What if you could buy social justice? (Part 6: Wearing Justice: T-shirts, Bracelets, and Ribbons, Oh my!)

The religion of consumerism encourages its flock that happiness, success, and salvation are possible via the worship of commodities. However, while this religion has become more sedimented into the cultural landscape, there has definitely been a concurrent resistance to the normalization of buying as a means to salvation.

Many activists, scholars, community organizers, writers, and educators have worked in multiple ways to call the religion of consumerism into question. Yet, simultaneously, many of these same people who are working for social change use consumerism as a platform to raise awareness and foment critical resistance. Perhaps the most well-known consumer-based campaign is “think pink” (to be discussed in part 9 of this series.) More recent consumer based social justice trends include the proliferation of bracelet, ribbon, and t-shirt campaigns.

The first and perhaps most well-known of the “bracelet activism” phenomenon is the “Livestrong Bracelet” associated with Lance Armstrong. Ryan McNutt, of McNutt Against the Music: Confessions of a Cultural Warrior, refers to such phenomenon as “brand-iron activism.” As he notes, this is “a phenomenon that is hardly unique to our times but which has rarely been embraced with such open disregard for genuine substance.” Noting that “Brand-iron activism’s primary objective is not activism itself but the appearance of activism,” McNutt intriguingly links this consumerized activism with the concept of “branding,” arguing that “The activism may be substantial or frivolous or anything in between; what matters is that other people see the activism and associate the person with it.” Using bracelets to illustrate, he makes his case as follows:

“Let’s take the Livestrong bracelets as an example. I’m all for the idea that small donations can make a big difference, but buying a bracelet for a dollar is hardly a significant financial investment in the fight against cancer. The real reason why the Livestrong bracelet became ridiculously popular is because it allowed people to brand themselves as caring, thoughtful individuals. Buying a bracelet had less to do with contributing to the fight against cancer and everything to do with being seen fighting cancer.”

The emphasis on appearance and seeming over substance is critical – and arguably widespread within US conceptions of activism and social causes. My students, as a case in point, often turn first to such consumer-driven notions of change when starting out on their activism projects, creating bracelets, t-shirts, and buttons to “brand” themselves as activists. They also often create facebook/myspace pages where one can donate funds (or, in effect, “buy justice”). While this type of activism certainly has its place (and is a way for student’s to comfortably dip their feet for the first time into activist waters), I am wary of the tendency to rely on ONLY this type of branding/consumer activism. Further, like McNutt, I question the “logo” nature of such campaigns – do all those who wear their justice via bracelets and t-shirts also work actively to bring about such justice, or is the donning of a Gap Inspi(red) t-shirt or a Pink ribbon construed as enough in and of itself? Certainly many who use their bodies as a billboard to raise awareness about social justice causes also walk the walk, but I would surmise that many, or most, do not necessarily go beyond this slogan based protest.

McNutt seems to feel the same way, suggesting the “support the troops” movement as an indicative of this trend:

“Whereas once “supporting the troops” meant sacrificing for the war effort, today it’s all about self-branding, putting a flag on the windowsill and putting a ribbon on one’s car so that your patriotism is affirmed.”

This same patriotic branding was prevalent post 9/11, when flag waving in all its forms (flags on t-shirts, bumper stickers, cars, houses) was used to brand oneself as a patriotic American.

This “branding over action,” as McNutt refers to it, ominously portends that we are acting in the best interests of corporatized government rather than working to change society. McNutt, elucidating this concept, writes:

“What intrigues me about the rise of brand-iron activism is how closely the behavior of ordinary citizens is starting to mirror that of their governments and corporations. Take the environment as an example: the business and political communities have realized that they have much to gain by being seen as environmentally conscious, but haven’t even come close to taking the steps needed to overcome the challenges our planet faces. Branding takes precedence to genuine action because, by and large, that’s all the engagement that most people need and expect. We’re all becoming so used to interacting with one another superficially that when our culture emphasizes image over reality, branding over action, it just seems natural to us.”

I would extend McNutt’s argument here in terms of consumer capitalism – not only do “ordinary citizens” mirror “their governments and corporations” by seeming to care about social justice causes, they also promote and support the interests of corporatized government by BUYING into the notion that consuming is the answer to all the world’s problems. The satirical cite DeadBrain hilariously captures this phenomenon with their spoof post, “Rubber Scarcity to Limit Rubber Band Bracelet Production.” Reporting that “there is not enough rubber,” the post mocks the profit motivations behind bracelet activism, citing a fictional CEO of “RubnanD Inc” as claiming, “Our profits are going to dry up, and believe me, profits from selling a three-cent piece of rubber and silicone for as much as five bucks a piece is a nice profit.” The mock news-story further reads:

“Industry insiders say the enormous demand for the product has grown since the introduction of the NIKE/Lance Armstrong “LIVESTRONG” yellow bracelet. Now, says Chow, “Every sports team, activist group, fundraiser, or pet-project has their own ‘unique’ way to express your support. For heaven’s sake, last week we got an order from the environmentalist whacko group POOPPU {People Opposing Oil and Petroleum Product Use}. Hey poo-poo! These ARE petroleum products!”

While I take issue with the underlying racial stereotyping in this post (i.e. the fictional Chinese CEO is given a racial slur as a name), the post does successfully indicate the irony of supporting one cause (say, cancer) while disregarding related causes (the environment, petro-chemicals, and their link to cancer).

Another issue to take into consideration is the ‘fashion’ of activism. For, in addition to branding oneself as caring about a certain cause, ribbons, t-shirts, and bracelets have morphed into must-have fashion accessories making their appearance on cat-walks, red carpets, and film premieres. As the NY Magazine article “The Styling of Activism” reveals, ribbons adorn dresses and lapels on Oscar night, but must not clash with the all-important outfit.

Activist or protest T-shirts, like bracelets and ribbons, are another large trend. One can don a t-shirt supporting almost any cause or, if one cannot be found in existence, opt for many of the internet/real world shop and design t-shirts of their own. While such “fashion activism” has its place, and can raise a lot of awareness/support in the right situation, wearing a t-shirt alone will not end the occupation of Iraq nor free the Jena 6. Rosa Clemente, in a post at the Green Institute, makes a similar claim about all the t-shirts encouraging people to vote: “Efforts like Vote or Die, Generation Vote, Rock the Vote, Respect my Vote, do not empower a generation – they are catchy slogans emblazoned on pretty white tees that offer empty rhetoric.”

This notion of “empty rhetoric” applies to much of the trend to “buy social justice” via the purchase of Livestrong bracelet, a rainbow ribbon, or a No War t-shirt. Like the Cowardly Lion, whose roar is empty rhetoric, so to do these consumerized forms of activism often have all bark and no bite. The context in which Dorothy says the quote referred to in the title of this post thus links to the critique I am making.

The quote comes from the part of the movie when Dorothy, Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Toto become scared when woods the yellow brick road has led them into begin to appear more menacing. After Dorothy says “Lions, and Tigers, and Bears, oh my!”, the group begins to repeat it in sing-song fashion. Shortly thereafter, they meet the Cowardly Lion who is, we find out, not worthy of their fear. So, their key emotion at this point in the movie, fear, is shown to be misguided. This links to argument I am making that ‘wearing social justice’ in order to raise awareness and fomenting activism is misguided. Further, the ‘wearing’ of such aims serves to ‘brand’ activist movements – a phenomenon that is counter-intuitive to the anti-establishment (or at least change-the-establishment) agenda of such movements.

The critique also links to this scene in the film in that the lion is ASSUMED to ferocious, but is really cowardly. Now, I am not suggesting that those fond of wearing justice are cowardly, but rather, that if the ‘wearing of justice’ is all one does in terms of activism, it might be ASSUMED you are actively working for social change in ferocious fashion, but you might only be, like the lion, taking the timid route – or, wearing the bracelet, t-shirt, ribbon while not actually doing much else.

The proliferation of these commodified forms of protest LOOK a lot like activism but are not all that effective in really creating social change UNLESS they are accompanied by more expansive forms of activism such as protests, rallies, petitions, sit-ins, walk-outs, strikes, campaigns to change legislation, etc. Wearing a bracelet alone will not a socially just world make…

On that not, neither will driving a hybrid save the environment. Stay tuned for part 7 of the series, “Driving Your Way to Eco-Freedom: The ‘Go Green’ Message on Auto-drive.”


5 thoughts on “What if you could buy social justice? (Part 6: Wearing Justice: T-shirts, Bracelets, and Ribbons, Oh my!)”

  1. This is a particular pet peeve of mine. This branding leads people to believe that we can be ourselves out of the environmental mess that we are in or that we can buy social justice. Change takes real and tangible efforts on behalf of everyone and spending a dollar on a bracelet does not really get us anywhere. I usually refer to is as Bono aid (as in U2’s Bono). It is an illusion and I believe ultimately destructive. Behavior patterns do not change and I wonder why people are not thinking of the waste that occurs in creating these products to “raise awareness”. It has become a chic thing to advocate against certain things rather than actually work to end the issue that is calling the problem. People want quick fixes. They believe everything should be solved in the time it takes to go through a drive through at pick up so McDonalds. These movements are more of a symbol of what is wrong.

    1. Renee,
      Love your term “Bono aid.” I assume designer sunglasses are required for such aid?
      I also love your analogy of to drive through fast food — it’s drive through activism and bracelets are on the dollar menu!

  2. Yeah. I’m made crazy by this. I *do* think habits form an important basis for action, but additional purchases probably aren’t the solution. Our school raised $180 for breast cancer research by donating yogurt lids. While I don’t want to poo-poo this, $180 buys a very small amount of testing supplies.

    It’s consumerism as activism, and for those of us disturbed by consumerism (or who simply think that conservation might be more helpful), it’s quite irritating.

    1. Anita,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. I think your point about habits forming an important basis for action is very interesting. However, I question whether the only “actions” being encouraged are of the consumerist variety.
      As per the yogurt lids, I wonder how much profit the yogurt company made compared to the $180 your school raised…

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