Remember on Seinfeld when Kramer doesn’t wear the AIDS ribbon? He’s doing the AIDS walk. Why should he have to wear a ribbon?
Why do we have so many cause ribbons in the first place? Ribbons have historically been used as an award for a range of things from bravery in war to fastest pig at the state fair. Nowadays, they are handed out will nilly to raise awareness for certain causes. As with all trends that go viral, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the ribbon for a health cause started. Mothers Against Drunk Driving started using the red ribbon in mid 1980’s (1) when fatalities due to drunk driving were booming(2). According to WorldAIDSDay.org, the red ribbon was first officially used 1991to raise awareness for AIDS(3). Either way, both groups wanted to raise awareness but also to create a physical manifestation of their frustration and loss.
If we delve in to the reasons for creating the ribbons, it’s clear that they stem from one of the basic tenets of the World Health Organization Constitution. “…the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being…”. Well, the 1980’s were a dangerous time for certain human beings and those human beings were sick and tired of having their needs ignored. In his CDG Brief, Jeremy Schiffman gives us a sort of litmus test to see if political priority is present(4). They all involve political leaders or government involvment. Remember that time Ronald Reagan immediately and directly addressed the AIDS crisis (5)? Yeah, me neither. Ok, great! Let’s make a ribbon! How about one for leukemia and another for autism! Too much?
If you care to look at the list of ribbons on wikipedia prepare to lose at minimum 15 minutes of your life. You will never get them back. Wow. Just, wow. Choking game awareness? I was previously unaware of this issue and then I fell into a deep dark hole by googling “choking game”. Don’t be me! Stay focused!
I personally have: a red ribbon from World Aids Day NYC, red umbrella ribbon from Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers NYC, black/white ribbon from Trans Day of Rememberance NYC, and pink, purple, blue ribbon from Trans Day of Rememberance San Francisco. East Coast/ West Coast disputes? Who knows. Anyway, at the end of the day I feel a little bit like Pokemon. Collect them all. Wouldn’t that spot on my blazer look better with a nice brooch from grandma? Do we need all these ribbons?
Yes. Yes we do. They might seem like useless little scraps of fabric that reside on my lapel but they are incredibly useful conversation starters. Complete strangers will ask what a ribbon stands for and my response is pretty uniform. “It stands for X cause and you probably know somebody it affects. I know several.” Wearing all these goofy ribbons and talking about them adds a face to a cause and introduces a human element.
Now, have the little ribbons done anything in terms of raising money and improving the lives of those with the related disease? Yes. Absolutely. And also, no probably not. By this I mean that the cause ribbon has been a hugely successful rallying cry for AIDS but won’t be for other causes. The ribbon is used to visualize several of Schiffman’s suggestions for generating global priority ie. unify, find leaders, organize events, and pin a ribbon on everyone! Ok, so Schiffman didn’t mention the last one but it does follow nicely. Eventually the people with the red ribbons got plenty of attention and more importantly funding. Will this happen with the puzzle ribbon (autism)? Doubtful. Sure the sight of these ribbons might make autism show up on the radar but the disease lacks the potential global devastation that AIDS does. How about introducing little blue ribbons for oral rehydration therapy/diarrhoeal diseases? Maybe. Choking game awareness? Good luck explaining that one to the stranger on the elevator.