The AIDS Realist Ribbon

The use of cultural symbols is a distinctive human activity. Because symbols have the power to evoke commonly held beliefs and associations, they serve to unite people in many ways. Religious symbols unite those sharing a common faith, while national flags unite those living under a common government. Some symbols, such as the peace symbol and the skull-and-crossbones, are widely recognized around the world. Language itself is perhaps our most potent use of symbols, creating a shared awareness and shaping our perception of the world.

Symbols do not just reflect reality; they often help to create reality. When people sing a political protest song, this creates a shared consciousness among the singers. When everyone in a courtroom rises when the judge enters, this creates an atmosphere of respect for the judicial process. When athletes or political allies rally around a mascot or a flag, this creates solidarity and community.

The red ribbon has been one of the most visible global symbols of the past twenty years. Although its origins in the late 1980s are unclear, it came to prominence at the 1991 Tony Awards. It has become a powerful and fashionable symbol of "AIDS awareness" and "AIDS activism." At firsts, red ribbons were typically worn on the clothing. Today, the image of the red ribbon has become visually transformed in a variety of settings. The poster below is a promotion for “World AIDS Day," an annual propaganda event sponsored by the mainstream AIDS orthodoxy. It is a collage consisting of hundreds of tiny red ribbons.

The message of the poster is clear: "Wise up. Wear it. Where's yours?" The ribbon facilitates the creation of a reality: "We're all in this together. We all have a common enemy [HIV]. We all have a shared goal." There is another aspect to this shared reality: "If you're not with us, you're against us. Anyone who questions our common enemy [HIV] is an ally of our enemy. Anyone who is against our shared goal is a threat to our solidarity." In this way, the red ribbon serves not just to unify, but to neutralize and stigmatize anyone with the temerity to doubt the wisdom of the fight against HIV. Note that this "us-against-them" mentality is a common feature of war.

The red ribbon is best understood as part of the larger group psychological processes underlying the AIDS phenomenon. These processes were first explored by the psychiatrist Casper Schmidt in a 1984 paper entitled The Group-Fantasy Origins of AIDS. In this paper, Schmidt posits that AIDS shares many aspects of leprosy during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, including group delusions and "group fantasies." AIDS represents a "psychological equivalent of war" in which the group "keeps careful count of the sacrifices." The red ribbon, and other group-fantasy rituals such as the AIDS Quilt, are then best understood as war symbols – uniting medical and activist "soldiers" against a common enemy [HIV].

Where does that leave those of us who do not support this war? Where does that leave those of us who deplore the wasted human and financial resources devoted to this misguided endeavor? Where does that leave those of us who wish to see an end to this war and the needless suffering and loss of life it brings?

Those of us who do not support this war must develop our own symbols that help to create a reality fostering shared consciousness and community. I propose one such symbol. It is not the only possible symbol, and indeed, it should not be the only symbol. Unlike those supporting the war, our symbols need not be monolithic. Corresponding to our diversity, we should feel free to choose symbols which suit us best.

The symbol below reflects a general sentiment – it does not endorse any particular viewpoint, beyond the conviction that HIV/AIDS remains an open issue of scientific discussion. It is a symbolic stand against “The Moore Assertion," which states that HIV/AIDS is a closed issue, beyond any discussion at all.

I know that some individuals may not feel comfortable with this particular symbol. That is okay. As I stated above, individuals should feel free to develop symbols which they feel suit them best. What is important, however, is that we start doing something. For too long, the orthodoxy has held a monopoly over symbols. We need to start developing symbols of AIDS realism.

The above image is freely available for any and all bloggers and webmasters who wish to express their stance against the AIDS War and its tragic consequences.

July 17, 2006