When “being good” means cluttering your lapel

Late last month, I gave some serious consideration to participating in Movember. I eventually decided against it, in part because my current residence in Melbourne meant that my circle of friends probably would not get as much humour (and perhaps by association, generate quite as many donations) out of my moustache-growing efforts. Perhaps next year. There can be little doubt that the organisers have done a terrific job in raising the public profile of men’s health in aid of beyondblue and the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia. If you move within any social circles at all, you’re practically certain of knowing someone who is growing a mo this month, in aid of these two very worthy organisations.

Apart from the questionable implications for GMA (Gross Male Attractiveness), it’s hard to see how one can find fault with events like Movember, but Tim Soutphommasane presents an interesting critique in today’s Australian. The average modern charity event seems generally to revolve around a symbolic token of some sort, whether it be a pink (or white, or…) ribbon, a poppy, a red nose, a pair of jeans or indeed a ragged patch of hair on one’s upper lip. One generally wears these symbols with just a touch of conspicuous pride; I’ve done my little bit, see look at this symbol right here.

Soutphommasane does probably get a bit too broad in scope with his column for my liking, but the snippet below captures the essence of what I think is quite an important observation:

Support women’s health? Sport a pink ribbon. Support action on climate change? Turn off your lights at home for an hour. Support recycling? You were in luck last week, which just happened to be National Recycling Week.

For all that moral grandstanding makes us feel virtuous, it in fact makes civic virtue rather more elusive. If only good citizenship were as easy as growing a moustache or wearing a pink ribbon.

We are all aware today that public identification with our democracy, as measured by involvement with political parties and our level of respect for politicians, is perhaps at an all-time low. On the other hand, it does appear that token-oriented charitable “days” or events could well be at an all-time high today, at least in terms of frequency. Given the current situation with our democracy, shouldn’t we be concerned that we may be tricking ourselves into feeling that we are “doing our little bit” for society by growing facial hair, and buying ribbons and poppies and red noses, instead of involving ourselves in more seriously in public/civic life, or making more substantive sacrifices for the occasional good cause?

I’m not trying to be a killjoy. These causes all do a great job in terms of raising awareness and money for important causes: this cannot be denied. I think we probably all need to be reminded, however, that being a truly good citizen – a good Australian – should require that we do much more than cover our lapel with conspicuous (but cheap, and labour unintensive) tokens of our virtue. On the scale of worthy patriotic acts, buying a token in aid of charity is, let’s face it, a worthy, but modest, tick in a box. Contrastingly, some of our forebears and a sprinkling of modern champions have moved or are moving mountains for this country, or at the very least, trying to make a real difference. Whilst not forgetting for a moment our current servicemen and women, millions of our forebears bore arms in defence of and in solidarity with our country last century. In the 21st century, we tend to buy trinkets for our country; oh, and rock up to vote periodically.

So, why aren’t we all striving to do better?

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