November 17, 2015

SUSSER | Are We Aware?

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How far are we willing to go to become aware? What even is the goal of awareness? Is it to promote research for a given disease, to provide information about a previously obscure condition or to make sure we realize the implications of our comments and actions? Or can it take on a more destructive form, such as acts of terrorism intended to promote radical religious views? Recently, it seems like the idea of awareness has become so diluted that each new campaign is mere lip service for an issue. Increasingly, each online call to action seems more trivial than the last.

The more we formally present something as an awareness campaign, the less we seem to get out of it. Today, each issue-of-the-week necessitates some sort of formal recognition, whether it’s a Facebook filter or a ribbon. While some are truly worthwhile and contribute to a sense of community, such as Facebook’s French flag filter, other social media recognition movements seem superfluous.

In dedicating a “day” to a disease or social issue, we only temporarily understand the importance of such a problem. And we regularly forget about these issues once the designated awareness day has passed. This is especially the case in social media campaigns. After all, is there any difference between a Hepitisis C hashtag and #DonaldTrumpisaracist? Will one become etched into your long-term memory, or will both be relegated to the short term? Does it even make a difference if you became aware of an issue, and do nothing about it? There isn’t much research about the effectiveness of these awareness campaigns, yet we cherish them as if they were a national pastime. The most convincing finding to date is that an anti-smoking awareness campaign elicited five times the daily average hotline callers, which is promising, but not sufficient evidence.

Maybe these campaigns are just an excuse to justify the copious amount of time we spend on social media. It’s our way of being charitable in a network that we often feel guilty using. It could also be a legitimate way to take advantage of such a large community to promote certain causes. But it could be just another form of self-promotion, as often is the case in social media. Some friends of mine have recently criticized the French flag profile as a vehicle to reminisce about abroad experiences.

Recently, I came across an Instagram post of a man flaunting his cleanly shaven face, and proudly asserting that he “goes against the grain” in not conforming to the “no-shave November” trend. This seems kind of meta to me. Next thing you know, a guy will decide not to shave, and subsequently grow a beard, because if he did shave, he would seem non-conformist. I think Movember is a genius awareness campaign, in its ability to highlight vanity and certain aspects of human nature. It’s fun to grow facial hair. Especially as a college student, when many of your classmates may be incapable of such a physiological feat, it may even be a sign of maturity.

Yet, for each person who grows a mustache out of sincere commitment to men’s health, there are ten who blindly follow along with this fashion trend. You could argue that they may be ignorant, but they are still contributing to a greater cause. But is it enough to follow an awareness campaign because it is a social norm, or should there be greater expectations amongst those who promote such causes? What if the majority of those who supported the civil rights movement decided to get a soul patch, and that was it? Would that have been enough to challenge the Jim Crow South? There should be action behind commitment to a cause. The next time you see someone with a mustache, rather than commenting on their straggly facial hair, you should ask them how they’ve contributed to men’s health recently.

I wonder if there was another way to advocate for certain issues while legitimately rousing the concern of the public. This past summer I interned at the Partnership for Palliative Care, an organization that aimed to, by and large, promote awareness of the benefits of palliative care — the comprehensive management of serious illnesses — amongst patients.

Time will tell if these “awareness-centric” efforts will be successful. I suspect that they won’t, as sustainable awareness can only be effective if there is true demand for such information — this was the case for the AIDS and civil rights movements (which could be considered early campaigns of the sort). In the case of palliative care, individuals often do not recognize that they should be demanding this service, which makes advocacy and awareness tricky.

In the meantime, here’s to growing beards and pouring ice buckets on ourselves.

Philip Susser is a senior in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at [email protected]. An Ithaca State of Mind appears on alternate Wednesdays this semester.