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.