Friday, July 18, 2008
Reflections on Awareness
Saw a tour bus headed to an idp camp the other day. Got mad and wrote this.
There is an activity that caring, conscience but sometimes ignorant cats have been known to engage in. It is called “raising awareness.” Raising awareness, insofar as ignorance is always bad, is a good thing. But it is not unconditionally good. There are many difficulties with the pop phenomenon of awareness. The first is the commodification of awareness, which strikes me as the unfortunate failure that comes with success. Then there is the periphery of horror; the gap in indispensable knowledge that many campaigns for raising awareness unwittingly create. It is a horror because these crucial dark spaces often damage the thing that people are out to help. This particular problem encompasses even the methods by which people try to raise awareness. Like going on a bus tour of an IDP Camp.
I know it is cool to let cats know that you Live Strong! or to rock pink ribbons that show your love of healthy boobs. But some breast cancer officials say that breast cancer researchers don’t need pink ribbons. People know about breast cancer. They know more about it than they do lung cancer, which kills more women per year. They don’t need walks for breast cancer, much of the proceeds of which underwrite the walking event itself. What breast cancer researchers need is checks. But cats who rock lab research are a special case of cool, since the methodology is (mostly) laid out. They know what they need to do. The rules of the natural sciences keep them safe, more or less. But in the case of cats who are on the struggle for skills or snacks it is not as easy as you rolling up with supplies and passing those shits out. The number of complications are unfathomable. And it is ignorance of just this fact, the naive belief that care and cash will make everything better that just royally fucks shit up. Tell you a story. Let’s see if you can tell how it ends.
A while back, cats figured that HIV infected mothers in Africa (because Africa is just one big mysterious place and not a bunch of countries that were crudely and aggressively thrown together by Europeans with no consideration to tribal location, migration, or rivalry) were passing on HIV through breast feeding. So then people were like, mobilize! Save Africa! And started passing out substitute breast juice. But cats in the major affected area didn’t really have clean drinking water to mix this new baby drink into. So then their babies just started dying straight up. The aid program made shit worse because it missed a crucial detail about the environment in which it was trying to spread love. You see what I mean about that lacuna, about that gap in awareness? That’s the periphery of horror. These cats were just aware enough to accelerate a process of death in the name of their care.
Already I can hear a self righteously dissonant voice say: “At least they’re trying to help!” This refrain is as familiar as it is ridiculous. I suppose that implicit in this locution is the moral condemnation of a populace that is very often not moved to caring action. In this manner, it is often uttered as a self reprimand that deifies the seemingly awesome actions of others as it defends against critical attacks upon them. Thing is, this criticism, properly applied, is also a way of helping. People who want to “help” need to know above all how easily they can fuck things up. In addition, it may in fact be the case that those ethereal aid workers you love so much aren’t helping at all and it is just your ‘they can do no wrong’ defense that keeps the planet blind to the style. The bottom line here is that we should be critical of everything. Of efforts to help, of our own need to defend, of our own motivations, everything. If we are going to criticize senate bills that claim to help Americans, then we should criticize the fuck out of Westerners who want to roll up into foreign lands bearing gifts. We should criticize the fuck out of natives in foreign lands who welcome this help with uncritically open arms. And they should listen intently.
And please give up this notion that you are good on your helping mission because your guide or fellow missionary is one of the natives. This beef I am describing is not about race or ethnicity; it is about ideology. When a woman told me one day that her ex-boyfriend, “who is darker than you, Chioke,” didn’t have a major problem with cats flying the Confederate battle flag, it struck me that she thought his claim had equal or greater weight than my own stance for no other reason than his being black like me. Yeah. It doesn’t work like that. Anybody can hold a damaging or ignorant interpretation. Anybody can fail to establish context or locate their place in the grand scheme. And above all, anybody can be made to sell out. Remember what Kunta Kinte said…
So yeah. Don’t roll up in Africa with no knowledge of colonialism. Don’t think that the fact that all of these African natives have European or straight up American names is cool. Because that shit is problematic. Don’t act like the genocide in Rwanda was in no way exacerbated by colonial and missionary power moves that arbitrarily divided ethnic groups according to property ownership. Because that would be a misattribution of historical causes. Don’t neglect the mountain of anthropological literature on the problems of representation and cultural contact in favor of a late night infomercial about naked starving kids. Because that would be letting your suspect emotional response win out over your rationality. You, like everybody else in the world, are attached to a historical style that conditions your actions even when you are ignorant of it. Come on. Google that shit.
Don’t raise awareness without raising history and its problems. That sediment is deep and it is covered over by good intentions and the dirty, fly-covered faces of children.