Of Ribbons and Wristbands

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":

"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]
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.

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." …

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.)
What could be more unearned than moral credit obtained for doing little and thinking less about something?

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.

-- CAV


C. August said...

What a great post. I had always scorned the plethora of ribbons and wristbands, but hadn't delved deeper. Now I can justify my scorn from fundamental principles!

I don't have anything more to add than that... except I have a small gift for you over on my blog. Enjoy!

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for the gift -- I guess!

Nicholas Provenzo said...

Speaking of counterfeit individualism expressed in dress, there once was this high school kid who lived near me who flirted with the Goth thing, parading about town as a member of the cultural undead. The day after the Columbine massacre, this kid showed up to his school bus stop in his best long black leather trench coat and black book get-up (if you remember, the boys behind the massacre referred to themselves as "the trench coat mafia).

I remember thinking to myself at the time that if he wasn't such an idiot, I'd almost say the kid has nuts. What struck me more though was the simple fact that a significant portion of this kid's being was dedicated to establishing that he was a cultural outlier in a superficial and meaningless way. What the $#%^& goes on in our schools that such a display is a something a young person would invest himself in?

Of course, we all know the answer, but it doesn't make that answer any easier to swallow.

Gus Van Horn said...

And a close cousin is the "counterfeit righteousness" afforded by any type of religious garb.

Mike N said...

Great Post. Just like "Earth Hour" of last week, the wearing of ribbons and bands provides the altruist with another ritual to perform which will make him feel moral.

It also shows the depths to which the Kantian notion that reality is mere appearance, thus appearances mean everything, not substance, has dug its roots.

Gus Van Horn said...


The perverse question of the day is thus, "Would the apearance of, 'Esse quam videri' (to be, rather than to seem) wristbands be a sign that we're winning?"

Regardless of the answer, we'd know on sight who at least some of the second-handers are!

Joseph Kellard said...

Thanks, Gus, for that very insightful post.

Just the other night while I was driving home I cruised past an elementary school and all the trees lining its sidewalk were done up in red ribbons.

I thought to myself: Oh, Jesus, what now? What cause are those ribbons supposed to represent? But, thanks to your post, I now know that it doesn’t matter—all that matters is that ribbons represent the goodness of those who tied them to the trees—to hell with the cause.

The first time I recall coming across this whole ribbons-represent-a-cause thing was when Americans were held hostage in Iran back in 1979-80. It was a very popular thing to do nationwide. In fact, I believe there was a huge yellow ribbon wrapped around the Louisiana Superdome for the Super Bowl game—49ers/Bengals, if I remember correctly. No wonder the hostages spent so many days in captivity and the hostage-takers are still in power, wagging war against America in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

~ Joseph Kellard

Gus Van Horn said...

You're welcome! I can see by all these responses that this might have been one that lots of people needed to hear.

And I like that connection you made regarding the Iranian hostage situation, BTW.

Joseph Kellard said...


Today I was thinking further about your post here, particularly about the widespread American flag-waving after 9/11, and how this phenomenon fits into your post, if at all. I think, to some extent, it does.

On the one hand, I recognized that those who flew flags after the terrorist attacks were showing a legitimate support for their country. The American flag, of course, is incomparably symbolic compared to colored ribbons. But what leads me to believe that, at least to some extent, the post-9/11 flag waving is a species of the ribbon-tying phenomenon is that those flags went back into storage almost as quickly as they went up.

(Post 9/11): “Everybody’s doing it, so I’d better fly my flag otherwise the neighbors will think I’m unpatriotic … (Pre- and post invasion of Iraq): “I’d better put my flag was less anyone thinks I support Bush’s war.”

~ Joseph Kellard

Gus Van Horn said...

Any legitimate symbol can certainly be misused or abused, and I would say that as a rule of thumb that the more altruistic a symbol is taken to be, the more likely its display (or anti-normal absence) is an attempt to gain prestige. You flag-hiders are seeking prestige by NOT flying it.

(I was about to say that some, who might support the war for the wrong reason might fly the flag for prestige, but then realized that the only ones who would still fly a flag because of the attacks are the ones who either are mistaking it for a real war of national defense or want one. Real altruists hate America and would hide the flag since we're not doing enough, and never can for their tastes.)

Briefly after we were attacked, there was some of this type of prestige in flying the flag, not to mention moral camouflage....

Aaron Davies said...

I remember back in the mid nineties when Rush Limbaugh debuted the deficit awareness ribbon on his TV show--a dollar bill, folded four times to make a strip, then bent into a ribbon shape. The higher the denomination used, the more you cared! Still the best spoof of the whole ribbon thing. (The Onion's "Cheat to Win" wins in the wristband category.)

Gus Van Horn said...

The "Cheat to Win" wristband is gold!

Now I'm going to confuse it with my anti-poverty wristband.


Valda Redfern said...

Last Christmas I tried to tie a red ribbon around my cat's neck, because I thought it would look cute on her. She wouldn't let me (too selfish). She agrees with you that ribbon-wearing is a mindless fad.

Gus Van Horn said...

Fine animal! (That's my customary compliment for a particularly impressive pet.)

You remind me of the one time I attempted to leash one of my cats.

I had him for -- oh -- a good, solid ten seconds before he extricated himself!