Repairing with the Right Hand, What We Destroy with the Left

It seems absurd that one would quibble with the act of charity. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, educating the unaware…these aims and endeavors in and of themselves are great expressions of human empathy and sacrifice for others. But are we kidding ourselves about what we are truly accomplishing in these acts? Might it even be possible that we are doing more damage than good?

In this RSA video, Slavoj Zizek argues that charity is ultimately counterproductive to the goals of justice and equality. This is not to say that feeding the hungry does not have any value, but to recognize that what goes unsaid in this act is that it is ultimately a futile gesture. It merely limits human misery and suffering temporarily rather than cure the root of it. Our response, then, should not be to feed and clothe the poor, but to reconstruct society in such a way that poverty is no longer possible. We should be critical of our charitable acts and choices, and ask ourselves if those in need might gain greater benefits from another approach.

To illustrate this point, Zizek offers the example of the slave and the slave owner. He argues quite convincingly that the worst slave owners were those who were kind to their slaves because their relative kindness prevented their slaves from seeing and acting against the truly evil nature of the institution that controlled them.

One might be apt to draw a comparison to the times in which we live wherein it is not unimaginable that those in power are aware that so long as they keep the majority of Americans relatively safe, fed, and entertained, they will not revolt against a system that does not serve their best interests. Furthermore, even those who are compelled to act against the evils of this system will do so indirectly by addressing the symptoms and not the sickness.

In this sense, our feeding of the poor and offering of temporary relief distracts us and deflects our energy from addressing the core problem; that our capitalist system inherently creates winner and losers, the included and the excluded, without regard for justice or merit.

-Mike

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3 responses to “Repairing with the Right Hand, What We Destroy with the Left

  1. Great post! I really like your writing style. As the community manager for sociology.com, may I invite you to guest post on the site. You can write about any topic you feel is related to sociology, such as the act of charity as you’ve done so well here. I’d love to see your writing on our site; if interested, just check out our website. Cheers!

  2. Hi Miranda, thank you for your kind words and invitation, they are appreciated! I would love to hear more about posting on your site. Can you please shoot me an email @ mike.cassidy1722@gmail.com with some details on how to proceed? Thanks!

  3. It’s definitely important to balance broad changes in culture with immediate needs. The guy who hasn’t eaten in days doesn’t give a crap (in that moment) about fighting against the system that creates disparity, he cares about eating and being full. So, do individual acts of charity (or even private, organizational acts) do more harm than good? 9 times out of 10 I’d say no. Do governmental programs of charity do more harm than good? Quite possibly, as Zizek is trying to convey here. Can we convince people to donate cans of food to the local food bank? Absolutely, and easily. But can we convince people who have no concept of suffering to empathize with those that struggle worldwide into mobilization against years of an engrained system of beliefs? Hopefully someday.

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