Does Making Giving Easier Hurt Those We Want to Help?

Oscar Wilde wrote in The Soul of Man Under Socialism,

“The worst slave owners were those who were kind to their slaves.”
“Charity degrades and demoralises.”

I was recently directed to this video after posting an item called “The Gap now accepting…donations?” sometime last week. In the video, which is beautifully animated by RSA, philosopher Slavoj Zizek analyzes the negative repercussions that result from businesses making consumers believe they are doing good by purchasing their goods. In his talk, Zizek quotes from The Soul of Man Under Socialism, which is why I bring it up here.

Zizek’s argument is that people often recognize a problem but then, instead of taking action to change the system which is causing it, they focus on the here and now, contributing a little to make it better at the moment. This fits well with the example of the Gap, as a commenter on the original post intelligently pointed out, since by announcing that they are accepting donations for the Salvation Army, the Gap is helping people assuage their guilt about buying new clothing while others have none, but not doing anything to ensure that people will have clothing in the future, once their campaign is over.

Zizek assumes that people who are donating clothing to the Gap will satisfy their need to help the poor, and so the Gap is diverting their altruistic urges and preventing systemic change from taking place. This is why he quotes Wilde in saying that “The worst slave owners were those who were kind to their slaves,” because by appeasing their anger or others’, the slave owners are prolonging the people’s enslavement, as opposed to a harsh slave owner, who might provoke resistance more readily.

I’ve heard this argument in reference to domestic violence too; spouses who beat their partners so badly they have to go to the hospital are more likely to be broken up with than those who beat their partners on a regular basis but leave smaller, less noticeable bruises whose frequency increases gradually over time. True, the victim in the first example seems more likely to get help and perhaps get out of the relationship, but is there really value in saying that the extreme, more abusive spouse is doing a better thing? By treating someone so badly that he has more incentive to escape you, are you really helping him?

I don’t think so. In my view, the Gap is taking a small step, perhaps not the most direct or most effective, but a step all the same, towards helping people who are too poor to afford clothing. Rather than believing that people who donate their clothes to the Gap will leave feeling self-satisfied since they’ve “done their duty,” making them more apathetic to the cause over all, I think that once people are educated a problem they are more apt to take future action. Someone who never knew about the Salvation Army now knows of a place they can donate clothing, and if they think about it enough, perhaps they will even take steps of their own to deal with the issue of growing poverty in the world.

I’m not sure if the Gap is aiming for widespread systemic change, but I do think that increased awareness is the right direction to go in. The reason people prefer to chip away at a problem rather than tackle it head on is that its easier -not necessarily better- but often more conceivable. Instead of scaring people off by suggesting they take huge action or none at all, I think the Gap has the optimal approach: offering people small opportunities to make a difference. The question is where they will go from there, once it’s in their hands.