Can we change the world? As often as modern young adults are regarded as entertainment seekers, today’s 20- and 30-somethings are also driven by a laudable desire to see the world become a better place. The modern Awareness Raising that “white people like” derives from that desire, and gets some things right and others wrong.
For a case study in Awareness Raising, let’s imagine two YouTube videos out to change the world. One is a video of child laborers making rugs to be sold in America. Another is of a woman begin showered with catcalls while walking through a city. Such things are common enough that, without a specific example, we can easily imagine both of them gaining viral status on YouTube and making the rounds on Facebook.
Here is the biography of the first video: someone thinks it is awful that child laborers are being forced to work in slavery to make rugs for the homes of unsuspecting Americans. The average American does not want something made by slave labor, particularly child labor, so when the video circulates, those who see it write letters to the company and messages to the each other and probably some letters to senators. Since the video goes viral, even the people who don’t see it know someone who did, so they hear that this rug company is using child labor. The rug company, worried about the bad publicity, makes a public announcement that they will be verifying their rug sources from now on to avoid slave labor, and they contract with an outside company to investigate their factories in a few months to ensure that all of their rugs are fair trade. Other rug companies see the pressure put on the first company, and they investigate their own producers so that they can put the “Fair Trade” sticker on their rugs.
Now, let’s look at the biography of the second meme, the one of the woman harassed by catcalls. This will circulate among a large number of people. Some of them will be feminists, male and female, who grow righteously indignant about the savage treatment of the woman. A few will be men who think to themselves, “I never realized how much unwanted attention women get simply walking around.” If it reaches the perpetrators of the catcalls, they will most likely high-five the men around them, excited that they made it onto YouTube for their demonstrations of masculinity (as they perceive it). If anyone writes to their senators, the senators will have nothing to do to help; how do you eradicate boorishness at the state level? The people watching the video who agree with it will become angrier than they were before; the people watching the video who disagree will continue to do so. The only group that will experience any change is the unknowing but sympathetic men who were not perpetrating the catcalls to begin with. In short, there will be no less harassment because of this video.
Why is the first meme able to bring about change while the second is not? Both of the videos demonstrate aspects of an unjust, cruel world. Both show man-made evil within our own country; this isn’t the comparison of a natural disaster with a culture of slavery, this is simply people being bad people. But, the first meme created a better world and the second didn’t.
For whatever reason (perhaps our shrill and constant campaigns of Awareness Raising) our generation is uniquely unable to differentiate between bad things that we can change and bad things that we cannot. We are rightly concerned by the existence of evil and injustice, and the more of such things show up on our Facebook news feed, the greater our concern becomes. However, our sphere of influence is only marginally increased by Facebook. This is the great difference between the videos: as consumers, we have influence on companies. As people who don’t harass women or associate with those who do, we have no influence on harassment.
The optimistic but ill-grounded belief that we can educate the evil right out of our society pumps enthusiasm and energy into the Awareness Raising impulse. When we come across a sordid tale, we assume that the virtuous response is to pass it along. If everyone knows about it, it will be less likely to continue. In some cases, this is true. In others, it is not. And, in most cases, a moment’s reflection would do everything needed to distinguish the two.
By widening the sphere of awareness without widening the sphere of influence, Awareness Raising positions its adherents for educated despair rather than the hoped-for, well-read utopia. In a world where awareness and concern have run wildly beyond the barriers of our individual influence, two good options remain for those who wish to change the world: they may work on likewise widening their sphere of influence, or they may focus their time and awareness on the sphere of influence they have, now. One thing is certain. As long as the sphere of concern maintains the majority of our focus, there will be no world-changing.
Image from Arts Council Norway