Awareness-raising makes you sick

It’s time to raise awareness about the dangers of awareness-raising.

Ken McLaughlin

Topics Politics

There is an idea popularised by the sociologist Robert Merton called ‘the law of unintended consequences’. While, as we all know, unintended consequences can be serendipitous in nature, the phrase is more often used to refer to the unforeseen negative outcomes that can result from our actions. The law alerts us to the possibility that, at times, those with the best of intentions are the ones who can do most harm. This is something that many of those behind the ubiquitous ‘awareness raising’ campaigns we have today could do with reflecting on.

Presented as progressive in nature, such campaigns usually aim to increase our knowledge of a variety of issues, alongside raising funds for specific causes. However, far from being progressive, or even benign in nature, there are many negative aspects to the current trend of awareness-raising.

First, there is the ubiquity of the awareness-raising messages. A cursory glance at Project Britain’s calendar of awareness-raising events shows us that, in March 2015 alone, numerous awareness-raising events are taking place, including ‘Brain Awareness Week’, ‘World Glaucoma Week’ and ‘World Kidney Day’. As the year goes on, we will have our awareness raised about many other issues, including child abuse, alcohol misuse, domestic abuse, heart disease, cancer, stress and a variety of mental-health problems. Looking at this list, it would appear that a lack of awareness is the No1. problem facing humanity today. As one commentator, tongue firmly in cheek, put it, ‘if there is anything more important than raising awareness’ he is not aware of it.

Far from helping us to grapple with society’s problems, such campaigns only work to increase our anxiety, bombarding the public with a bewildering and neverending slew of messages that tell us we are at risk from myriad threats. However, such pernicious effects stem from a more profound political problem. Awareness-raising campaigns are frequently presented as a form of political action; by raising people’s awareness, campaigners say, they are empowering them to take control over their lives. However, the focus of these campaigns is more often focused on our own lifestyles and relationships, rather than on any broader political project. As I have pointed out previously on spiked, the concept of personal empowerment is more often used to draw people into forms of state governance, over which they have little meaningful control.

Indeed, the current obsession with ‘raising awareness’ actually represents the negation of political action, and its replacement by a form of top-down, therapeutic moralising. For some activists, awareness-raising is the contemporary equivalent of the consciousness-raising political action of the Sixties and Seventies. For many on the left in the Sixties, the problem was that the masses, unlike themselves of course, suffered from ‘false consciousness’, blinding them to the reality of their oppression. Similarly, today’s campaigners see a lack of awareness as the problem dooming the masses to disease and despair. In each case, there is a clear moral line being drawn – in the former, between those with true consciousness and those with false consciousness; in the latter, between the aware and the unaware.

Such top-down approaches to social and political issues miss the collective dimension of politics. Yes, people have views that they think correct, and consequently think that those with opposing views are wrong. But it is through a process of struggle, argument and reflection that political consciousness is shaped. Top-down ‘truth telling’ is a meagre substitute for this process.

However, there is one key difference between the consciousness-raisers of the Sixties and the awareness-raisers of today. At least, the activists of the Sixties saw their role as spreading a particular message. By contrast, the activists of today are more interested in displaying their own awareness – through wristbands and ribbons – rather than spreading it.

In an illuminating analysis of the rise of ‘ribbon culture’ – the trend for people to wear awareness ribbons and charity wristbands – Sarah Moore notes that many wristband and ribbon wearers have little specific knowledge of the charity, illness or issue symbolised by the ribbon they are wearing. She notes how, for some, the choice of which ribbon to wear was made on the basis of which one best matched the clothes they were wearing that day.

Moore goes on to note that wearing a ribbon or wristband was often done as a means of demonstrating that the wearer was in a state of self-awareness, as opposed to being aware of a specific cause or issue. In other words, it was an expression of the self, of the wearer’s moral status as ‘aware’, that was being presented for public consumption. Showing awareness, then, becomes an act of self-expression, deprived of a political outlook or frame of reference. This is particularly true of ribbons which promote health-related causes, which become a display of the individual’s awareness of health risks and their commitment to avoiding them. In this sense, the focus of awareness-raising becomes the survival of the self – a desire to prevent death rather than an affirmation of life and the political possibilities therein.

Far from being benign, the cult of awareness-raising has a clear and detrimental effect. In order to combat such a corrosive trend, and reinvigorate the public and political sphere, we must raise awareness of the dangers of awareness-raising.

Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University, England. His most recent book, Surviving Identity: Vulnerability and the Psychology of Recognition, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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Topics Politics


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