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The Cost of Awareness

So here’s what I’m thinking. America’s got too many czars now. Why in the world did we pick the term “czar?” Could you think of anything more ominous, scary, and big-governmental? It’s a term we’ve picked to describe government officials “waging war” with the power of a government department against some thing. I was surprised to find out that we’ve had them since Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency, but the title pretty much died out until George W. Now we have over thirty.

There’s the more common auto czar, drug czar, and energy czar. But we have some truly crazy ones, including a mine safety czar, Asian carp czar, and appointed by George W., a democracy czar. What could possibly be in this job description? Couldn’t we have picked something more agreeable than “czar,” after spending so much time fighting czars, caesars and kaisers? Even something more American would suit us, like CEO or chairman. Maybe something with a western tinge, like ranger. I know I’d feel better with a terrorism marshall than a czar.

Know what else we’ve got too many of? We also have too many awareness ribbons, or too many associated ribbon meanings. That simple yellow ribbon you wear for your father/mother/brother/sister/cousin in the war-torn desert could also stand for bone cancer, suicide awareness, bladder cancer, or genocide awareness. Those are only about half of the causes associated with that same yellow ribbon. Beyond that there are about 12 more colors, and creative iterations like puzzle pieces for autism, or speckled black for toxic mold (this one isn’t seemingly official, but I’ve seen several disparate references. Like a secret underground ribbon. Not unlike mold…) This is too much. Maybe we should get an awareness czar.

Before you come after me with pitchforks, I have a point here. It’s not that awareness, in and of itself is bad. It’s that we need something more. Awareness, by its lonesome, can be detrimental to the cause it supposedly supports.

Remember those Facebook campaigns earlier this year, with the “I like it on the couch/table/chair/desk/scooter” statuses? Or the year before with the different seemingly random colors? As an act of awareness, it probably did pretty well for breast cancer (which is what it was supporting, in case you hadn’t yet caught on). Here’s the catch – what did it actually do in terms of support for breast cancer? The Concordian’s own Nick Jenson has beaten me to the punch with this argument (see his article in the November 5th issue). Yet we still need to think about it because these keep popping up. Just posting a status, while it may raise “awareness”, does little for the cause – no money is made via the post, and you aren’t necessarily participating in any other activity. Some of the same is also happening with the different ribbon or wristbands – once produced solely by foundations like the Livestrong wristband where proceeds went directly to a cause, now more often they are being made by third party companies. You can buy your “Support our Troops” ribbon at the grocery store, but no actual money is raised for the troops you’re supposedly supporting.

Here’s the worst part guys and gals. It’s been suggested that these acts of false participation will actually decrease participation in truly beneficial causes. By taking in part in mass status postage or tying a ribbon to their car antenna, people feel that they have helped in some way (whether or not that is true). Since they feel that they’ve taken part, they become less likely to actively participate in other, more beneficial activities. As a result, surfing Facebook takes the place of running in a marathon, going to a fundraiser, or any other direct donation to the cause or a foundation. Awareness results in an actual decrease in action. Awareness might be nice and good, but it’s action that actually moves us forward. I admire the creativity of getting millions easily involved through social networking, but the hardest part will be to move past simple participation.
The real challenge is to find out how to capitalize on these new recruits and connect them personally to advances so they go from spreading the word to joining the work.
Awareness will only get us so far, and there are only so many ribbon colors in the rainbow to choose from (and rainbow’s already been taken). There are causes such as remembering fallen soldiers where awareness is about all we can do, and partake in the remembrance. Yet the majority of modern causes are here, present tense, and we need to actively partake in their completion.

Are you convinced? Or do I need to call in the Awareness Czar?

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