American Culture 101: “More blessed to give than to receive”

29 May

This post is for Americans. Mainly white Americans. The rest of you are certainly welcome to read it, and who knows? It may even make sense for some. But anyway, you’ve been warned…🙂

* * *

Most people don’t remember that Bangladesh offered not just cash but also disaster response technical assistance to the United States following Hurricane Katrina . The US declined the offer of technical assistance, of course. But when you think about it, few places get more practice being resilient and responding to hurricanes and accompanying sea-surges than Bangladesh. It would have been logical to accept their help. But then, the decision had nothing to do with logic. It was about culture. American culture.

* * *

A few nights ago I happened to watch the final episode ever of NBC’s Law & Order. The one in which Lt. Anita Van Buren comes to believe that she may have cancer. You can see the stress on her face. Her colleagues can’t help but notice. They overhear things, snippets of phone calls. She’s away from the office getting MRIs. Hard not to know what’s going on. When it becomes obvious that people in the precinct know what’s going on with her, Lt. Van Buren in very typical American fashion, she makes a big deal out of making the point that she doesn’t want sympathy. And in equally typical American fashion, her colleagues utterly fail to hear that message.

Throughout the episode we learn that Lt. Van Buren will have trouble affording the treatment that she’ll almost certainly need. Her colleagues discover this and set about organizing a secret fundraiser to help her. She discovers the plan, has a fit, and reiterates in strident tones that she doesn’t want sympathy… or help.

That night, back in her trendy, well-lit rent-controlled flat Lt. Van Buren’s fiancée/boyfriend holds her close and admonishes her. She should accept this gesture – both the gesture as well as the actual financial help – from her colleagues. They’re good people. They mean well. They care about her and just want to help.

And the part that absolutely killed me: she should do it for them.

So, basically… A woman is dying of cancer. She wants neither sympathy nor help, and yet in the end gets essentially pressured into accepting in order to make them feel good. She’s the one who’s dying, but somehow it becomes about making her friends happy.

Yes, I know it’s just a television show, but this scenario strikes a strong, resounding chord in our culture. Against basic logic, we are drawn to side with the helping friends rather than the person suffering or dying, not just on TV, but in the real world. I’ve personally witnessed real-life variations on this theme more times that I can possibly remember (and I’m not even that old).

We can’t help it: we love being the giver.

* * *

Anyone who’s ever been part of a church or school or local community “drive” in the USA knows the spirit that ensues. There’s a sense of real community, of real commradarie, of real shared common purpose and common goal. These are all very good things. They are what make communities communities. This is the essence of the mythical “grassroots” that American development workers go out into the world to try to replicate.

Every year around November (American Thanksgiving) and December (Christmas) it is hard to resist being heartwarmed at local news coverage of those local churches or schools or communities that come together to raise money for this poor family or set a goal of X# of truckloads of food for that local foodbank. It’s practically aid work, at least as it’s portrayed in the media: shots of mountains of stuff ready for distribution, trucks laden with whatever rolling out of the parking lot, cheerful little old ladies in wintry sweaters sorting canned goods or knitting shawls for homeless babies…

And none of this is in any way meant to be snide: those are all good things to do. Heck, I plan to take my own kids to help serve Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner at local homeless shelters when they’re a bit older. I think that communities coming together to help their less fortunate members is really what community development and even relief work ultimately come down to in almost any context.

But all of that having been said, it is clear that the emphasis is on the giving. And de facto, on the giver.

Movies like The Blind Side are great examples, too. They make us feel all warm and fuzzy. They seem like great examples of ordinary people getting past cultural and racial barriers. The idea of a petite, white, Republican southern belle with an NRA membership adopting a homeless, mammoth black kid from the wrong side of town and giving him a chance is positively charming. It’s a heart-warming story with a happy ending that ultimately feels like proof that ordinary citizens can overcome social and cultural and racial divides.

And perhaps those things are true. But when you really think about it, The Blind Side is not about poverty or homelessness or racial stereotypes or about a poor black kid rising out of a troubled past to become a celebrated athlete. No, it’s the story of a petite, white, Republican southern belle who did something good. Sure, she made a few mistakes along the way, but her heart was in the right place – she meant well – and in the end it all worked out.

I would be willing to bet money that there were at least a few rich white women who at least for a moment fantasized about finding a poor inner-city child that they could nurture to stardom after watching The Blind Side.

This urge to glamorize giving and hero-ify givers is a huge part of why the American media’s catch-22 of supply and demand inevitably gravitates toward Selma, Madonna, Sean and Oprah and their stories, rather than towards closer looks the people they all claim to want to help. And it’s also why people like Jason (he’s only one of a gazillion) almost immediately get mad and/or fall back on, “but I only wanted to help…” whenever someone pushes back on ideas like 1millionshirts.

We love identifying with the benefactor. We love being the giver.

* * *

Not everyone can recall the message of Acts 20:35 offhand. But I’m guessing even many non-Christian Americans are aware of the existence of a Bible verse which says that it’s “more blessed to give than to receive.”

And that gets at the other half of the problem: While we love giving, we’re terrible at receiving.

Our culture is grounded in the belief that we can do it. We can go it alone. We can figure it out. This is the sub-plot of the “taming” of the American West, where cowboys and settlers alike, gritted their teeth against the elements and stood strong against whatever life or nature tried to throw at them. We’d rather be poor and know that what we have we earned ourselves, than accept a handout.

Being able to survive on one’s own strength is almost a moral quality. “She worked hard and took care of her children, despite terrible challenges” = “she is a good person.”

And although we almost never say so directly, needing help is almost, well, immoral. (Which is exactly why, in my opinion, Nicholas Kristof can write with a straight face that boozing and whoring is what keeps Africa poor).

The way this all gets played out in actual daily life is that while we have a very strong sense of needing to give to those who need, to help those in trouble, it really is about those doing the giving and the helping. And by extension, it is really not so much about those doing the receiving: The poor. And once again, although we almost never say it, their role in the grand drama is to accept and be grateful.

Had the United States accepted on-the-ground, technical help from Bangladesh following Hurricane Katrina, then, it would have meant two things, impossible for Americans to bear: First, it would have meant a loss of morality. We needed help from outside. Second, the storyline would have shifted – it would have become a story about Bangladesh helping, rather than about America gritting it’s teeth and rolling up it’s sleeves and getting through it.

* * * * *

So what does this all mean? It means quite a few things, but in my opinion the main ones are:

We have to realize going in that with American donors (possibly donors of other nationalities as well), in their minds it really is basically about them. Whether the result of a Judeo-Christian worldview or of simply having descended from cowboys the story, at least in their minds, is about the donor by default. We have to find inventive and innovative ways to change that.

We have to combat this notion that there is immorality associated with poverty, whether than notion is coming from Nicholas Kristof or Pat Robertson. I don’t have words strong enough to convey how important I think this is. We have to break through the misconceptions of our donors (and maybe even ourselves) about this – unspoken, unarticulated misconceptions. Many things make the poor poor, and many things make it difficult for them to rise out of it. But morality has absolutely zero to do with any of it.

We have to make the story be about the poor. We have find more and better ways to communicate the process and outcome of relief and development work from the perspective of the recipient. We have to fight the urge ourselves, both as individuals and as organizations, to make the real story about processes and pipelines and logistics and budgets and technical standards. Of course those things are all important and we have to do them all well. But they are only means to ends. We have to keep the people we’re trying to help in the forefront of the storyline.

35 Responses to “American Culture 101: “More blessed to give than to receive””

  1. lraftree 29 May, 2010 at 12:04 pm #

    Hey there, I’m going to totally agree with you (I couldn’t even go to see the Blind Side because the storyline pissed me off in advance). But I want to expand a little on your very last point. I think it has to go even further. I think INGOs do a lot of story telling about the ‘poor’. But they still tend to do it Kristof style – by finding a simple tale, by focusing on people as caricatures and leaving it at that, in true American style, they focus on an individual. But they leave it in reductionist nugget form (this one person is a hero!), rather than weaving in the story of the processes and systems and broader community involvement that usually frame and sustain those ‘heroes’and the improvements they are helping make. In addition to the story being about the ‘poor’, it needs to frame the individual stories within the systemic changes that also need to happen, or use those ‘hero’ stories to encourage people to move outward to a bigger picture. I also think that we as INGOs need to start getting out of the way and supporting ‘the poor’ to tell their own stories about themselves.

    • J. 29 May, 2010 at 12:13 pm #

      Excellent points. Couldn’t agree more. Thanks for adding!

  2. lu 29 May, 2010 at 1:03 pm #

    the only change needed to make this post relevant for canadians is that our thanksgiving is in october…

    i think another line of thinking following from this great post is that we are so resistant to receiving and yet we do not allow anyone else the right to the same refusal of assistance or help. in fact, we then turn that into another moral issue that those refusing the assistance JUST DON’T GET IT, are being manipulated, or are uncaring or insensitive.

    i see this all the time in the ‘rescue industry’ around human trafficking and sex workers. in fact, i have found the majority of my professional time has been spent recently on educating those eager and willing volunteers that it is not their duty or right to force people out of a situation, no matter how awful they feel that situation is, if the individual does not want to be ‘rescued/removed.’

  3. Amelia 29 May, 2010 at 1:54 pm #

    Very very good post. I remember learning the first time I was poor, I mean really running out of money (not actually hungry) how hard it was to accept help. Receiving help with grace = harder than it looks!

  4. Helena 29 May, 2010 at 5:29 pm #

    Thought provoking post. Thanks.
    First, I am not a white American. The very first thing that popped into my mind as I read was the association (in my mind) with a blog post you recommended yesterday (The Asian Man’s Burden?). Could this be a factor, the reluctance to give up the “white man’s burden”, i.e., the position of the benefactor?

    Regarding “it’s better to give, etc.”, thing is, we need both, I’d say. We get a a chance to practice giving (and receive the good feeling therefrom) only when there are those willing to receive what we give. And I think it fair to let everyone have an chance of experiencing being the giver and the receiver. I feel there’s generosity involved in being both. jmho.

  5. TinAFG 29 May, 2010 at 9:43 pm #

    Loved this and agree completely:

    “We have to realize going in that with American donors (possibly donors of other nationalities as well), in their minds it really is basically about them. Whether the result of a Judeo-Christian worldview or of simply having descended from cowboys the story, at least in their minds, is about the donor by default. We have to find inventive and innovative ways to change that.”

    Or, I would add, to work around it in the short term. In my job (working for a national organization but liaising with international donor agencies frequently), that involves knowing what phrases calm donors, and what things they look for. I pitch the same project very differently to different donors. Going into a meeting with the Americans, I know they’ll want to know about implications for security. With the Nordics, it’s all about gender equality. With the Germans and the EU, justice and the rule of law. With the Italians, children and possibilities for fun ceremonies (I am not kidding).

    So, I tailor the sell, rather than the project, to those priorities.

    At least most of the time, this works out pretty well.

  6. Savina 30 May, 2010 at 3:19 am #

    Thanks for this reflection. Yes, this may be an issue of culture, but it raises deeper questions which are ultimately political. To me, what you write points to the difficulty of relinquishing power on the part of the West and the US in the first place. To do so would require accepting a more equal distribution of it by acknowledging that others may be equally or more capable of giving, according to the circumstances, as in your Bangladesh/Katrina example, instead of forcing them into being nothing but helpless and powerless recievers.
    Identifying with the benefactor and being the giver does more than just give the fuzzy feel-good sensation of having done right. It also reassuringly perpetuates an unbalanced relationship between the haves and the have-nots. Reversing it and placing oneself at the recieving end can be less gratifying and much harder than is generally acknowledged. I think this also relates to a deep-set idea that attributes a (negative) moral value to the condition of being vulnerable, so well illustrated by the story line of the TV show you mention.
    Much has been written about the gift relation between individuals and communities and the meaning of reciprocity. Though this is clearly relevant to the way it functions, the aid industry tends to sweep the topic under the carpet because it raises questions which are too unconfortable to address.

  7. joe 30 May, 2010 at 4:29 am #

    Not sure if it is worth examining the theology, but there is a definite strand within the gospels which suggest we should not be thinking of any benefit to ourselves from our giving – this often sounds like we’re giving out of guilt, but maybe even that is better than the kind of emotional kick-back giving you describe above.

    Further thinking along this line – most western Christians still think of themselves as being the source of most missionary activity and poor countries as ‘the mission field’. This is far from the reality, even on its own terms.

    I am not sure how you deal with this heresy.

  8. Heather 30 May, 2010 at 3:12 pm #

    Like Lu, to make your story applicable to us Kiwis you just need to eliminate thanksgiving altogether😉 I think it is something that all the white British colonies share.

    And as a white person from a white British colony, may I share that it’s *really* hard to be a recipient. I have a chronic illness that means I need all kinds of help, even though our household is above-average wealthy for NZ and NZ is a wealthy nation. Everyone thinks my husband is amazing. He has given up a lot to be married to me and to be tied to my illness, and *everyone* (including my parents) goes on and on about what a special person he is. I think he’s special, too, but I deeply resent the subtext that I have ruined his life and am generally useless. There is great honour in helping, but none in being helped.

    Talking about this to a friend who is a single mum I’ve realised that at least my situation is very clearly not of my own making: she has to deal with a much more direct moral judgement than I do.

  9. Daniel O'Neil 31 May, 2010 at 7:28 am #

    Great post. I agree with your thoughts, but not one of your conclusions:

    “We have to realize going in that with American donors (possibly donors of other nationalities as well), in their minds it really is basically about them. Whether the result of a Judeo-Christian worldview or of simply having descended from cowboys the story, at least in their minds, is about the donor by default. We have to find inventive and innovative ways to change that.”

    We are not going to change the Judeo-Chrisitian worldview. Instead, we have to accept that donations will always be more about the giver than the recipient and work to improve the story that we tell. When I give money to a cause, I give because it makes me feel good. I know that my individual donation does not make a difference, but I am happy that I did my little part. I am not sure what donating would feel like if it were only about the recipient.


    • Akhila 31 May, 2010 at 6:37 pm #

      If giving and donating and volunteering was about the recipient, we would have much better aid outcomes. We wouldn’t have students traveling across the world to parts of Africa/Asia/Latin America to work on one week volunteer trips when they have no knowledge of the local culture, and when they are not helping and possibly harming the local economy. We would not have donations to aid organizations that are not effective on the ground. We would not have people donating to causes they like because it makes them feel good, even when those organizations are known to be less than effective. Ultimately, if donating was about the recipient, the donor would still feel good – because in this case, they would be making an informed decision about their donation and ACTUALLY helping someone instead of just assuming they did. You shouldn’t give your money to a cause because it makes you feel good; you should only feel good if you know your money has actually helped (and not harmed!) the beneficiaries! If your individual donation doesn’t make a difference, why would you even feel good??

  10. IR 31 May, 2010 at 9:26 am #

    I have always thought Thanksgiving was July 4th.

  11. placenta sandwich 31 May, 2010 at 3:39 pm #

    Wow, yes yes and yes. And there are plenty of parallels here to the work I write about at Abortioneers and the general range of responses people offer when they learn what I do – or what they think I do. (Urgh.) Women with problem pregnancies are a whole nother set of moral failures, to hear American culture tell it. I kind of want to make a post about your post now…

  12. c-sez 1 June, 2010 at 6:05 am #

    Great posts (101 and 102) J. Quick thoughts.

    If you want to change the “framing” of the narrative of aid from being about the givers to being about the lives of the poor (the recipient), then this narrative has to be about *justice* not *charity*. Justice is the act of righting a wrong, for the person wronged. Fundamentally, even in a dictionary sense I think ‘charity’ is an act that is about something that the giver does.

    To see the distinction between the two, take the example of Amnesty. I don’t think you’ll find Amnesty often appealing to the gentle charitable impulse. You find them calling out to the sense of injustice and indeed righteous anger, to join the fight against wrongs being done, to people, by people.

    You might think that Americans with their instinctive grasp upon their own rights-based approach would be open and indeed susceptible to this approach. Hell, churches have talked the language of social justice for decades. So why not..?

    The first problem (for Americans and others) is that in seeking *justice* for the poor, and not just *being charitable at* the poor, ultimately you have to identify the cause of the injustice. And OECD-ians don’t want to hear how much of their pristine, cheap and comfortable western lifestyles are supported by oil spills, sweat shops, child labour, deforestation, offshoring of the satanic mills, and other social and environmental destruction in developing countries.

    The other problem is the prisoner’s dilemma. The single-child-picture simplistic charity narrative is ubiquitous because in a $100K mailshot or $20K full page advertisment, statistically the numbers show that it works best. Unilateral disarmament by any one NGO (unless they’re in a particular niche) means they’ll be out-fundraised by all the others who don’t stop using it, and fade away.

    As our pal Owen Barder might say, unless you can shift the equilibrium of this game, the incentives are too strong to expect anyone to do other than play it by the rules as they stand. You’re right that ‘the sector’ needs to have a better narrative across the board on this, but how do we get ‘the sector’ from here to there in a world of near-zero barriers to entry and #1millionjasons who will always be entering the game and picking the lowest, dumbest rung on the ladder?

    • placenta sandwich 3 June, 2010 at 12:58 pm #

      I really love this comment. Yes, indeed, Amnesty does “justice” very well and it makes some of us angry, and others uncomfortable. (As a side note, though, they do also employ with the individual narrative, but in a way I can’t help but like: e.g. at holiday time they ask people to write letters of support to specific political prisoners, which seems like it’d be both useful to the recipient [in an intangible way] and punch-to-the-gut to the donor.)

      It’s true, we don’t like being made to feel guilty, so instead NGOs try to make us feel good. But, from another angle, being aware of our complicity in a huge system against which we can do very little usually gives people the impression of two options: do nothing since nothing can make a difference anyway, or do things that “make a difference in one person’s life” which is great but not useful systemically. As Jane and Lu say below, the problem is many people overlook collective action as another option.

  13. Jane Reitsma 1 June, 2010 at 10:10 am #

    I am leaning more towards your talk of “individual rights” but with a focus on the “individual” rather than “rights.” Over and over again people are taught to be the hero. That they alone can save the world. And there is less talk about the collective power of a group. I mean Palin bills herself as a “maverick” and how many people loved it? A ridiculous amount of people wanted a “maverick” to be their president. That has to say something. And of course there is a connection with the wild west mentality. Not surprising that “maverick” is a word that originated in the American West. Don’t get me started on the whole “manifest destiny” mentality… which also originated in the American West.

    It really isn’t much different here in Canada (except for the maverick as president thing). Our youth are taught again and again to be “leaders” and change the world. And somehow we forget to teach them that this doesn’t mean blazing out there on your own to “fix” things, that it means becoming part of a collective solution.

    • lu 1 June, 2010 at 11:40 am #

      you’ve managed to articulate one of the challenges i face regularly – that people want to go out and do something and then translate that into starting yet another ngo, without the necessary research into who actually does what.

      without getting into the details here, i just wanted to say that you’ve given me a tool for my tool box when i talk to these individuals and that is to encourage them to look at our collective response rather than our individual response with the intended result of greater effectiveness.

      the idea that ‘a small group of concerted citizens can change the world’ or however that quote goes, is not wholly accurate and reflects exceptions and not the norm.

  14. Sarai 1 June, 2010 at 12:45 pm #

    Interesting…you have brought out some valid points. Being the “rich benefactor” places one in a ‘superior’ position to the poor receiver.
    Jesus had a word of advice for those who practiced this….”So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” (From Matthew 6)

  15. Linda 16 June, 2010 at 4:49 pm #

    Wow, this is so interesting especially the part about how the “more blessed to give than receive” verse may be responsible, in a deep, psychological sense. I totally see now how it leads to so many people thinking poverty is “immoral” somehow (unless they go the opposite direction and romanticize it as some kind of higher morality – a la “those happy people who have so little” etc.)

    I also feel compelled to point out that The Blind Side was a terrible movie, not just because of the story line, but because it had the worst script known to man, the actors probably physically choked on the sap dripping from some of their lines, and it featured the single most annoying performance by a child actor in my lifetime.

  16. Lars 18 June, 2010 at 10:53 am #

    While I agree with the sentiment and recognize the harm, wouldn’t it make sense also to try and harness this impulse for a better outcome? That is, if you know that Americans are driven by a vain need to fulfill a vision of themselves as being charitable, yet independent people, isn’t there a productive way of using that to achieve positive outcomes on the ground?

    It’s much easier to harness people’s vanity than to change it, wouldn’t you say? Particularly since the goal isn’t to make people feel bad about a desire to help, but more to make whatever help is given more productive.

  17. Julia 29 June, 2010 at 3:25 pm #

    Very good post. So many times I already got frustrated at the self-centredness of donors which in some cases prevents them from doing any good with their contribution. The first time I experienced this was when I myself was a volunteer at an orphanage in Africa. Christmas approaching an American TV-host whose name begins with O came to throw a big Christmas party for the poor orphans and other poor kids from surrounding villages. They were overloaded with gifts and food – I don’t think any one of them would have been able to even imagine such amounts of food before. Of course, Christmas tree and Santa Clause were also part of the package. The people left a few hours later and I must admit that I did not manage to even watch the fotos of the event that they posted with all the captions on how for the first time in their life these poor orphans (who otherwise spend all their days crying and suffering) had been happy.
    One big problem that I see when helping is more about the giver than the recipient is that those people who give because it makes them happy very often also assume that they know what the recipient needs and wants. The moral superiority of giving almost inevitably leads to the assumption that the morally superior giver knows much better, and has the right to decide, what should be given. And that is when help actually becomes dangerous.

    • Bob Allen 19 March, 2011 at 6:57 pm #

      Hello Julia….After reading all of these responses I more perplexed at my reason for giving…to the poor….or to those who have much…? If I wanted to send you a box of choculates because I liked your writing….would you say “No thanks, I have enough choculates.” Or “That was nice of you.” Would you accept the choculates if you knew I was homeless and got them from the soup kitchen? I do not connect giving the choculates with any degree of moral superiortiy. What happened to just giving and expecting nothing in return? I know hundreds who never receieve a thought from from another person.

      • J. 19 March, 2011 at 7:59 pm #

        who’s “Julia”?

  18. Peter 7 August, 2010 at 11:38 am #

    I posted a mean, snarky comment on another post, but I ended up reading more of the blog and I love you now.

    I’ve been wanting to read a well written article about this topic for a very long time. The phenomenon of gift-giving serving the giver more than the receiver is common to many (most?) cultures. But American style giving pretends that it isn’t about the giver – at least with some other cultures it’s more transparent.

    Along the same vein, I think listening to people you meet travelling praise you for your work is unsettling because it makes you the issue, rather than the people you’re helping. Accepting the praise would feel like affirming that it’s all about your ‘noble work’ rather than the desperate people in the world. “Lady/Mister, I’m not doing this for the praise of strangers in the airport!”

  19. sena 16 October, 2010 at 1:48 am #

    I like american culture. USA is an imigran country. At there there are many kind of people, culture and religion. Islam religion also stay at there. Recently issue about islam as terrorist religion increasing so fast. Is islam really terrorist religion. Visit my blog.


  20. Sarah 30 January, 2012 at 6:33 am #

    get mad and/or fall back on, “but I only wanted to help…” — the link is broken in its own special way. 🙂 (also, love the post)


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