Misreading Altruism

A recent New York Times poll asked readers whether “rich countries” should help “poor countries” with problems stemming from climate change. For a brief moment, I was upset that I no longer teach introductory rhetoric. Brief, in part, because I love teaching literature.

I’m less interested in the us/them aspect to the question, or the misreading of class that hails middle-class readers as occupants of a “rich” country while effacing their relative lack of access to wealth: “rich” refers to a tiny minority of the population; the rest of us are “petty men” to Caesar’s colossus.

I am interested in rhetorical framing. Would it have made a difference if the question read, “Should major polluting countries take greater responsibility for their actions?” Not as elegant, or as balanced, as “rich” and “poor,” of course. Perhaps, framed another way it might read: “Should hardened criminals be punished more than first-time offenders?” Those who follow the law and are engaged in questions of prison reform know this question remains fundamental to ongoing deliberations.

Here, of course, is the magical way in which wealth effaces responsibility: that one’s company produces toxic pollutants does not make one responsible for the poor who live in nearby slums and have respiratory problems. The rich/poor distinction privileges success (becoming rich) as the end of responsibility. I am told by those who study such things that we might read this as the triumph of neoliberalism.

Responsibility, what I would term culpability, is re-translated, through a very clever sleigh of hand, into altruism. Rich countries help Poor countries. (This debate, of course, also proceeds under the rubric of affirmative action.)

Recoded as altruism, culpability becomes yet another way to bolster one’s ego. Pushed to a certain illogic, the potential for recoding injury or criminality or responsibility as a form of altruism guarantees ongoing inequality and oppression. Here, as those who study Africa know, the Africans should be grateful for “help” they receive. As an aside, I should note that a recent, quite wonderful article pointed out that the Grimacing Texan revels in gratitude; indeed, he is quite upset when world leaders fail to thank him. The problem with foreigners is that they don’t know how to be grateful.

Ultimately, the Texan’s desire for gratitude and the Times’s hailing of its readers, here in Althusser’s sense, perform the same ideological work: translating what might be experienced as oppression into a mode of ego-gratifying altruism.

2 thoughts on “Misreading Altruism

  1. This weekend, in a moment of weakness, I watched ten minutes of a nature show on PBS. It was about African elephants, towards whom a Whiteman (TM) was showing an unctuous mixture of zoological expertise and cross-species compassion.

    We saw the elephants, in their herds, wondering at us from across the species line, wrapped in their gargantuan wisdom. Whiteman (TM) did a suitable stirring voiceover.

    Then the camera goes elsewhere for about fifteen seconds. A tribe of Maasai. The grin, they jump obligingly for the camera. They are in Harmony with Nature. Cut back to the elephants. One of them–named, but I forget her name–is in some elephantine distress. Whiteman soothes her. The violins float in (no, really). The moment is touching. Only a heart of stone–like mine, incidentally–could fail to be moved by it. The scene-setting Maasai are already collapsing into memory, not to be shown again.

    Gotcha! For a moment there, you thought I was going to tell you something you didn’t already know.

    We like the Maasai. We like Harmony with Nature. We definitely think rich countries should help poor countries.

  2. If the online scandal sheets are right, we especially like happy, jumping Maasai who will provide nights of exquisite pleasure using Ancient African Love Magic.

    Good Views. Good Sex. Good Life. And the $5 I spend Will Save the Maasai! As will the $500 I give to Save The Elephants.

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