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Posted at 04:18 PM ET, 03/19/2012

From Kony 2012 and Jason Russell to George Clooney to Mike Daisey, the trouble with awareness


We see you. (BRENDAN MCDERMID - REUTERS)
“The real root of all evil,” wrote Mark Vonnegut, “is how hard it is to do good.”

 Hence the popularity of awareness-raising.

Awareness-raising is like doing good. Almost. And you get a bracelet.

What has not happened in the name of awareness!

George Clooney gets arrested to raise awareness of conflict in the Sudan.

Jason Russell of Kony 2012 makes a personal and elaborate 27-minute video, thousands of T-shirts and bracelets and posters.

Mike Daisey invents some new truths about Apple’s suppliers.

But it’s okay. They were raising awareness.

What is this awareness thing?

There’s helping. And then there’s raising awareness. Some would argue that they are so far from synonyms as to approach being antonyms. But those people have never read an essay by Jessica Alba on HuffingtonPost.com telling you why you must pass the Safe Chemicals Act.

It’s part of the increasingly prevalent notion that the cure for everything is celebrity. Have a disease? Call a celebrity. Getting bullied? Call a celebrity. Worried about genocide? Call a celebrity.

I wish this were in some way a parody or exaggeration of the situation, but it isn’t.

At one point in the Kony 2012 video, those 27 minutes of our collective lives that we will not get back, George Clooney appears to note that, “I want, I'd like indicted war criminals to enjoy the same level of celebrity as me. That seems fair. That’s our objective is . . . to just shine a light on it.” This is how we do things now.

Kony 2012, from first to last, has puzzled me. It’s a video about a cause that is sort of about the cause, but mostly it is a 27-minute exercise in self-indulgence and telling people how Important You Social Media Users Can Make Yourselves And Also Rihanna.

I am not saying that awareness, per se, is necessarily bad. But it is certainly easier than doing anything. If my foot is on fire, I would appreciate a campaign to raise my awareness that my foot is on fire. But there’s a difference between shouting, “Your foot is on fire!” and putting the fire out.

And most causes are not that simple.

Getting a message to millions of people is no mean feat. But, as in most games of telephone, it is impossible to transmit a message of any complexity through thousands of whispers.

And that can result in arrogant oversimplification, where a major bullet point of your cause is, “Get George Clooney involved.”

Much as it pains me to say so, there are few situations in this earth that actually require the involvement of George Clooney. Yet he’s everywhere. Like kudzu. Attractive kudzu, no doubt, but — what are we really accomplishing here?

I am the last person to talk about making real change. The extent of my involvement in Righting The World’s Wrongs is that I once bought a water bottle that inadvertently benefited tree frogs, I think, but only because I liked the color. So I am in no position to criticize people who are at least trying to make a difference. But I've always been suspicious of causes that require you to wear an armband, unless the cause is Supporting America’s Armband Manufacturers.

Contribute to a fund to buy more megaphones! All right. We’ll get the message loud and clear. But what does all this awareness amount to?

The goal of the campaign is to publicize the campaign, to loom in the skyline and be Much Talked About.

But then what?

Many point out in the wake of the Kony campaign’s viral success that by the time it took us to become aware of what he was doing, Kony had, well, if not stopped, then certainly diminished his efforts and moved to another country, and other, more pressing problems had taken his place.

And there’s a flip side.

This weekend, everyone was rocked by the news of another, shorter video of Kony 2012’s co-founder, Jason Russell, suffering a truly sad and mortifying nervous break.

We might have seen this coming. If your Web site uses the word “grand” anywhere in your biography (“grand storyteller and dreamer,” Mr. Russell?) you are doing something wrong. If you have so over-personalized the story your charity is trying to tell that it sinks or swims based on whether you succumb to “exhaustion,” you are doing something wrong.

Mike Daisey didn’t get arrested for his exaggerations, but he got redacted, which might be worse.

And both of their causes are suffering. That’s the trouble with making everyone aware of you. They stay aware. That big spotlight you all purchased together turns its withering beam back on you.

Awareness is the snake that eats itself.

There comes a point when you are not actually raising awareness of anything but your awareness campaign. Then woe to you when the trouble comes.

But it’s so hard to do good. And bracelets are so fetching.

By  |  04:18 PM ET, 03/19/2012

 
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