I was sitting in Starbucks the other day (a fact that might totally debase the entire next novella I’m about to post out of a case of classic upper-middle class college kid hypocrisy), and I overheard two girls talking about their clothes. I wasn’t exactly listening to their conversation, as I was semi-focusing on the reading I had to do for a political science class the next day, until they brought up their pairs of TOMS shoes.
“I reaaaaaaally need a new pair of TOMS,” Girl 1 said. “They’re just so old.”
“Me too,” Girl 2 said. “I kind of want to get the sparkly gold ones.”
I stopped for a moment, pondered, and then got back to work. I didn’t stop because of the high pitch of these girls’ voices or because they were speaking at a volume normally preferred for a loud sports event. I stopped because I’d heard this before.
It brought me back to a few weeks ago when I saw a new box in front of the cashier at Starbucks. It had some minimalist design I can’t specifically recall right now upon which bracelets hung. On each bracelet was a little piece of metal with “INDIVISIBLE” emblazoned on it. The box had some patriotic slogan involving jobs and U.S. and red, white and blue. The goal, according to the website, is to encourage growth of U.S. manufacturing jobs. Buy the bracelet, save American jobs.
The only thing I could think (and accidentally out loud) was, “Seriously?”
There is charity. There is passion and drive. There is devotion to a cause, to a movement where you dirty your hands with a soiled shovel or sweat through the day on a site where you help build a building for a village. There is entrepreneurial spirit that seeks to genuinely bring something to the common good.
But there is also deception in our modern definition of charity.
Thanks to a friend, I read an article titled “7 worst international aid ideas”, which makes some pretty good points. One of the charity organizations criticized was TOMS shoes, and I was curious. I’d talked about this before, about how I was uncomfortable with TOMS shoes and other organizations like RED, Livestrong and the pink ribbon campaign (who doesn’t really need criticizing, because Komen’s gotten itself into a heap of trouble recently). TOMS has turned into the starlet of charities because it does what it says it does: it gives a pair of shoes to a poverty-stricken child in Africa when someone buys a pair online.
So, it’s a one-for-one deal, you may think. What’s bad about that?
But it’s much more than that. It’s a matter of diffusion of responsibility. It’s just like the crisis in Haiti: everyone jumped to help out. But, what does your text of $10 to Haiti efforts really mean? And moreover, why was coverage and attention in Haiti so short-lived?
What do we really contribute to the movement by passively buying a bracelet, a red shirt, a pair of canvas shoes? What does this really do for the greater good? And more importantly, why do we need to be rewarded for helping others out? If TOMS were a company that only sent the pair of shoes to the children—and took away the stylish pair from the lamenting Starbucks girl—would it be as successful?
These are all questions to raise as journalists and to help citizens raise.
I think I’ve just got a lot of qualms with the tendency to embrace materialism in our country’s publicity agencies. But I realize it would be unrealistic for me to say, “Hey, guys, stop that! Everyone needs to stop being consumers.” Because that’s definitely never going to happen.
I could go into a long rant about how consumerism is destroying our culture, but that would be a futile gesture. I also want to prevent the exhaustive effort of going into political philosophies (because we all know that socialism doesn’t work out well, communism doesn’t work at all, and democracy, despite what some say, does have problems)…because no one really wants that. (Sorry, political science professor. The Internet wins.)
Consumerism (and its father, or brother, capitalism) has already been wreaking havoc on our society, and has been since humans realized they could create a system of coinage and material goods. (I also recently saw a coin collection at our university’s Art and Archaeology museum and was blown away at the complexity of the commerce systems from political systems of old.) Everyone knows the deficiencies and inadequacies of our consumerist culture.
But it’s the intertwining of consumerism and charity that is concerning. Companies realize that people REALLY like to be humanitarians, and, armed with minimalist designs and idealistic slogans and YouTube videos, they’ve captured our spirit of altruism.
And we completely fall for it. Pay $30 for a shirt with a red logo and help save Africa? Seems easy enough. But we fail the potential of the movement by just clicking “buy” and then going about our business.
(Here’s a good nonprofit website for charity information. And, our state attorney general has a site for it too.)
And then when people find out about the realities of charity companies—the high administrative costs of their services, the “celebrity” complex as shown in the Haiti fervor, the impracticality of calling for the end of something so weighty as starvation or inequality—they get upset. This is understandable. When a movement is undermined by consumerism itself, it leaves a bruise. I’m not here to critique anyone, I just want to raise questions.
International conflict and human rights are a go-to issue for journalists. We’re attracted to negative coverage; starvation and culture clash are perfect candidates. I’m personally looking into pursuing foreign conflict journalism myself, but I think it’s important for us to avoid ignorance. Yes, starvation is bad, and totalitarian regimes are bad. I think that can be generally agreed upon. But the conflicts we involve ourselves in have many asterisks and details that we, and subsequently, the people, don’t know.
I’m not sure what my goal was with this post, but I did want to address the hypocrisies that are occurring in our society. Perhaps it is a lack of information. Perhaps it is an ignorance in the fault of the people. Perhaps it is denial, or self-gratification as a motive. I don’t think any one blog post could address the psychological nature of why we feel the need to be charitable and why charity capitalism has spiralled out of control.
But the fact is that instead of buying that new pair of TOMS shoes, we should research the source of inequality and conflict in African countries. After reading through that Times article about pre-arranged Muslim marriages, look up different translations of what the Quran says about marriage.
That’s obviously a lot to ask of people. Which is why, as journalists, we should strive to give all of the information out that we can find. We’re human too, and because of this, we can fall into the trap of assumption and shallow reporting. I personally don’t think I do enough research myself, and that’s something I need to change.
It’s just like what I say about veganism. I think veganism is a great cause, and I applaud those who brave the waters of such a devoted lifestyle. But unless a vegan is personally going about changing the face of the meat industry (which I’m sure is happening, and to those people, I salute you), they can’t assume that their preference of spelt over Challah bread is making much impact on the decisions at the Cargill, Tyson or Smithfield headquarters.
As Joseph Conrad put it, there is a heart of darkness inside all of us, and the cruelties condemned by charities could be described as one of the world’s hearts of darkness. The problem now is we choose to cover up that heart with a thin veil of positivity and idealism through our products and consumer-charities. It’s hard to deny the fact that sending money via text to Haiti or buying a Livestrong bracelet briefly alleviates the guilt of being a consumer (as Zizek describes in the video). But maybe it’s our goal, as journalists (and citizens), to start raising some questions about those little actions.
Charity is not a bad thing, and neither are the foundations that represent them. Rather, charity is a fantastic facet of our culture’s complex psyche. It’s wonderful to see how people will jump so quickly on helping out once crisis occurs (although there is also a critique of the tendency of the U.S. to not take action until crisis occurs). But our passive approach to bringing about change will, in turn, bring nothing but a prolonged status quo. Our culture of fast food and faster information has undermined our ability to stop and really realize significance—significance of anything. Pressing the “checkout” button is easier and has become preferred over more active decisions.
We as journalists need to inform. We need to research so that we don’t make sweeping assumptions or generalizations. We need to keep foundations like Susan G. Komen and TOMS accountable for their actions. We need to look into the background and history of international conflicts through the eyes of journalists, not necessarily just as humanitarians. We need to be honest and realistic in our reporting, so people can do the same about their own perceptions. It is our role to be the middle man between the people, these groups and activist movements, and the damaged countries under the spotlight. We ask the questions no one else asks, so that maybe, in the future, the people can too.
As journalists, as people and as a world community, we need to be active instead of passive. We can’t expect the world to change if we don’t take a role in the change itself.