Friday, July 24, 2009

Forget Charity and Hang Politeness

Homeless woman in Nice, France.Image via Wikipedia

[I was going to use some stronger terms in the title but I wanted it to be more widely accessible. Feel free to read in whatever terms you find most shocking.]

You may be wondering what the catch is. Surely no one really has a problem with charity or politeness, because it would seem that the alternatives would include some variety of selfishness or indifference, perhaps even contempt or open hostility. But the truth of the matter is, charity and politeness are for strangers. Charity and politeness have their place when necessary, but they are not preferable. They are a cheap substitute for the substance of genuine relationships and can be used smooth the edges of a system of callous anonymity and impersonal degradation. This grease can silence the painful squeaks and squeals of those caught in the gears of our laissez-faire trickle-down system who don't fit the convenient model of those who pull themselves up their bootstraps.

Does politeness really replace contempt or indifference, or does it more often tend to mask it? Being truly respectful may superficially appear the same as acting well-mannered, and I am not advocating being blunt to the point of rudeness with strangers. Instead I am suggesting we shouldn't treat each other as strangers! We should get to know one another better.

The same is true of charity - or should I say what charity has come to mean in our society. It outwardly seems like a positive thing, and it makes people feel good (or at least not as bad), but it doesn't address the underlying structural and personal inequities that lead to the needs which charity cannot fully address. Moreover, even if the rich donated enough money to meet the basic material needs of the poor, such charity would be insufficient as it reinforces an anonymity in the giving and the receiving, it takes away a core human element of such an exchange, and it maintains a comfortable boundary between the giver and receiver in which the giver doesn't really share themselves. Some homeless people begging on the streets would be just as happy with a minute of your time, of being present to them and offering them the fundamental dignity of a basic human interaction, than the change in your coat pocket tossed into a can without eye contact.

So what am I suggesting? Where possible we should invest in our community by offering ourselves, becoming genuinely vulnerable by letting others get to know who we are and allowing ourselves to care about and get to know others. That is the true cost of the process of making community.

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  1. Yes, very true. I really believe that a lot of what people do as charity - like giving money to organizations or clothes to organizations, etc. - is really a way to feel good about maintaining the privileges of the status quo. Corporations are great at it. Give several millions of dollars away, look good in the community - continue raping the planet, hiring slave labor in poorer countries to make your goods, and make billions in profits. The balance really doesn't change in this kind of system.

  2. Well said Nathan!

    (Now if only my hypocrisy didn't keep getting in the way...)


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