Charity and justice

Occupied with the new academic semester, I have not been able to post as frequently. So here is a cop-out post on a subject I think about, but rarely write about. People uniformly love charity. If you go to any public interest type of group and offer them a way to provide some direct temporary service to those in wretched living circumstances, people will jump at the opportunity. If you go to that same group and advocate using direct political action to bring about institutional and social changes — not just temporary charity — they will balk.

Providing charity is apolitical, while pursuing justice is not. So long as that distinction remains in place, and the former is valued and pursued more than the latter, we will not ever see a just society. But this favoring of charity is fairly predictable. Eradicating injustices almost always requires shifts in power, while providing some temporary relief for all the pain those injustices cause does not. The powerful and those who admire them have no problem providing temporary relief from injustice precisely because it allows the elite to maintain their status, their power, and their wealth. But permanent solutions aimed at solving injustice at the root — those that necessarily require power shifts — will always be opposed by the powerful and wealthy because they are the ones most threatened by them.

Because I cannot write a long, research-filled post about this phenomenon, I thought I would instead include some of my favorite treatments of charity and its impact on justice.

Ralph Nader:

Presently, most philanthropy goes to needed charities. Some billions of dollars should go to preventing pain and deprivation in the first place. A society that has more justice is a society that needs less charity.

Martin Luther King, Jr.:

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

Oscar Wilde:

We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so. Charity they feel to be a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution, or a sentimental dole, usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to tyrannise over their private lives. Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it.

Slavoj Zizek: