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I don’t want to have my awareness raised, thanks
The 17th anniversary of the UN’s Zero Tolerance for FGM day was remembered on 6 Feb 2020. Many used it to host FGM ‘awareness-raising’ events and meetings. I spoke at one that swam against the tide by questioning whether Zero Tolerance was the best approach for ending FGM.
This piece from 2013 usefully critiques the concept and suggests that campaigns designed to raise our awareness are as much about advertising the status of the campaigners as they are about changing the outlook of a target audience.
Last Thursday was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Day. If you missed it, that’s probably because every week there are awareness days. We’re swamped by them. There are literally thousands of organisations whose mission is to raise our awareness. There is also a vast number of politicians, policymakers, experts, professionals, academics and earnest volunteers who are all devoted to the cause of raising awareness.
Those who set themselves up to raise the public’s awareness are not just providing information; they’re also making a statement about themselves, about who they are. They, unlike those who require their support, are aware. Awareness is presented as a state of being all of us should aspire to attain. In its common usage today, the term awareness resists any clear definitions. It is not simply about knowing or understanding. So AIDS awareness, for example, is not reducible to knowledge of that disease; rather, it implies the adoption of the values of safe sex and the lifestyle associated with its values. People who are aware are likely to demonstrate this fact publicly, by wearing the right-coloured ribbon or bracelet or T-shirt and using the appropriate language. To be aware is to be on the morally superior side: not eating meat; not practising unprotected sex; not smoking; exercising regularly; riding a bicycle; recycling… these are just some of the rituals that signal that a person is aware.
Campaigns designed to raise awareness are as much about advertising the status of the campaigners as they are about changing the outlook of a target audience. For example, advocates of breastfeeding produce literature that affirms the virtuous nature of their own lifestyles while also inviting those who have not seen the light to become aware. The very term ‘raising awareness’ involves drawing a distinction between those who are enlightened, who are aware of something, and those who are not. It draws attention to the fundamental contrast between those who know and those who are ignorant, between the morally superior and the morally inferior. So someone who allows his children to eat junk food is not only unaware and ignorant; he’s also morally questionable.
Awareness-raising campaigns impute to their advocates the values of intelligence, sensitivity, broadmindedness, sophistication and enlightenment. For that reason, the mission of raising awareness has become a key cultural resource for those who want to distinguish themselves from others. Awareness-raisers are invariably drawn towards inflating the behavioural and cultural distinctions between themselves and the rest of society; they are preoccupied with constructing a lifestyle that contrasts as sharply as possible to the lifestyles of their moral inferiors. What is really important about their lifestyles is not so much the values they exhort, but that they are different, in every detail, from the lives led by obese, junk-food eating, gas-guzzling, xenophobic and fundamentalist consumers of the tabloid press and junk culture.
Sociologically speaking, the act of raising awareness is really a claim for moral respect, and more importantly moral authority. The possession of awareness is a marker of superiority – and the absence of awareness is taken as a sign of inferiority. Those who refuse to ‘be aware’ are frequently morally condemned.
Outwardly, awareness-raisers eschew the language of morality. They insist that they’re just providing information to help people make an informed choice. They say they are not in the business of judging others; they only want to support ‘the vulnerable’. In truth, when it comes to preaching, these awareness entrepreneurs are in a class of their own. They may use the rhetoric of non-judgmentalism, but they have no inhibitions about telling parents how to bring up their children or instructing citizens on how to behave and what food we should consume.
Awareness-raisers don’t simply express contempt for the customs, attitudes and behaviours they wish to eliminate; they’re also contemptuous of the people who cleave to those customs and attitudes. The impulse of paternalism and snobbery lurks under the surface of the awareness-raising enterprise.
It’s far from evident who anointed these individuals as awareness-raisers. There’s now a veritable army of professionals and experts who assume they possess the authority to instruct people how to conduct their everyday affairs and personal relationships. The corollary of their expert knowledge is the public’s ignorance. Consequently, the relationship between these experts and ordinary people is not unlike that between an adult and a child. And since it is not a relationship of equals, the issues under consideration are not susceptible to any meaningful democratic dialogue. The phrase ‘they just don’t get it’ is used by awareness-raising types to express their frustration with the intellectual deficits of their target audience.
Whenever the phrase ‘they just don’t get it’ makes an appearance, it’s a signal for closing down discussion. What’s the point of arguing with climate sceptics who reject The Science? They just don’t get it! It’s pointless to debate with someone who questions awareness itself – that is, the awareness advocate’s version of reality. They just don’t get it!
The most important word in the phrase ‘they just don’t get it’ is ‘they’. This word highlights what is most significant about the practise of awareness-raising, which is the drawing of a moral contrast between them and us. Although the word ‘us’ is left unsaid, the sentence ‘they just don’t get it’ provides a signal through which those who claim to possess awareness can recognise one another. It implies a shared view of the world that is based on mutual comprehension and intelligence. It’s a highly charged phrase; it sends a message to allies which says that, unlike those incorrigible deadbeats, ‘we’ are really aware of the issues at stake.
The presumption of superiority by those blessed with the insight to ‘get it’ is intertwined with contempt for the ability of ordinary people to exercise moral independence. People cease to be regarded as responsible citizens, and instead they’re perceived as creatures in need of being saved from themselves. In the past, the idea that people needed to be saved was justified on religious or philosophical grounds. Today, however, the Elect have not been chosen by God; they express their ambitions through the language of expertise that draws on behaviour-management theories and psychobabble, rather than in Biblical language.
We don’t need a self-appointed clerisy deigning to make us more aware. What society really requires is a public sphere that takes its citizens seriously – a sphere in which there is open discussion among equal citizens, who are quite capable of achieving enlightenment and clarity without needing their hands held by awareness-raisers.
Author: Frank Furedi.
First published on Spiked-online 3 July 2013 and reproduced here with permission.
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