Slavoj Zizek on Charity & its collusions with oppressive results: A commentary

Slavoj Zizek (1949 –)  is a very popular Slovenian-born political philosopher, change-agent, and cultural critic.  Like most of the better cultural critics and revolutionaries, he cannot be locked into, or defined as representing any one branch, sect, ideological framework of any discipline, yet he is most definitely political/cultural in orientation.  He also invokes psychoanalysis as a gate through which he can link dominant cultural actions with psycho-social factors as well, although his psychological analysis seems to be closely linked with his understanding of Jacques Lacan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Lacan).  I, as you know, do not think of one philosopher or idea as all-encompassing and ‘good’ or ‘evil.’  I think of everything as multiple (remember Chimamanda Adichie‘s talk on multiple stories?) including our ideas and trajectories of action, which come from our world histories and our relations with each other’s histories, thoughts, cultures, and power relations.  I enjoy listening to, and reading Slavoj Zizek.  Many of his best works are within panel discussions or partnerships where he can discuss with others.

In this video, he presents his ideas on the idea of ‘charity,’ being a prioritized ‘good’ action on the part of a globalized dominant Christian narrative and now moral value, that has spread as a tactic of giving and compassion in the eyes of the media and political interest.  If you recall, I have mentioned that I feel and think that things are contradictory.  Within a contradictory reality, we must think of how our actions will have effects and choose accordingly, understanding the complex arrangements and further contradictions that arise from our actions.  Instead of being paralyzed because we are NOT doing ‘good’ or that we may do ‘bad,’ our analysis and knowledge and discussions can lead to better actions that take into account, the multiple stories that arise from our actions.  This, may then, lead to more ethical choices and diverse contexts through which we may analyze what road to take, what decisions we must make, and what processes we use to reach those determinants.

Charity has been viewed as an action that a benevolent and privileged group, family, or person—and now in the case of nations, the ‘good and benevolent nation’ would do in order to be seen as positive for the world to become better, or perhaps enjoy rewards in shape of arriving at a ‘kingdom of heaven.’   In any case, Slavoj Zizek presents a wonderful case for the collapsing of the idea of a ‘charity’ into our nation-state system, whereby charity is not totally what it seems.

Feminist and postcolonial and post-structural analyzers of economic development concepts, have long understood the uses of charity and ‘giving’ as a tactic of powerful nations to control the weaker nations (see the book: The Development Dictionary: The Guide to Knowledge as Power. Edited by Wolfgang Sachs. Published by Zed Books 1991).

With this in mind, Slavoj presents the idea of how our middle-class, comfort and ease-seeking mainstream societies of dominant nations, globally, would want to be charitable without lifting anything but a finger with a checkbook or a vote.  In other words, by being able to be charitable in a very immediate sense, without any contact with those we give to, or without any thought of how those recipients may be affected, we collapse buying as a consumer with the knowledge of our charity.  In buying a certain product, and having that product have a percentage go to some poor family, we feel good about ourselves.  Slavoj also questions if we actually do feel good, or that we are just doing it because it is available for us to do it but do not wholeheartedly believe that this is actually happening.

Slavoj does not mean, as he states, that we should NOT give and be charitable.  He asks us to see this as a contradictory affair, where the charity has oppression attached to it and that while we give, we must think of new and more just and ethical ways of caring for each other, beyond the consumerist and very alienated way of so-called ‘giving’ that we have inherited and reproduce.  It is attractive to our lazy middle-class ways, and also being satisfied with what we ourselves want (a cup of coffee, etc.), and we can ignore whatever else is happening in this case.

How can giving be bad?  Well, there are may ways to ‘give.’  I would say that Christian charity is born of privilege.  First, it may have started out as a moral act, but soon it became much more political.  In a sense, as I have mentioned before, the giving is actually quite condescending.  It is very self-centered and really not about ‘the other.’  It is about ourselves getting to heaven, doing ‘good.’  SEE GOD, I AM GIVING…….I AM A GOOD PERSON……..I’m trying to get to heaven…..See me.    I feel sorry for the person I give to, and may even get a sad look on my face, showing concern.  This may also be quite enraging for the receiver.  In the case of economic charity and the giving machine, the giving is never just giving.  The news that we watch about how the US gives to New Orleans after the Katrina hurricane, or how we give to the Iraqi children during war, or how we set up Offices in Japan after the Atomic bomb for victim relief……are all also fronts for more cruel and cold acts of crime, in some cases, by the American government.  These are no longer secrets.

There has been much lost in this charity game.   We must become more courageous and take our lives back, and in so doing, we take the ways we care for each other back.  First, I think, we must get through a century of fear and isolation that has guided and stunted our identities so that we no longer approach things as mysteries and different.  We must ‘know’ and recognize and be able to define so we can control.  So, I think Slavoj is correct in saying that charity is, in many ways, damaged.   Let us examine how we participate, but we must also not withhold giving where we need to, as we have no other system to give to those far away and the necessities of our privilege in the US or the UK or in Japan, or other first-world nations, can be used to give in whatever way we can.  And as Slavoj suggests, we must , at the same time, be discussing and implementing new ways that may disturb the current mainstream system of oppressions and perhaps pave the way for new systems not born of reactionary patterns born from our current situation, breathing life anew.

Slavoj Zizek overview: http://www.iep.utm.edu/zizek/

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