I was in my first year of doctoral studies, taking a class on Galdos’ novels. If you don’t know who Galdos is, he’s the Spanish equivalent of Tolstoy in Russia, and along the lines of Balzac in France. He lived in the nineteenth century, when realism reigned supreme, and had many of its concerns with injustice, hypocrisy, and dreadful poverty. He despised societal hypocrisy, especially among aristocrats, who for all intents and purposes seemed to genuinely believe in their moral superiority over the working classes. Like his contemporaries, he depicted instances of regular life, in minute detail, humanizing each character, in order to bring about an appreciation for every class’ concerns, while simultaneously unveiling the selfishness of apparent acts of charity. Charity, he posited, isn’t charity if it isn’t given freely, without arrogance, and without an expectation of an eventual return.
That’s the way I saw it. One student disagreed with me. We ended up taking up a good five minutes of the class debating this very point. She maintained that charity is charity, whether it’s attached to arrogance or not. I maintained that it wasn’t, because it made the receiver deny their reality and abandon their personal beliefs in favor of the giver’s view of a better world. The arrogance fulfilled the giver’s ego, whilst she fashioned a helpless person to her own image, all the while the receiver could accept the perks, only at the cost of her own instincts, suppressing her own identity in favor of a mask. This student replied that a mask that came with food, shelter, and an education was better than nothing. I disagreed, because your own dignity is priceless. I think that anyone, if given a choice, would rather be free to be herself. Real charity would give this person the ability to be themselves in a dignified manner, not provide wealth in exchange for their identity, their self-respect, and their freedom to choose their own ideals. But maybe that’s just me. Not wanting to take up any more valuable class time, we agreed to disagree.
Technically speaking, charity stems from the giver’s benevolence, its virtue is rooted in religious practice, and is closely linked to a belief in its spiritual benefits, which are attached to the expectation of God’s pleasure in our actions. Some have likened it to aiming to achieve God’s perfection, and perhaps this is where the slippery slope began. In essence, we give of ourselves, our riches, our time, for the pleasure of God, and nothing else, however, if we’re giving because we think we’re superior, simply by virtue of being able to give, this is another matter altogether, in my view. Whether you are religious or not, charity can take many forms, and in my opinion, most of them do not actually constitute charity at all. For example, there are criticisms of charitable organizations that state that giving material support supposedly fosters a culture of dependents, rather than helping people get out of their misfortune. You know… the old adage “give a man a fish and you’ll save him for a day, teach a man to fish and you’ll save him for a lifetime.” Some have used this argument to start giving loans to the poor, encouraging them to pay back as their wealth increases, through their small businesses. The problem with this is that these loans are attached to interest, and not based on the business’ profits, so regardless of whether the lendees are successful or not, they end up having to pay interest on a sum they couldn’t afford to begin with. This is by no means a charity, and yet it is seen as a charitable, benevolent act, and it’s widely praised – sometimes even in the form of Nobel Peace Prizes – for purportedly “taking care of the poor.” But are the poor really being taken care of? Suicide statistics among microloan recipients suggest that’s not quite the case.
Think of Residential schools. They were supposed to offer a good education, help Native kids get out of poverty, but at what cost?
Think of the Marshall Plan, that worked out very well, now compare it to what has been done by “benevolent nations” since in countless regions around the world, Greece, Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, New Orleans. Where did the help go? Did anyone listen to the people and ask them what they wanted? How they wanted to be helped? Did anyone follow the money?
We seem to be giving to charities more than ever before, but the poor are still getting poorer, and the gap between the richest and the middle class are widening every year. Why isn’t it making a dent in the trend?
If we really care about the oppressed, then help, but let’s make sure we don’t hold the needy for ransom. That’s slavery in disguise. Sugar-coated poison. Toy-shaped landmines.
So what am I saying? I’m saying if you want charity to be just that: free assistance where needed, then give it freely, not because you think you’re better, not because you expect people to become more like you, not because you want the world to see how kind and generous you are, not because this particular charity can offer an instant tax receipt. Just give, and forget about it. A sage once said “the best charity is the one where your left hand doesn’t know what your right hand is doing” meaning you yourself don’t know how much you’re giving, and you make no effort to display it. And don’t follow it up with constant reminders of your kindness.
Am I saying that you should stop giving to charities? Well, if those charities are pocketing the money and not benefitting the people you think they’re supposed to be helping, then of course, stop right now! If you are giving to charity because you want to continue to live your cushy life, ignoring the fact that CEOs and the like are cashing in on your hard work because you want to continue to live guilt free, then yes: at the very least stop calling it charity . You’re not doing anyone any favors. What you might want to do is follow the money, see where it goes, who does it help, really? And make an informed decision. If you’re giving to charity because you want to claim it in your tax returns, well, as long as you know what it’s doing, claim it as a tax return, but don’t fool yourself, it’s not charity.