Friday, January 22, 2010

Raising Awareness

Several years ago, when I was living in a college dorm, I had a buddy down the hall, a first-generation Californian, who was very interested in the political situation in his parents' native country of Iran. One day he put up a poster on his door of a recently incarcarated Iranian political prisoner. I asked him about the poster, he told me the sad story behind it, and then I asked him what he was hoping to accomplish. He said his goal was to "raise awareness." I told him that thanks to him, I was aware. What should I do now? He told me that I could help by making other people aware. So I knocked on the door of another guy in the hall and told him about the political prisoner. This guy listened politely, though with a rather confused look on his face, and then I thanked him for his time and went on my way. I had apparently done my part to fight injustice.

But of course I didn't actually accomplish anything. And as I wrote about two and a half years ago, I don't think Al Gore or Bob Geldof succeeded in solving problems with last decade's "Live 8" and "Live Earth" concerts, which were staged in order to "raise awareness." And likewise, I don't think anyone who posted their bra color on facebook last week did anything to disrupt the ravages of breast cancer.

As I writing teacher, I preach to my students the term "concreteness." This is another way of trying to instill the old adage to "show don't tell." I urge them to give examples to back up their statements, and I especially encourage the use of stories (and I hope I successfully followed my own advice in the opening paragraph of this very post).

When trying to effect positive change, concreteness matters. The more specific you can be about how people can help others (or themselves), the more likely they will be persuaded to take action. At the risk of overdoing Malcolm Gladwell citations, I feel compelled to take note of his description of "stickiness" in The Tipping Point. He described a series of 1960s-era tests conducted in order to convince college students to get tetanus shots. Education about the benefits and dangers of tetanus didn't work. Scare tactics, such as a pamphlet showing graphic treatment of the disease, also failed to get results. But when students were additionally given a map of the campus health center and a list of times when the shots would be administered, participation went up from 3% to 28%.

By all accounts, there has been an outpouring of generosity to aid in the Haitian relief effort. I think the idea to have people donate money by texting the word "Haiti" is ingenious, precisely for the reasons outlined above. It gives many people a concrete, tangible task, which fits in with existing routines. But I also wonder if even more money could be raised if more time were spent discussing how specifically it will be spent. If MTV can do this, there is no reason other media outlets can't follow suit.

As a child of the 1980s, I grew up inundated by "messages." Commercial breaks during Saturday morning cartoons were full of "The More You Know" or "One to Grow On" PSAs and many cartoons ended with a short segment in which one of the characters delivered a homily. This is not to mention that the plots themselves (in popular sitcoms as well as cartoons) often revolved around a lesson. Yet for all of the preaching about drugs, the environment, homelessness, sexual abuse, smoking, peer pressure, shoplifting, and exercise, the lessons that I think were most effective revolved around fire safety. I'm not one for camping, but thanks to Smokey the Bear, I am confident that even if I were to venture out into the woods, I will never start a forest fire. If I ever catch on fire (and I won't because I don't play with matches), I know to "stop, drop, and roll." And I know to check the batteries in my smoke alarms during the daylight savings time changes. Partly because of the already concrete nature of the messages, but also because of the saviness of the messengers, the fire safety lessons resonated with me then and even now.

If nothing else, I hope this blog post helps to raise awareness of the importance of doing more than simply raising awareness.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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10:19 AM  
Blogger The Hungary Traveler said...

This is hardcore, classic Azor!

And excellent advice. The headmistress of my Ghanaian school spends so much time during so-called "emergency staff meetings" pleading with the teachers to be "more professional" and to be "on the lookout" for people on campus who do not belong here. But as a foreigner, I have no clue what to do if I see an unknown person on campus, and I don't know what "professional" means in Ghanaian teaching culture. Some concrete suggestions would help.

9:24 AM  

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