Charity culture

My last post was about so-called “entitlement culture.” Now I’m going to posit that the opposite of entitlement culture is charity culture.

In a charity culture, the only thing anyone is entitled to is whatever they already have. So if you have a lot of money and property, you are entitled not to have your money or property taken away from you (whether that’s in the form of taxes or squatters breaking into your unoccupied house). If you have privilege, you are entitled not to have your privilege decreased by other less privileged people being given equitable opportunities. If you have slaves, you are entitled to keep them enslaved.

Since no one deserves anything from you, this means that every time you give money to an organization or a homeless person, every time you hire someone with a disability, every time you free a slave, you are being magnanimous. Charity culture praises you. You get to feel good about yourself. However, it’s important that the recipient of your charity be appropriately humbled and grateful in order to maintain this image of your magnanimity.

For instance, on the show Downton Abbey, the Granthams and Crawleys are painted as the best aristocratic masters ever. They are constantly being generous towards their servants, and they know it. The “good” servants then feel very honored and grateful, while the “bad” servants (eg. Branson in the beginning and Daisy in later seasons) feel that what is being done is just and deserved, and that even more should be done to change the power balance. Sometimes the magnanimity is intrusive, as when [spoiler warning] Lady Mary insists that Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes be married in the great house although Mrs. Hughes wants to be married in their own territory. She doesn’t want her wedding to be a charity ball. The idea that a servant might prefer autonomy to her own lordly generosity is totally incomprehensible to Mary.

People who are in a position to be charitable feel threatened by the entitlement of those who are in a position to receive their charity. Their self-image is threatened. If the charity they give is actually deserved, then they are demoted from wonderful benefactor to, at best, a decent person. At worst, they find that they are not doing nearly enough or even that some of their charity is offensive. Ouch.

I imagine everyone who has any variety of privilege has experienced this at some point. I know I have. But since I’ve been on both sides of privilege, I’m able to put myself in the other person’s place, realize I’m in the wrong, and adjust my self-image accordingly.

Here’s an example from one of the homeless shelters where I used to volunteer. A couple came in wanting to stay together. The woman was pregnant, but since the couple was unmarried and the baby wasn’t born yet, they were told they would have to go to separate men’s and women’s shelters. They were extremely angry about this and said some very angry things. The workers who were present took the attitude of, “If you don’t want what we’re offering, go somewhere else.” Now, it’s true that these workers did not have the power to change the situation at that time, and they were frustrated and hurt by the couple’s hostility. But the attitude I believe they should have taken, and that I tried to take (not that it helped in the moment) was to tell the couple, “You’re right. This is unjust. I’m sorry and I will work to change this situation.” Ultimately, that hostility was not directed at us, it was directed at the larger system that was hurting them.

Let me be clear, this was a nice shelter, and these workers were dedicated individuals who really cared about what they were doing. Nonetheless, when you have the built-in power dynamics of giver/receiver, and you have an image of yourself as a caring person dedicated to helping others, and you are constrained by a variety of bureaucratic rules (whether or not they are in place for good reasons, whether or not you agree with them), negative responses from the people you’re serving are readily perceived as “ungrateful” or “entitled.” Many homeless people carry a lot of justified anger, and when they express that anger there is a tendency among shelter workers to dismiss it as “their problem” instead of acknowledging that there are some pretty real and serious reasons to be angry. It’s easier to dismiss one homeless individual as an asshole than to acknowledge that you’re part of a system that often harms the very people it’s trying to help.

In charity culture, being angry is a privilege. If you’re not privileged, if you are at the bottom of the social ladder, you are only allowed to be grateful for whatever the people above you are willing to give you. You are not allowed to be angry. You are not allowed to complain. You are not allowed to feel violated or demeaned by the conditions of the offered charity.

Charity culture says, “We don’t care that you have an allergy or diabetes. Eat what we give you and be grateful we gave you anything at all.”

Charity culture says, “We don’t care about your religious beliefs. Believe what we do, or you won’t get anything.”

Charity culture says, “Don’t complain that the elevator/accessible toilet is out of order. You should be grateful we were nice enough to give you accessible stuff in the first place.”

Charity culture says, “I/we/you are such a saint for taking care of/being friends with/staying married to that disabled/mentally unstable person.”

When you make the shift from a charity mindset to an entitlement mindset in regard to your own privilege, what happens is that you go from feeling like a wonderful helpful person who is doing so much good to feeling like you never do enough. You realize that the things you are able to do are the bare minimum of what should be done. It may be a less comfortable place to be, but it’s actually a more interesting place to be, because it opens the door to forming real relationships with people different from you. (It’s hard to have a real relationship with someone who is basically a means to your own do-goodism and accompanying warm fuzzies.) It opens the door to constructive criticism of yourself and of the systems you are part of, and this leads to social change on a much broader scale than what one person’s personal charity can accomplish.


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