Philanthropy and Psuedo-Action: Strategies For Distraction (by Tad DeLay)
Philosopher Slavoj Zizek says the highest danger of philanthropy today is its devolving into the nexus of cultural capitalism. The highest danger to action, he claims, is not inaction but rather is pseudo-action. Zizek notes how we may go to Starbucks and purchase a pricy bottle of Ethos water, for which Starbucks will donate a fraction of the proceeds to an impoverished community (and keep the rest for profit), and I can feel I have done something for the poor starving children. I can even carry my pricy, philanthropic bottle into work to remind my coworkers that I am a good person. I like to wear my TOMS when making such benevolent consumer choices.
The point is not to degrade buying habits that move in the direction of sustainable care for the world; instead, the point is that we conflate the small act with just action. There is a bit of truth to the idea that in our culture of capitalistic philanthropy, I purchase my redemption from not caring in the act of consumption – much like the man depicted here with a barely visible “Save Darfur” sticker on the back of car.
This image depicts what often passes for social justice in the Church today, not because there is anything particularly philanthropic in the picture, but because it represents the danger of pseudo-action. Often, philanthropy is our constant work to solve problems that we constantly, unknowingly work to create. Trendy guy is harmlessly pumping gas into his SUV doubtlessly not thinking about the child soldiers in Darfur or Congo, with no idea of the ways in which his consumption fuels systemic violence. But the bumper sticker mitigates the offense. Even the trendy cell phone he uses, much like my own (this is self-satire, after all), has parts that are stripped from mines in Congo which warring groups use child soldiers to protect. That’s ok too, because he probably used his 3G connection to join a selfless cause on Facebook. That is what I would do.
This is why we need advocates tireless pushing us to realize the ways in which we participate in the problem. I don’t know what the solutions to these types of structural problems are, but I do know that we are not aware of most of these connections in the first place. Perhaps we are lulled into concerned complacency every time we click “like” on a Facebook cause. The pic of a child soldier I modeled this off of had the biggest smile on his face, proudly displaying his AK-47 with 3 clips duct taped together – enough to kill nearly a hundred other children before he would have to reload. He is protecting the ore used in my iPhone, so I hope he got my corresponding pair of TOMS. I have no idea if he is still alive.
But I do know that the bumper sticker will help keep the keep the child soldier out of mind.
Tad DeLay is a student of philosophical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. His writing, art, and music can be found at www.taddelay.com.