Monday, March 12, 2012

What's wrong with raising awareness?

I'm sorry, but you're just going to have to put up with this Kony 2012 obsession of mine for a bit longer.

As I've been reading various posts responding to the Kony 2012 campaign, one response comes up over and over again in the comments: "At least they're raising awareness, and that's a good thing. No one else has ever gotten anyone to pay any attention to the situation in Northern Uganda, so quit your armchair quibbling!"

So what's wrong with raising awareness?

And the answer is of course there is nothing inherently wrong with raising awareness, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with chocolate pie.  (mmm...chocolate pie...)  But not all awareness-raising is created equal.  Raising awareness, like eating a chocolate pie, requires both discipline and discernment.   And if you don't have any discipline or discernment, well, people are going to feed you all kinds of stuff.  (You've read/seen The Help, haven't you?)

There are three ways I can think of that "raising awareness" can be misused: when information is presented out of context, out of proportion, or as an end in itself--or a combination of the three.  A quick look at each.

1. Out of context  No one can give the full context for a complex situation, and certainly not when they're trying to catch our eye when we're thinking about other things.  It would be wonderful to believe that each and every awareness-raising organization is doing its utmost to present a persuasive yet accurate picture of the whole situation.  But when an organization is appealing for our time, money, or action, it is often in their interests to leave out complicating details.  

2. Out of proportion  Of course an organization that's focused on a cause that is the most important thing to them is going to want you to make that your most important cause too.  But watch out when there is an insistent urgency.  Watch out for the word "now."  Organizations want you to care about their cause; that is their job.  But just because they say something is the most important thing to be done this very instant doesn't mean it is.

3. An end in itself  I worry about organizations or movements (I'm looking at you, Occupy Wall Street) that only want to raise awareness.  OK, so I'm aware; now what? Are they done now? Or will they not be satisfied until they are absolutely sure that everyone, everywhere knows--and wears the right color ribbon to prove it (I'm looking at you, Susan G. Komen).  If the cause is important, then something in the world needs to change.  What an organization chooses to do is important.  Awareness is not enough.

But I don't blame any organization for doing the best to promote its cause however it can.  It is incumbent upon us as potential supporters to do due diligence: to find out more, to learn about the cause, to discover what the organization actually hopes to accomplish, and to discern whether that meshes with our own hopes and goals for a better world. 

An important cause deserves to be taken seriously.  If you really don't know anything about it--and refuse to listen to anyone other than the organization who does--then I need to ask, how aware are you?

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