Since my English 100 students are reading and writing about consumer culture right now, it’s been on my mind more than usual. When I reflect on my own ridiculous habits, I occasionally get to feeling guilty. I start thinking about how I could use my money to help others, to give it to a worthy cause.
But when you think about it, giving to most good causes still involves participating in consumer culture. Some of the times we’re convinced that we’re making “thoughtful purchases” because proceeds from a certain purchase go to a certain organization. Sometimes we might already desire a thing, and then we’re convinced to buy it because 10% goes to a good cause. Case in point: some pink heels that I bought where 10% went to breast cancer research. Throughout the month of October, hundreds of pink items are sold in the same way. Sometimes we brand ourselves as conscientious consumers– remember those rubber bracelets for every cause under the sun that were all the rage a few years ago? As much as I dig the concept, TOMS shoes have become a similar situation: wearing them is a way of showing that you’re as worldly and charitable as you are stylish. (To be sure, I wear TOMS quite often so I’m not criticizing anyone who does; I’m just sayin’ that we’ve all got other motivation behind wearing them then shoe-less kids in South America.) When participating in some kind of event that is supposed to be for charity, there is all sorts of advertising and branding going on. And many are really an excuse to do something that we’d already want to do in the first place, and that the money benefits someone in need makes us feel good: think a charity concert. No one really sacrifices any thing. Why don’t the people just give money directly to those in need?
And I’m really not judging because I’ve participating in all of these things. They did make me feel good about myself at the time. But I wonder if much of the time, we’re driven to help others because it makes us feel good about ourselves. And if we can feel good about ourselves for doing something we already enjoy, then even better!
Something that didn’t make me feel good about myself is this article from The Atlantic that hypothesizes why Americans are not giving donations to Pakistani flood relief when we were so eager to help Haiti. I have to confess, donating money to Pakistan doesn’t initially strike me as a priority, and I haven’t felt the urge to help in the way that I usually do after disasters strike impoverished people. Why? I’m not certain. It could be the donation fatigue that people talk about. It could be about politics. It could be about not being able to find a personal connection to the victims. None of these reasons are really any good, and the more I think about it, the more uncomfortable I feel about my ethics. What if I, and others like me, really only like to help others when it benefits us in some way?