Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The man on the toilet: is it ok to use humor to promote awareness?

“I’m not leaving this toilet until we raise $50,000,” said Simon Griffiths from what appears to be some sort of warehouse on July 10th. Two days, two hours, and sixteen minutes later, Griffiths unsticks himself from the loo after having raised the $50,000. Why did he do this? I’ll let him explain:

 If you weren’t able to watch the video, a team is trying to start up a toilet paper business that will donate 50% of their profits to building toilets in developing countries via WaterAid. The website of Who Gives a Crap is now attempting to raise $100,000.

I’m not going to get into WaterAid’s effectiveness as an organization right now (according to the Director of Global Safe Water group, water projects have a 55% failure rate; however, WaterAid is one of the organizations that has started to make moves to assess this). However, I do want to bring up the idea of spreading awareness of sanitation problems and how we do it. Is making toilet jokes appropriate? I read about this story on the Huffington Post website: would I have read about it had he not sat on a toilet, but a chair or a rock? Probably not so much. The strangeness and the humor of the situation makes it a far more successful awareness campaign than it would have been otherwise.

But by capitalizing on toilet humor, do we also not threaten to make humorous a really not-funny situation? Do we threaten the cause by associating sanitation problems with humor instead of a tragic situation that causes the deaths of 1.5 million children under the age of 5 every year? If this was another public health campaign—clean water, AIDS, malaria—anyone using humor to raise awareness would be lambasted for being insensitive. Yet humor is often seen as the only way to broach this uncomfortable, taboo topic. However, we do not view this about any other taboo topic—like AIDS, for example. Defecation—humorous. Sex—not. We reveal our own discomforts with our own body, the way that we have managed to segment it and place the various activities of our body on a kind of hierarchy.

I think the Who Gives a Crap people have a really cool idea. I especially applaud that the organization is choosing to donate their funds to an experienced organization instead of starting their own. I’m also really excited to see that they’ve managed to bring a lot of attention to the issue, and the speed with which they raised their funds gives me hope that more attention is going to be paid to this issue. Looking at how we bring attention to these topics reveals something about how we think about our bodies. The question is, can we expect those who are trying to raise money for worthy causes to try to change these perceptions? Do the ends justify the means?  

What are your thoughts?

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