Authenticity   /   Fall 2021   /    Notes & Comments

Awareness Daze

The moral minefield of awareness campaigns.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy

EyeEm/Alamy Stock Photos.

Nigerian novelist and Beyoncé-endorsed feminist icon Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie posted a much-discussed essay, “It Is Obscene: A True Reflection in Three Parts,” to her website, Chimamanda.com, on June 15, 2021. Part passionate defense of free speech, part get-off-my-lawn screed, it won her new admirers in some circles but proved greatly disappointing to people in others. Among the disappointed was Vox writer Aja Romano. In an article for Vox posted three days later, “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Cancel Culture Screed Is a Dangerous Distraction,” Romano didn’t just insinuate that Adichie was a bigot (for having said “trans women are trans women,” a statement that can be interpreted as a rejection of the view that trans women are women), but that there was something suspect about Adichie expressing any views on the subject during the month of June: “Many observers have questioned her motives in choosing to publish it during Pride Month. That timing,” Romano explained, “along with the letter’s tone, has made Adichie’s post come off as a direct attack against the individual students the essay refers to, even if she does not name them.”

Romano didn’t cite any of the “many observers” who had this response, leaving us to infer that “many observers” was a veiled royal we. (The Vox reporter did, however, identify the former students by name, a curious choice if the aim of the article was to protect the students from “direct attack.”) There was nothing mysterious about what prompted Adichie’s essay: Two of her former writing students had denounced her on social media as a transphobe, all the while attempting to profit by highlighting their connection with her. While there are arguably greater tragedies in the world than A-list novelists encountering sycophantic hypocrites and online haters, it is understandable that Adichie was annoyed, though quite a stretch to think she withheld her annoyance until Pride Month.

June, however, was not the only time of the year when Adichie became insufficiently sensitive, according to Romano, who wrote in the same Vox piece that “in November 2020—during Transgender Awareness Week—The Guardian published an interview with Adichie in which she articulated her dislike of cancel culture.” If pointing out the Pride Month connection was shaky, Romano comes close to conspiracy thinking in suggesting that The Guardian published the interview as a comment on Transgender Awareness Week or that Adichie or her interviewer even knew that such a week existed.

Romano’s choice to call out an African feminist novelist for insufficient sensitivity is par for the current culture-wars course, a telling instance of the progressive left eating its own. Most striking, though, is Romano’s fixation on the timing of the putative offense-giving. What might normally be assessed as a lesser act of insensitivity toward a vulnerable demographic—whether defined by gender, ethnicity, or disability—becomes notably egregious and even sinister on days (or weeks, or months) dedicated to observing a particular vulnerable group.

Consider David Itzkoff’s New York Times profile of the comedian and filmmaker Ilana Glazer. Itzkoff reported that Glazer’s new movie, False Positive, was being released in June partly because “a release date for the movie in April put it too close to National Infertility Awareness Week.” From the context, it is clear that this was no inference drawn from Itzkoff’s own awareness-week awareness. Rather, he is recounting what he learned from Glazer about marketing decisions she herself had made. It would have been in poor taste, in her view, to release a horror movie about infertility during Infertility Awareness Week.

But…would it? Who are the imagined offended in this scenario? As with Transgender Awareness Week, common sense would suggest that the vast majority of people with infertility do not know that such a week exists—or that knowing so would cause one to care whether an infertility-themed thriller was being released during or around it.

Poor taste comes into play here, particularly when someone is aware of an awareness event and uses it to prompt a discussion of the topic at hand. Think of New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang using the hashtag #NationalPetsDay in a weirdly lighthearted tweet about having to give up his dog, Grizzly, for adoption because Yang’s oldest son had become allergic to the dog. In this case, the strangeness came not from Yang’s happening to tweet about dog abandonment on National Pets Day—of all days!—but from his conscious decision to use that day as the occasion to do so.

The efficacy of awareness campaigns in addressing systemic problems is as dubious as our current fixation with self-awareness, or at least the convincing performance thereof. This is most apparent when social justice is defined as properly acknowledging one’s privilege, rather than as working in some tangible way to improve matters. Awareness is not the opposite of ignorance. Rather, it’s a stand-in for performative gestures of all kinds.

Awareness weeks operate in similar fashion, but go further. It’s not enough to be aware of this or that issue. One must be aware that the issue is having an awareness week and alter one’s behavior accordingly. But how?

The closest analogy would be to something like Mother’s Day. Mildly inconsiderate behavior by a child or partner that might get overlooked any other day of the year (except a birthday) takes on different emotional significance the second Sunday in May. It’s one thing to leave a stack of dirty dishes in the kitchen, but to do so on Mother’s Day is a statement.

But a mother will, as a rule, know it’s Mother’s Day. Awareness weeks, ironically, pass mostly unremarked. To the extent they’re noticed at all, they serve merely to create a new reason for people to walk on eggshells. They are like Hallmark-invented holidays, except that instead of being a long game to sell greeting cards, they are about creating new ways to slip up and offend. Or, rather, to offend theoretically, since—and I cannot insist on this enough—these weeks are, at most, only barely recognized occasions. Yet they are everywhere. The US Postal Service has a “Dog Bite Awareness Week,” during which we are enjoined to be aware that dogs conflate mail delivery with home invasion. On a webpage titled “List of Awareness Days,” University College London thoughtfully tells the UCL community of dozens of awareness days, weeks, and months, including “No Smoking Day,” apparently first observed on Ash Wednesday 1984.

The rise of the awareness week concept seems to support the hypothesis that “wokeness” (a supercharged variant, after all, of awareness) is a new secular religion. The question is whether widespread ignorance of the new religion’s holidays weakens the case. After all, religions do tend to keep their adherents posted on days of observance. Then again, maybe the general obliviousness is the point. What could better befit a moment characterized by purity politics and cancellations over inadvertent slip-ups than a vast new minefield seeded with hundreds of morally charged explosive devices?