Thursday, March 8, 2012

How to Be a Humanitarian.


So you want to do good in the world? 

Okay. First, you should acknowledge for yourself what you think is an okay cost. Do you want to do good so long as you don’t put yourself in harm’s way, or so long as you don’t have to suffer a change in your lifestyle as you know it? Do you want to do good that might require of people that they radically live their lives differently? A lot of people are ethicists, yet only one of them is Peter Singer. This is a mild point, but an important one. If the limit of you activism is a blog entry or a repost, you are not an activist. You are a trend follower. Which is fine, just don't try to debate me at the tea lounge. I will own you. 

But whatever, you want to do good. The first thing you need to figure out is what doing good means. And you can’t do that by watching a video or looking at a wikipedia article or hearing a really inspirational talk. (I honestly can't believe I have to explain this shit.) Limited sources of information, when taken as authoritative, lead to uninformed and destructive action. The past is full of "well meaning" but ignorant people who thought they were doing good but who turned out to be some of history’s greatest assholes. Like every missionary ever or David Livingstone. Who. Was. A. Fucking. Dick.

Figuring out how to do good will involve checking your motivation. The tricks of writing and performance that get you to cry at the end of a rom-com are the same tricks that get you to donate money to a charity you see on television. These are tactics that have been used by writers and propagandists for fucking ever to get us to feel certain ways and then act on our feelings. Sometimes it’s for entertainment and sometimes it’s to purge the state of our enemies. If you act from feelings you are not acting reflectively and if you are not acting reflectively, guess what? You’re an asshole. 

So you have to do research. I can promise you that if you were to read the 10 best selling books on amazon that criticize humanitarian aid work, you wouldn’t be swept up in Bono’s or Invisible Children’s call to action ever again. You wouldn’t think you were awesome because you bought some shit sponsored by Project (RED). If right now, you can’t imagine what a valid criticism of these campaigns would be, then you are the asshole that I’m talking about. Get your weight up and read some books. 

More needs to be said about checking your motivation. If you have a  specific project, like wanting to stop some great evil, you really should forget about that shit. Not because people can’t make a difference (the assholes of the world have shown otherwise time and time again), but because that kind of desire negatively affects the mission that accomplishes the change. Let me explain:

We are prone enough as it is to seeing the world in dichotomies. Good and Evil, Black and White. The reality, of course, is that the world is terribly complicated. But our desire to get something done, to really make a difference, is itself what simplifies our view of the world. We say things like “why can’t the UN agree on anything?” and “Why can’t Congress just fix the damn problem already?” as if there are a crew of luddites drooling their day away at the capitol building. There are forces that we can barely understand at work. Forces that even people who have been in the game for a long time can’t get a grip on. But we are blind to this complication partly because we have a simplified worldview that itself is tied to our desire to change something.

Simple things make sense. “Stop Kony.” What makes less sense is “Change the economic and governmental system of an entire country or region such that health and human services are available to everyone.” In one case, the goal seems easy; It can fit on a t-shirt. But the other one is a bit bigger and no one really knows how it is going to work. In fact, it is most likely that any attempt to help with this big project will be all fucked up and its results will never be satisfying and it might not be your goddamn business to interfere in the first place. But here is the thing: it is probably what you should be doing with your activism time. 

But you can’t see that big picture, because 1) you’re ignorant as fuck and 2) you want to do something already, right now! So your awareness amounts to, really, and trust me on this, fuck nothing. What would be better is if you had the desire to help in spite of terrible complication. What would be better is if you had the desire to help in spite of there being no good plan to make things happen. If you had the desire to help despite feeling no hope for change and no expectation that you will feel good about yourself when all is said and done. 

And this, I think, is one of the keys to being a proper activist. If you can commit to the idea that the world is a hopeless mess in which nothing will ever really change and no one can really be saved, and then still go forward to try to help people, you *might* be on a better path. Because then you *might* be a bit more clear as to the forces at work, as opposed to envisioning some poor brown people as the vehicles you will use to realize your self conception as a "good person."

Until you get knowledge and give up hope, you will be just another white person with a racist savior complex who acts like entire continents need your help to be okay. In which case, seriously, fuck you.

Slavoj Zizek once made the claim that sometimes the best course is to not act, to simply reflect. I know you don't get this. People will suffer because of your lack of understanding.

7 comments:

DogSmith East Pensacola said...

I love you Chioke.

Shalomrav said...

Too harsh Chioke! I know nothing of Invisible Children as a group...but I know a bit about Bono. Sometimes consciousness gets raised in pop culture – and that's not always bad. If donations flow to the right non-profits, then good can come of a YouTube video going viral...again, this is not an endorsement of this Invisible Children's group. But when you mention them in the same line as St. Bono (oops I mean Bono) I flinched.

Amberly said...

Good points....but if you are looking to guide folks on being an effective humanitarian, you might want to tone it down a bit. Gathering support is also part of being a humanitarian. Belittling folks who are trying to help, in the only way they know how, is not going to inspire them to any other forms of activism or humanitarianism. You will most likely make them afraid to try anything again soon, for fear of being ridiculed. I don't know of any humanitarian or activist that has the perfect methods, anyway. They can all be criticized harshly. I choose not to blow off steam this way, however. That, I save for bigger assholes. Cases like this KONY viral video give plenty of chances to redirect the efforts of some kind-hearted folks who were never taught how to be social engineers in their world. What are you really accomplishing by being a jerk to those folks? Besides getting some attention for the cause and yourself, I mostly see it as another form of doing more harm while intending good.

Anonymous said...

I know Chioke has some very strong feeling on this, my only complaint is helping others should not be seen as a lost cause. Specially people who work without hope.....i think that would be horribly depressing and would defeat the purpose. Yes, we will have the poor always with us, but i think it is the hope of giving people the education, and the knowledge that we hope and believe in them and then they take that and change and grow....We should not press froward as people with no hope, but for me, i press forward believing that even if i can't save the whole world, I can make the difference each and every day. Bit by bit.

Jake said...

you're right. i read this as I sit in my office at a small water/sanitation NGO in rural uganda. it's triggered a particular introspection that's become quite familiar to me; one that I'll never completely reconcile and keep just behind my eyes to help me in my effort to maintain justifiable actions. the funny thing is that given the themes of your blog, this particular instance has induced a special kind of self-questioning that could only come from dreamy thoughts of the '72 cb350f I restored just before I left tampa last year. the friend taking care of it for me takes it for the occasional ride; it's a beautiful green mod/stock cafe, so think of uganda if you see it.

Chris and Sarah said...

So, good activism requires one to act without hope or pleasure? When did you become a deontologist? I take your point about education before action, but I think you're skating dangerously close to moral isolationism with your other remarks. Maybe you want to say something like one should curb one's enthusiasm until properly educated about those one would aid. But, wouldn't it be better still to insist those energies be redirected toward learning. Why attack hope when ignorance seems like your main target? the story I have in mind is of Dwight conquergood (I realize the irony of the name) in Anne Fadiman's book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Do you know it? I would like to hear your take on it.

Chismatic said...

Man. That does sound a bit Kantian, doesnt it? Terrible. My claims against hope are really about the dangers inherent in the structure of moral self satisfaction. So, I am advocating against hope for purely Utilitarian reasons. I promise! Also, strangely, it is moral isolation that I am explicitly trying to fight, just from perhaps another 'direction' than most other universalists.

I have been told about that book before. I will set out to read it ASAP.