose we make October Awareness Awareness Month-- and YOU can take a stand, by tweeting with the hashtag #awarenessawareness, "liking" my Facebook page, or staring mindlessly at your own hand.