Thursday, January 8, 2015

On Activism, Giving (Enough) and the Effect of Hopelessness

Have you ever decided not to act, or to give, because you thought you couldn't make enough of a difference?

A few weeks ago, NPR featured a short piece on the effect of hopelessness on generosity.  Vedantam (whose micro-commentary I love) explained the basic premise of the research this way: in situations where we decide to give, or to help someone, emotional connection to the people in need is important (we get what he calls a "warm glow" from that shared humanity).  But also important is the feeling that we can make a real difference.  Statistics about the enormity of a problem actually reduce, instead of increasing, our emotional response; the "warm glow" is overshadowed by the negative feelings we experience (e.g. guilt) about people we're not helping.  So essentially, when they're given the opportunity to respond to a big problem, people don't do what they can do because they feel bad about what they can't do.

A friend of ours gave the sermon in church in December.  He's incredibly well-read and an excellent speaker, so we were looking forward to his talk; in general, whatever he has to say is interesting.

But this time, he made everyone squirm.

Because he called us all out for not giving enough.

Imagine standing up in front of a bunch of liberal tree-hugging do-gooders, and telling them that they don't give enough.  That they're too comfortable in their lives.  That their commitment to several key social justice projects is an embarrassment.  That they ought to be supporting their church better.  That they ought to be giving what they can, whatever that means.

It was a pretty ballsy move.

But he's right.  If you're going to stand up and call yourself a (insert your identity here: activist, Christian, UU, philanthopist, feminist, friend), you should pony up.

I live a comfortable life, all things considered.  I do give.  And I could choose to ignore (or simply be sad about) the news about domestic terrorism, racism and injustice, sexism, poverty, Muslim extremists, because there is so much I can't do.  I could feel like I'll never measure up to a former student who has moved to Sierra Leone and become know for her work with Ebola patients.  Or I could act, in whatever small way I can.

This week, I'll find a way to help the family down the street who just lost everything to a house fire.  I'll spread the word about the talk being given at my church on Saturday about the social construction of race, in a county where most people outside of my town are white.  I'll help to collect food for our local food banks, which are running lower than ever.  Maybe next week, there will be something else for me to do, something that's a little harder.

What do you avoid doing, because you feel hopeless about what you can't do, because it seems like an impossible issue to tackle?  What small things can you do to overcome that inertia?
Pin It


  1. I think xkcd has a great comic on this idea.

  2. I'm actually going to call foul. I think this mindset is a turn on to some and a huge turn off to others, and the risk you take delivering that kind of speech is that it has the potential to bring out the don't wanna in some.

    Can a person give, always putting themselves last, and give and give and give? Yes, though I think the average person burns out faster with that mindset. Whereas I think the person who targets their help -- who chooses to look at their time/money as finite and to spend it wisely in some places and not in others -- has the potential to keep delivering for longer.

    Because I'm willing to bet that anyone who had reached their personal limit, who WERE already giving what they "can" and were then told that their best wasn't good enough, was either motivated to push harder (not the best advice considering the friend doesn't know individual circumstances and what that push could cost another person) or to push back.

    I think I would be more impressed by someone who presented an "impossible" problem but had cleverly broken it down into bite-sized solutions and asked people to step up and do one of the bite-sized solutions.

    I think that would work better than judgment. Because stating whether or not someone is giving "enough" is a judgment call. And it's being applied to a group. Without truly knowing everything about the group.

  3. nicoleandmaggie and Lollipop: you're both right. He DID turn people off. My husband included, who said he didn't like feeling guilted. On the other hand, it created some good conversation in the "talk back" part of the service, about where and how people give, and how/when they check in with themselves to ask whether they really ARE doing what they can.

    I gave up a lot of my "service" commitments not long ago because I found I couldn't fit it all in with my new job and commute. Sometimes I think I really ought to be doing more, and that I gave up too much; I have barely any non-work commitments now. Should I put myself last? No. And I ought to make sure I'm paying enough attention to myself, too (I don't).

    Our friend's point, I think, was that just because we're a bunch of (mostly) liberal tree-huggers (or a group whose mission is "social justice") doesn't mean that we always translate our beliefs (or outrage) into action. And that we should look for opportunities to do so, that fit our ability to act.

    I still found Vendantam's point, though, about the largeness of the problem and what we need as motivation/incentive in order to act, to be an interesting finding. Same problem, different reactions, based solely on our perceptions of what we *can't* do.

  4. Look at your own list: helping fire victims, helping expand the conversation around race,etc. These are wonderful acts. We can certainly be inspired to give in meaningful ways but why must we berate ourselves for not doing more? And not at the expense of our own well-being: you put the oxygen mask on yourself before you help others on the plane for a reason. I think there are more powerful motivators than guilt.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...