Friday, February 15, 2008

If you agree, don't say anything

In addition to being Black History Month, February, I hear, is American Heart Month. (Note that the American Heart Association has nobly if awkwardly attempted to recognize both at once.) All this week I've been working in a large office building with little TV screens in the elevators, and those screens have been advertising the company's various efforts to observe Heart Month. My favorite was the screen that said, "Wear red on February 14 to show your support for the fight against heart disease in women!" (Paraphrasing -- I know it didn't say "to show your support for heart disease in women," because as a copyeditor I am trained to seek and destroy all such errors). Every time I saw this, I wondered:
  • Is red clothing on Valentine's Day really unique enough to stand out, or make a difference? On any given day, a certain number of people will be wearing red just because it looks good. On Valentine's Day, an additional number will wear red to be festive (the same people who wear green on St. Patrick's Day and orange on Halloween, I imagine). So how can I tell which red-clothed people are intentionally participating in this company-wide show of concern/awareness/solidarity, and which are just wearing red for its own sake?

  • More importantly: even if I can assume that all red-wearing persons are participating in this campaign, how exactly is that supposed to make a difference? Who benefits from my wearing red? Are there women (and men) with heart problems, suffering silently, whose spirits would be buoyed by my red sweater? I guess maybe there are -- but it's not like cardiac problems are so stigmatized that we can't find a more overt and meaningful way to support the afflicted. Take up a collection for the American Heart Association. I'll give a dollar or two when I pay for my cafeteria lunch. But wearing something red and calling it a good deed feels false to me.

  • What if I don't wear red -- because I forget, or I'm unaware of the campaign, or I am aware but think it's silly? Does this mean I do not support women with heart disease? Will people think I'm (heh) heartless?
I did forget, as it happened. I wore a blue sweater. And when I got in the elevator and saw the "Wear red" reminder I thought, Uh-oh, I hope I don't look like a conscientious objector! But I didn't see much red when I looked around the office, nor was there a notable amount of red on the folks in the cafeteria. So either I'm not the only one who blew the whole thing off, or this company is seriously opposed to the treatment and detection of cardiac problems in women.

I was reminded of a sign I once saw on a college campus bulletin board. It noted that "Coming Out Day" was approaching, and said something like, "On [date], wear jeans and a white T-shirt to show your support for gay and lesbian students in our community." I'm all for showing support, but: jeans and a white T-shirt? On a college campus? Granted, this was about ten years ago, and the campus in question was a small Catholic college. So the desire for some level of discretion was understandable. But the proposed gesture seemed a little too generic to me, especially since the cause in question was a controversial one. Whether we like it or not, there are probably people in that community who aren't particularly interested in showing their support for Coming Out Day, and they're just as likely to wear jeans and a white T-shirt on that day as anyone else. Maybe that was the point -- to force them to go out of their way to wear something else? I know I'd be annoyed if there were a campaign at my school or in my office building or whatever that said, "Carry a purse on [date] to show your support for [cause to which I am opposed]!" Then I'd have to go out of my way not to carry a purse that day, all for a quasi-meaningless campaign that most people would probably ignore anyway. And I'm guessing most people on said campus just wore whatever they normally would on the appointed day, because they forgot or didn't know or didn't care, and the whole thing didn't have much of an impact. And it still makes more sense than this whole "wear red" thing, because if just one person struggling with issues of sexual identity saw a classmate in jeans and a white T-shirt and took strength from it, that's great, and it's probably no less great if the classmate in question wasn't actually out to support that person's struggle. But supporting heart disease treatment and prevention is hardly controversial, unless we're talking about a specific funding proposal or government initiative that would have repercussions beyond simply improving people's health. If it were controversial, it would be inappropriate to ask an entire company to do it. As it is, I think it goes without saying that I'm all for taking good care of women (and men) with heart problems, and I would be shocked to learn that anyone else who works in this building feels otherwise.

I'm wary, generally, of these Feel Good About Very Small Gesture promotions, the ones that invite us to pat ourselves on the back for doing something at no cost to ourselves that will have at best a miniscule impact on whatever cause we are supposedly supporting. "Buy this trendy product, and some tiny portion of the proceeds will go to charity!" Corporations donating to charity is a good thing, I guess, insofar as it's better than nothing. But on the individual level I think participating is only a very tiny bit better than "nothing," and it worries me to think I might start assuming otherwise. I don't want to find myself thinking I'm a charitable person because I bought this (Product) Red shirt from the Gap, and I buy lipstick that has a pink ribbon on it, and I have some Paul Newman salad dressing in my fridge, and all those companies say they give money to charity. Not that doing those things is bad, but I don't think that should be the extent of my charitable efforts. And it can be just as easy to think the other way -- I'm doing my part, because I don't support companies that give money to Planned Parenthood, or I do support companies that give money to Planned Parenthood, or whatever your favorite cause/soapbox might be. Basically, I don't want my efforts to help those in need to consist entirely of shopping-related decisions. Or of wearing something that makes me feel good but doesn't really help anyone else.

Wow, this post got a little out of hand. Mostly I just wanted to say: Ladies (and men) with heart problems, I support you, and I hope my failure to wear red yesterday didn't make you think otherwise. But I kind of doubt that you care what I wore. Maybe now I'll go make a donation -- a real, nothing-in-return donation -- just for good measure. Wait, does that mean the "wear red" thing worked after all? They tricked me!

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