Mimetic Theory and Awareness

I’m not making an argument for or against awareness campaigns in general, though some of the links below are. Very likely, awareness campaigns have funneled money that would not otherwise have been spent this way towards better patient care, more humane animal treatment, appropriate diagnostic tests for people who need them but can’t afford them, and research towards prevention, better treatment, a cure, some kind of useful solution or mitigation for the issue of concern, whatever it is. Some have probably, at least in their early days, made people more aware of diseases and social and environmental problems than they would have been, and I don’t doubt that that awareness has saved some lives and made some lives better.

The purpose of this loosely constructed essay post is to suggest that awareness campaigns — or some aspects of some of them — can be a justification for materialism, cloaked in altruism, because we’re mimetic creatures. We copy each other’s desires, we like to acquire what our models desire and own, and we compete for status with each other, and all of that makes awareness campaigns work. It also makes them concentrated locations for us to broadcast our identities, signal and seek status, unify with those we identify with and judge as bad those we don’t, and justify our actions as helpful, whether they are or not. Others have noticed the same thing and expressed it better than I.

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The first article isn’t about awareness campaigns but I think it’s related because it’s about people buying things that are suggested by high-status models, as a way of doing good works and creating community:

Oprah: Spreading Love or Money? by Joel Hodge at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (10 Dec 2010): This essay’s central theme is that Oprah Winfrey and the modeling she offers a kind of cultural religion of the modern West, one that we can feel good about because it seems to offer a vision of egalitarianism and altruism, while it actually celebrates and derives from materialism:

“She proclaims a capitalist mantra that one can achieve anything with hard work. She is a modern celebrity built by the dominant media form – TV – and proclaims a soft capitalist gospel. Oprah represents the soft side of the capitalism – the celebrity whom we all look up to and model ourselves on; the one who personifies the success of the ordinary (middle class) person;  who takes us away from the rough edge of capitalism with glamour, (occasional) altruism and the soft-sell. Oprah is part of a system to which we can all contribute – a cult of celebrity that seeks to build a kind of community. There is a good intention here to fulfil a deep yearning for community and for good models to look up to.”

But, Hodge says, what we end up creating with “celebrity capitalism” is not real community but “a proxy for religion,” complete with “transcendent aura” and audience worship, all amplified by the media. “The Oprah cult,” as he calls it,  “represents the soft, middle-class capitalism that placates people  through television and celebrity while selling its wares.”

I’m ambivalent about Oprah. What I notice, and one reason I stopped watching the show and getting the magazine,  is that she seems to spend a lot of time directly and indirectly selling products she likes. There is an “O List” of things she likes in each magazine (with price and source so you can buy it, too), plus a big O List at Christmas,and there’s an Oprah Store, where you can even buy her quotes.

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I am anti-awareness and you should be too at Meteuphoric (28 Feb 2011): Katja Grace argues that cause awareness is overdone, for these reasons:

1. “People like others to know about their identities. And raising awareness is perfect for this.” In fact, you can display your identity prominently while “making this an unintended side effect of costly altruism for the cause rather than purposeful self advertisement.”
2. Some causes divide people into good and bad,with blame for the bad ones and not a lot of analysis ofttimes of what contributes to behaviour and how to work within complex systems to solve problems. Her example here is of vegetarians looking down on meat-eaters as sinners, when there are actually complex systems at work that could be examined and in doing so create  some common ground and solutions to shared, overarching problems.
3. “Raising awareness is specifically designed to be visible, so it is intrinsically especially likely to spread among creatures who copy one another.” But if all we do is in the public sphere is “raise awareness,” then people will copy actions like marching or having stickers or selling things, rather than actually solving a problem or improving a situation, because those are the actions they see the most.

And, cause awareness often seems to involve buying things, which, as Stuff White People Like notes (via Katja’s post), is what most people like to do anyway — “expensive dinners, parties, marathons, selling t-shirts, fashion shows, concerts, eating at restaurants and [wearing] bracelets” — while feeling really good and generous about doing it. This echoes the Oprah essay:  we can feel good and worthy because we are spending money to make things better for others.  That’s appealing.

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Pink Politics at Overcoming Bias (24 Oct 2010): Robin Hanson writes about awareness campaigns, too, specifically breast cancer awareness (it was October).

He says that awareness “translates mostly into social pressure to get other folks to show pink, buying pink products, wearing pink clothes, etc. Much of the money donated goes not to tests or research but to paying celebrities to make more publicity.  Now this social pressure couldn’t really work if it weren’t pretty widely known that showing pink is associated with the breast cancer, which seems at odds with the claim that there is a lack of awareness of breast cancer.”

Why, Hanson wonders, is breast cancer awareness such a big deal when, e.g., exercise awareness is not? He argues that “lack of exercise causes far more harm than breast cancer, and there must also remain a few folks who are not fully aware of this. Yet there would be very little interest in a color campaign for exercise awareness.”

His conclusion is that medical campaigns — at least some of them — are a way to broadcast one’s identity with little risk of rejection. The breast cancer campaign e.g., offers “a way for folks to be indirectly political; one can seem pro-women, and insinuate that others are anti-women, while only ever explicitly talking about health and medicine. AIDS awareness gets a similar political punch; one can talk only health, yet insinuate that others are anti-gay. Much of medicine is not about health, but about showing that you care, in this case caring about the right political groups.”

In the comments, people objected to Hanson’s suggestion that people who work on medical awareness campaigns are being political, because many are, anecdotally, “non-political.” To me, political refers to the polloi, that is, the society of people broadly, and I read Hanson’s argument, perhaps with a mimetic theory lens, to say that these campaigns allow us to talk about health and medicine as a way to broadcast indirectly — i.e., with less risk of conflict — which groups of people we identify with, or, in some cases, want to seem (to ourselves and to others) to identify most with, and in some cases, which groups we want to distance ourselves from because we view them as ‘other.’

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Even Dr. Susan Love says that National Breast Cancer Awareness Month “was helpful when it was first established. But at this point I believe it has outlived its usefulness. For one thing, how much more ‘aware’ do we think women can be?”

She notes that awareness — and the point of this campaign is to make women aware that early detection via yearly mammograms will  save lives — is not actually reducing breast cancer deaths much at all (about 2% per year since 1990), because cancers, as it turns out, grow at vastly different rates in vastly different ways; but the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancers don’t account for these differences, with some women getting treatment that will never help them and some getting treatment they would never have needed. Love’s emphasis now is on preventing cancer in the first place, which means understanding the causes, the how and why of cancer growth. I guess we could be aware of that.

Obviously, Love’s concerns don’t speak to the mimetic theory aspects of awareness campaign (status, identity, in-group/out-group, good/bad judgments, consuming) except perhaps by demonstrating the way one modelled behaviour is repeated and repeated (by women, doctors, the media) without much basis, on the hope that it will help — and because it actually does help some women (primarily those with “indolent” cancers), and we all want to be like them, the survivors. Breast cancer runs in my family and I know I sure do. I’m just not convinced that early detection is the route.

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Still on the topic of breast cancer campaigns, Breast Cancer Action seems a bit wary of  the trend in recent years to buy things to support breast cancer advocacy, awareness, research and care; they have a campaign of their own, called Think Before You Pink, warning against pinkwashing, which is when a company says they care “about breast cancer by promoting a pink ribboned product, but manufactures products that are linked to the disease,” such as “cosmetics companies whose products contain chemicals linked to breast cancer.” Or the company may donate a tiny percentage of a sales price to the cause, or make customers jump through hoops to effect the donation. With Lean Cuisine, for example, supporters not only have to buy the frozen meals but also go online to buy a pink tote bag before any money will be donated. Sometimes money is donated to “fund the same studies that have been ongoing for decades,” which really aren’t needed in quantity anymore.

These awareness campaigns are a way for companies to broadcast their identities, too, to show us how compassionate, progressive, and caring they are. They not only have the products we want, they also have our values and ideals. We can identify with them. We can Facebook “like” them, because they’re “like” us, they validate us.

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Finally, some other awareness campaigns, including some you may have missed, courtesy Google:

Could I Have Lupus? National Awareness Campaign

National FFV Awareness Campaign — I guessed FFV, if not “First Families of Virginia,” was some kind of virus but actually it’s “Flex-Fuel Vehicle”

National Sleep Awareness Week

Caffeine Awareness Association

Silent No More Awareness Campaign (Resources for Help After Abortion)

National Cybersecurity Awareness Campaign

The Marine Mammal Center Awareness Campaigns

National Stalking Awareness Month

National Handwashing Awareness Week

National Infertility Awareness Week

National Adoption Awareness Month

Prematurity Awareness Month (March of Dimes)

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week

HIV/AIDS Awareness Days

National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

National Latino AIDS Awareness Day

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Glaucoma Awareness Month

Autism Awareness Campaign UK

National Epilepsy Awareness Month

The National Mental Health Awareness Campaign

CFS Awareness Campaign – Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

National Arts Education Public Awareness Campaign

The Heart Truth: A National Awareness Campaign for Women about Heart Disease

National Stroke Awareness Month

Audiology Awareness Campaign

Anesthesia Awareness Campaign

Celiac Disease Awareness Campaign

California Water Awareness Campaign

Arthritis Awareness Campaign: ‘On Course with Phil’

National Awareness Campaign for Upper Cervical Care

Idaho Weed Awareness Campaign

Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawai`i

and so many more, many of which I was not aware of.

Update: Et tu, slimy snot otter?

“Despite various PR hurdles … the zoo’s nonprofit arm is gamely trying to popularize the creature. In the works is an ambitious marketing campaign that could ultimately involve not just T-shirts and educational posters, but also sock puppets and Christmas ornaments.”

Update 2: Things you can buy to help Japan.

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One thought on “Mimetic Theory and Awareness

  1. Very interesting! Relates to a subject matters I’ve been thinking about quite abit lately (self help and mimesis and the notion of self improvement in general…I am going to read that earlier post later today—gotta go to work in a bit:))

    Your post reminds me of article I read last week

    http://www.fastcodesign.com//1663419/is-this-poster-to-aid-japans-tsunami-victims-a-crime-against-design#comments

    Until now I had never questioned any of this…I have however had an aversion to the products of these campaigns (the pink ribbon pins or RED tshirts) thinking it was just my rebellious nature…very illuminating.

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