It is an assumption widely made that increased awareness is beneficial.
Why would people, especially in the media, spend so much time talking about rape and sexual abuse if they did not believe that more awareness of these horrific actions would induce people to stop doing them?
At the cost of branding women potential or actual victims of rape and sexual abuse, feminist critics have been railing against these crimes… as though once people (mostly men, of course) understood how bad they were they would stop doing them.
One suspects that the endless discussion of female sexual vulnerability serves other purposes.
First, it allows women who have been raped or sexual abused to feel that they are not alone. It intends to help rape victims overcome their shame.
Second, it must be offering membership in the feminist sisterhood to those women who define themselves as victims of sexual abuse and who believe that only feminism can save and protect them—mostly by denouncing predatory and oppressive males.
Be that as it may, another salient question deserves to be addressed. Does all the talk about rape, child molestation and sexual abuse serve to deter those who would perpetrate these crimes? Or, does it aggravate the problem by, as a friend once told me, giving people ideas?
I emphasize, as I have in the past, the effect that the feminist discussion of sexual violence against women has had on women’s self-respect. Yet, as Jesse Singal points out in an excellent article in New York Magazine, many people believe that every just cause is advanced by increased awareness, what used to be called raised consciousness.
Think of the last time you were at a party and shocked your fellow guests with some dire statistic about the black-white incarceration divide or global warming or poverty in Brazil. What you felt at that moment probably wasn’t just empathy or sadness at the state of the world. No. If you’re honest with yourself, it mostly felt good to be the bearer of bad tidings. You were helping to raise awareness.
We’re living in something of a golden age of awareness-raising. Cigarette labels relay dire facts about the substances contained within. Billboards and PSAs and YouTube videos highlight the dangers of fat and bullying and texting while driving. Hashtag activism, the newest awareness-raising technique, abounds: After the La Isla Vista shootings, many women used the #YesAllWomen hashtag to relate their experiences with misogyny; and a couple months before that, #CancelColbert brought viral attention to some people’s anger with Stephen Colbert over what they saw as a racist joke. Never before has raising awareness about various dangers and struggles been such a visible part of everyday life and conversation.
In an age of “awareness-raising” we feel compelled to make people more conscious of their racism, their sexism, their homophobia, their transphobia, their Islamophobia, their lookism, their ageism… and so on.
These postmodern deadly sins supposedly infect the minds of most, if not all of us. The more we are aware of them the more we can purge them from our minds. So the masters of enhanced awareness believe.
Does it work? Does greater awareness solve the problems that it identifies and obsesses over?
Singal reports the bad news:
But the funny part about all of this awareness-raising is that it doesn’t accomplish all that much. The underlying assumption of so many attempts to influence people’s behavior — that they make bad choices because they lack the information to empower them to do otherwise — is, except in a few cases, false. And what’s worse, awareness-raising done in the wrong way can actually backfire, encouraging the negative activities in question. One of the favorite pastimes of a certain brand of concerned progressive, then, may be much more effective at making them feel good about themselves than actually improving the world in any substantive way.
“We’ve known for over 50 years that providing information alone to people does not change their behavior,” said Victor Strecher, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. It’s something of a consensus among people who study behavioral interventions ranging from health to bullying to crime: There are a lot of reasons why people do what they do, but awareness of their actions’ repercussions ranks pretty far down the list.
Oh, my! Singal’s last sentence deserves to be underscored. He does not quite say it this way, but empathy, the fellow feeling that is supposed to be a panacea for all forms of bad behavior and bad thoughts… is largely ineffective.
As for the power of information, it too has largely been proved to be ineffective:
The government’s billion-dollar National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, launched in 1998 with the goal of “Pursu[ing] a vigorous advertising and public communications program dealing with the dangers of drug use by youth,” was a complete flop — to the extent of affecting kids’ behavior, it made them more likely to smoke weed or view doing so as favorable, according to a 2004 report. One studyfound no correlation between diabetes’ sufferers level of knowledge of how to keep their condition in check and their health outcomes….Calorie counts — as straightforward an example of the knowledge-is-power ethos as there is — don’t appear to work. Presentations geared to middle-schoolers aimed at raising awareness about the dangers of bullying also tend to be ineffective, the psychologist Hannah Shepherd told me in an email late last year.
As if that were not bad enough, enhanced awareness sometimes produces more of the behavior it is denouncing.
In Singal’s words:
In one study famous to social scientists, visitors to Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park appeared to be more likely to steal petrified wood when presented with information about the high frequency of other park visitors’ pilching, because the information “normalise[d] undesirable conduct,” as the researchers put it — if everyone else is stealing wood, who cares if I take some, too?...
The authors of an International Rescue Committee literature review on preventing gender-based violence came to a similar conclusion: “Awareness campaigns [about gender-based violence] often propagate a descriptive norm that [violent] behavior is prevalent in the community, perhaps licensing violent behavior rather than activating behavior to reduce GBV,” they wrote. One of the co-authors, Laurie Ball Cooper, told me that the #YesAllWomen campaign could be an example of this. “If your focus is on how common the behavior is, you may actually reduce the likelihood of a bystander stepping in to to stop it, or you may reaffirm the perpetrator's belief that they can do whatever the undesirable behavior is without repercussion," she said.
Note the point well. The more we believe that bad behavior is normal the more likely we are to do it. If the culture declares that all men are sexist pigs and oppressive predators, a man who feels gentle affections toward women will naturally come to believe that he has failed to get in touch with his true maleness. When he mistreats a woman he will be able to tell himself that he is acting like a real man and is fulfilling feminist expectations.