Thursday, 31 July 2008

Commodification of Causes

Today I spotted on the wrist of a colleague a band of the type usually associated with a fund-raising effort for a cause. Here's an example.By itself, this serves as yet another way to raise money for a cause (in this case, breast cancer research). It is only a token effort, based around the idea that if we each give $2 (oh mighty bank-breaking amount that it is) we can eventually raise enough money and awareness of the issue (to generate more research money).

One criticism of such efforts is that it is precisely a token effort. It doesn't require any commitment other than the approval of peers that you are wearing a worthy wristband. Your $2 went to a noble cause. And then, for an indefinite period, you wear the seal of Social Conscience on your wrist. Does it imply an ongoing commitment to raising funds for breast cancer research? No. Would you wear the wristband to a cocktail party? What if the colour clashes with your dress or your tie? Does the wristband remind you each day to give money or to ask other people for money to be passed on to the nominated research centres? Such a wristband, according to this criticism, is a temporary penance to alleviate the conscience and allow the individual to continue to live how they like.

The wristband I observed, however, had nothing to do with a noble cause or charity. It was a Batman - Dark Knight wristband. Should we be offended at this? No. Rather, we should see it as the revelation it is. It reveals to us the cheap, tawdry nature of the penance. If we are offended then it is because our consciences are only placated by the trivial amounts of money we contribute to worthy causes, in comparison to the flippant expenditure devoted to other capricious whims.

I don't write this to suggest that if you have $2 to spend you should spend it on the Dark Knight over Breast Cancer research. Conversely, I don't suggest that you should buy just the Breast Cancer research wristband. Rather, I write this to point out that if you are actually going to make a difference, then you should make a real difference. Commit to one cause over another ("Breast Cancer research is more important than the One Campaign!") Give more than $2. Give more often than today. Write letters to influential politicians and community leaders. Phone them. Berate them in public forums for not allocating enough money to the cause that has seized you. But do not absent-mindedly drop $2 for a wristband which represents a passing interest in a cause.

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