Friday, September 10, 2010

Blind Dates and Empathy

I have a habit of getting into crazy arguments on first dates. Once I threw down my napkin and $20 on a table because, in a restaurant where people of only one skin color were serving people of only another skin color (in DC, shockingly), a blind date argued to me that the segregation of populations of societies by racial heritage was natural. Another time I took heel because a date argued the necessity of sweatshops as a part of the natural progression of a society from unindustrialized or "underdeveloped" to "developed". But his logic was flawed and mystifying. In every case study he offered to me was the assumption that he, if born in a different city of a different time, or his sister, or his cousins, would be the ones making the difficult decision to run the sweatshops. He didn’t, he couldn’t seem to picture his mother as the one who was sitting in a harshly lit loud warehouse for hours pricking her fingers and swaying on her feet. He saved his empathy for the management making the tough decision to not allow unions and to not have healthcare, because, while painful (for The Other) now, it would lead to the eventual betterment of all of the society. When I am a guest in a village somewhere that is poor, that does not have access to clean water, to education, and I see a mother, I picture her as my mother. I can’t help it – she could have been, if my mother and I were born at slightly different times or longitude/latitude lines. If I see a woman who I don’t know, of course I comprehend that she won’t be exactly the same as my mother, but she might share some of my mother’s traits. She might have some of my mother’s vast intelligence, or some of her deep kindness. Indeed, I have to assume that she may. A man may share some of my father’s desire to protect those around him. People cannot be tossed aside. A human life is something crucial, not a cog in a machine to form a more perfect society. Society exists to protect life, not the other way around.

And that’s also the problem in so many INGO communication devises – as Shotgun Shack wrote, people aren’t props to be positioned in this way or that way to earn money for a community organization. Community organizations are there to protect the dignity of people. Not the other way around! The logic behind the commercials showing skinny dirty children and flashing digits for donations is so very hopelessly convoluted and flawed.

Moreover, I have such trouble comprehending the implied assumption behind so many of these commercials that Jane and Joe Potential Donor Public (okay, my crazy first dates aside) do not have the intelligence to grasp some of the complexities of the work that NGOs do in the field, if Joe and Jane were given a chance with a more truthful explanation. It is honestly no wonder that there's the generally held hypothesis that any celebrity or burnt-out college student or one of Rachel’s blind dates can drop everything to start a successful NGO. Large NGOs propagate that notion with every single commercial they release and brochure they send out in which they ask people to view beneficiaries as The Other, waiting for rescue, as Rapunzel helpless in her tower; as Cinderella, tattered and dirty and desperate for their kiss; as poverty struck, stuck, unhappy lives that need to be molded and manipulated by others.


  1. This is Timmy, what a fantastic post, very moving and right-on!! Hope you are doing well, beautiful Ray-Ray!!!!

  2. Timmy!!!!!!!! Hi :) :) :)
    Thank you. I miss you!

  3. Did you read this one from Tales from the Hood on how important "we" think it to view ourselves as the saviors on shiny white horses?

  4. yeah, Tales is great, I always read it! :)

  5. Very well put and sadly true (at least in my short experience volunteering). As for some of your dates, I have come to think that some people are just incapable of having alternate views. Sometimes, explaining things to some or get mad for why they can't seem to grasp some ideas, just become a futile exercise.
    As for the iNGOs (or some NGOs), I sometimes question why they have to dump down their commercials to the general public. May be I have become a little harsher to my American counterparts, but seeing some of the things in Iganga, Kitgum, and Lira, then compare to some comments my "friends" are making about their lives, I can see why the iNGOs have those commercials. It doesn't mean that what they are doing is right, but perhaps, some sensitivities are just not ready to approach some subjects at their core. Like Jack Nicholson's character would scream out "You can't handle the truth".
    Again, this is coming from a lowly volunteer with much to learn. So....

  6. Thanks for your comment, MP! :)

    I think that NOT telling the truth is very detrimental to the cause, in these cases...