Friday, April 04, 2008
Over at Sp!ked is a book review of Ribbon Culture, in which British academic Sarah Moore takes a look at a cultural phenomenon I will doubtless become much more familiar with than I care to in a few months: the sanctimonious practice of wearing colored ribbons and rubber bands to display allegiance to various causes, most of them tainted to some extent by altruism and collectivism.
There is much I disagree with in this book review, much of it arising from the moral premise of altruism, held by author, ribbon-wearer, and reviewer alike. For example, the understandable desire to integrate such adornments into a pleasing overall fashion aesthetic and "commercialism" are saddled with the blame for the fact that ribbon-wearing is, on some levels, basically, a mindless fad.
And how mindless is the fad?
As there are clearly more causes than there are colours, a particular coloured ribbon could denote a number of different things that the wearer could be seen to be raising awareness of. Not that this potential confusion matters all that much: as Moore remarks, a few of her ribbon-wearing interviewees had to be reminded which causes their ribbons represented, while one teenage collector of wristbands proudly described to her "a gold anti-poverty band, a particularly rare wristband that he had given to his girlfriend as a present":I guess after I move to Boston, I can take some solace in the comic relief the question, "What does that ribbon stand for?" can afford me from time to time.
"When I asked him whether he thought it a little contradictory that an anti-poverty wristband should be gold [What? This is the one thing I can think of that a ribbon campaign has gotten right! --ed], he was genuinely surprised at the observation; absorbed in the task of locating rare bands, choosing which to display and which to give as gifts, he hadn’t given consideration to the meaning of the objects he collected." [minor edits, bold added]
But on a more serious note, one sees, without even having to read between the lines, that despite the many tangled errors in the piece, it makes a very good point.
In many respects, Ribbon Culture is an analysis of several apparently contradictory aspects of contemporary culture. The ribbon is, explains Moore, "both a kitsch fashion accessory, as well as an emblem that expresses empathy; it is a symbol that represents awareness, yet requires no knowledge of a cause; it appears to signal concern for others, but in fact prioritises self-expression". [minor edits]Add to this the countercultural origins of this fad, and two trenchant observations by Ayn Rand do much to explain what is really going on here.
First, it is not "commercialization" that is to blame for the superficiality of countercultural fads, but the superficiality of the counterculture itself. Ayn Rand, commenting on the counterculture in 1970, observed that not only it did not actually oppose the altruistic ideas of the culture it purported to rebel against, one of the forms of its false rebellion demonstrated that it was hardly substantive:
Avowed non-materialists whose only manifestation of rebellion and of individualism takes the material form of the clothes they wear, are a pretty ridiculous spectacle. Of any type of nonconformity, this is the easiest to practice, and the safest. ("Apollo and Dionysus" in The Objectivist, Jan. 1970, p.775)The fact that companies are trying to make money from this foolishness isn't new, either. The only thing, incidentally, that corporations can be blamed for here is aiding in their own self-destruction -- by helping leftists express their solidarity as they continue to attack capitalism.
Second, the fact that it is impossible to live a life of self-sacrifice consistently implies that altruism necessitates hypocrisy or death sooner or later. So life and moral rectitude are at loggerheads in altruism, and this sets up a sort of obscene type of "trade", whereby one's profession of support for giving the unearned to others in the material realm is exchanged for an unearned moral status in the spiritual realm. What these ribbons give their wearers is prestige:
The desire for the unearned has two aspects: the unearned in matter and the unearned in spirit. (By "spirit" I mean: man's consciousness.) These two aspects are necessarily interrelated, but a man's desire may be focused predominantly on one or the other. The desire for the unearned in spirit is the more destructive of the two and the more corrupt. It is a desire for unearned greatness; it is expressed (but not defined) by the foggy murk of the term "prestige." …What could be more unearned than moral credit obtained for doing little and thinking less about something?
Unearned greatness is so unreal, so neurotic a concept that the wretch who seeks it cannot identify it even to himself: to identify it, is to make it impossible. He needs the irrational, undefinable slogans of altruism and collectivism to give a semiplausible form to his nameless urge and anchor it to reality -- to support his own self-deception more than to deceive his victims. ("The Monument Builders," The Virtue of Selfishness, 88.)
In an important sense, it makes no difference what ribbon someone chooses to wear when the culture is saturated enough with altruism that wearing a ribbon is commonly regarded as a sign of good moral character. The message to anyone who might beg to differ with the idea that he exists to serve others, is this: "You will have to fight everyone. Give up or be alone."
Slamming the ribbon-wearers for not immolating themselves enough is just icing on the cake for the more committed altruists who set the terms of the public debate for the less independent-minded.