Psychologists have referred to the idea of learned helplessness when discussing some cases of poverty around the world.
Faced unrelentingly with tremendous hardship many people begin to believe that there is nothing that they can do to change their circumstances.
But it seems to me there is a kind of culture of learned helplessness in our own society.
We hear all the time how exposure to images on the news of famine, war and death overseas has desensitised us to what we are seeing. We see so much of it that in a way it does overwhelms us, and we safely go about our lives believing that there is nothing we can really do. We have learned to be helpless about it.
Sure the odd person decides to go overseas to a developing nation and volunteer for a while, but that’s seen as almost the equivalent of a ‘tree change’ or ‘sea change’ – someone who is dissatisfied with their life and seeking a radical change.
After reading Peter Singer’s book The Life You Can Save I realised that I have learned to be helpless about world poverty.
Singer approaches poverty as an ethicist, looking at the moral arguments surrounding poverty and charity.
One of his main arguments is based around the metaphor of children drowning in a pond. He argues that if we are aware of the children drowning then we are morally obliged to save them. What most of us do in our day to day lives when we ignore world poverty is to let children drown.
Through our inaction we let great suffering continue.
Singer explores the different reasons why we don’t donate to charities to end world poverty. He brings up issues like valuing the provision of material possessions for our families over the lives of others, an unwillingness to help others who we do not know, and the preference to donating money to causes in our own countries.
It is interesting when you think about it that we will all readily donate money to help others when a natural disaster like the recent Queensland floods or the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, something that takes us buy surprise – but we ignore problems that have set in for the long haul.
At one point in his book Singer takes the ethical argument to the extreme. In effect he asks us to weigh all our discretionary purchases to see whether having a cappuccino is more important to us than saving a life. Or to see whether buying a bottle of wine to have with your meal is more important. He argues that “in order to be good people, we must give until if we gave more, we would sacrifice something nearly as important as the bad things our donation can prevent”.
He explores some interesting examples of people who have taken pretty extreme measures in their lives to donate more – people who are donating 50% of their income to charity. But these people feel like the few who pack up their bags to make the radical life change in developing nations overseas. They feel foreign to us. Not accessible to the bulk of us who feel tied to a life where we are always paying off something (the mortgage, the car…) or trying to get ahead just a little bit (put away something for the kids education or a holiday). Some of these people have made the decision that ‘indulgences’ like travel and consumer goods will not be a part of their lives if they’re at the expense of the lives of others.
At times reading Singer’s book made me feel quite guilty: because in truth I’ve neglected charity in my life – probably giving about $200 or $300 a year at best.
I love the fact that I am pretty anti consumerist for sustainability reasons but I also because I don’t waste my cash on ‘stuff’. I don’t buy cappuccinos, or hoard pairs of shoes or get fancy haircuts. I don’t smoke, I rarely drink. I save my money, dutifully ploughing our savings into our home loan.
But because I don’t buy ‘stuff’ there are not a lot of discretionary purchases I can cut out of my life and give the money to charity instead. For me, donating more to charity means making a decision to value donating to charity above getting ahead financially. It means letting go of the security blanket of being ahead on the mortgage.
When it comes down to hard decisions, I think many of us decide not to sacrifice the good stuff we have, because of our own cultures learned helplessness. We see the problem as too big. Some of us essentially use the argument that the other adults standing around the pond aren’t helping so why should we? We see poverty as just something that will always be there. We can’t change it by saving one life.
The heartening thing about reading Singer’s book though was how he examines the figures needed to turn around world poverty. Singer has designed a kind of progressive tax scale for charitable donations. He suggests that if just the top 10% of income earning American families donated according to his scale $471 billion a year would be generated to fight world poverty. This is an amazing figure when you compare it to the estimate of $189 billion a year needed to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals.
Reading books like Half the Sky has helped open my eyes up to world poverty. Both ‘Half the Sky’ and ‘The Life You Can Save’ have also helped my learned helplessness through showing the very real ways in which it can be tackled and that if we act together then we can make a difference. And it won’t be a terrible burden to do so.
I’m not sure if I’m quite ready to take the pledge yet. I have to work through my mortgage security blanket issues and have a meaningful discussion about our money with my other half. But I am going to work my way towards that goal. I know (my getting ahead on the mortgage issues aside) that I can give more than I have in the past. I don’t need to have a whole security blanket, just a small corner will do me, and maybe in the future I won’t need one at all.
If you think you can too, will you join me?
Together we can.
Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/un_photo/6096782449/sizes/l/in/photostream/ with thanks to United Nations Photo. Logo from http://www.thelifeyoucansave.com