Monday 10 November 2014

On 'awareness'

On a train in the early 1930s the editor and critic Geoffrey Grigson noticed a newspaper gossip column's headline which said, ambiguously: AWARENESS OF AUDEN. Did this, Grigson wondered, refer to the public's awareness of the poet, or to the poet's own awareness of the world?

'Awareness' today is something we are all presumed in some form to lack, and which must therefore be 'raised'. We are thus constantly reminded by experts (or what Daily Mail hacks invariably refer to a 'so-called experts') of the need to 'raise our awareness' of injustice and abuse, of the planet's fragile ecosystems, of the need to recycle, of endangered species, of salt and sugar and units of alcohol, of prostate cancer and pesticides and Syria and Palestine and saturated fats and so on, and on. I'm not saying this is a Bad Thing, but where will it lead us? One can't have a raised awareness of everything. 

'Choiceless Awareness' - a term and concept popularised by the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986) - refers to 'a state of unpremeditated, complete awareness of the present without preference, effort, or compulsion' - and is, seemingly. an ideal state to which we are all expected to aspire. Complete awareness of everything, all the time. Sounds ghastly.

Of course 'raised awareness' is really a euphemism for tolerance and that, of course, is a Good Thing, although it flies in the face of Robert Conquest's view that we are all conservatives when it comes to things we really understand (and he was referring to poetry, but the rule can apply elsewhere). My increasing awareness of (say) the life and works of Nigel Farage and Lionel Shriver (to name two random examples) did not, in my case, lead to tolerance and understanding. But in the case of these two I'd argue that that's also a Good Thing.

Imagine, if you can, a campaign aimed at lowering public awareness of an issue, an issue which, for whatever reason, the Powers That Be would much rather we didn't much think about. What issues would they be? What form would such a campaign take?

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