On politics, activism, charity, and efficiency

While reading a forum, I came across a link to a blog post by Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex, which made the case that “charity” is a more effective way of helping people than “politics”. This post is a response to that one.

First, the bits that I do agree with. The eventual conclusion that nobody is perfect is fine. The notion that you don’t have to do everything all the time to be a decent person is completely reasonable. And I really have no problem if someone isn’t interested in reblogging or other social media awareness tactics, whether that’s because of anxiety, indifference, not thinking it’s a good tactic, wanting to focus that particular account on fandom stuff, or whatever, so I agree with the author that reblogging and reading other people’s reblogs does not determine whether you’re a good person, and that people who think it does are annoying. So, we have a bit of common ground! Now I get to the vast bulk of the post where we don’t.

First of all, I have an awful lot of trouble taking someone who thinks that protests are “thousands of enraged people joining together to scream at something – without even considering whether the other side has a point” and finds that it “terrifies and disgusts” them seriously on this topic, because it’s such a weird notion of how protests work (and what is terrifying and disgusting, for that matter). This characterization assumes that protesters (some of whom, in most movements, have either formally studied the issue at hand, or have significant lived experience with it) haven’t put any thought into their views and what objections people might have to their views. In my experience, protesters and other activists put about as much thought into such things as other politically interested people, namely, depending on the person, anything from “almost none” to “a tremendous amount”. It suggests an amorphous mob with no organizing behind it, no role specialization, no community or efforts to build community, no tactical or strategic thought, no internal discussion and debate through which collective behavioral norms are gradually formed. For that matter, it assumes that all protests are “screaming”, as though leftist marching bands, street theater, silent actions, singing actions, action encampments, sit-ins, die-ins, marches that basically look and sound like parades with a political theme, and quiet, covert, direct actions like tree-sits, don’t exist. I mean, not that I have a problem with screaming at protests, it’s just that non-screaming-based protests are commonplace. And really, are you going to try to make the case that there was something terrifying and disgusting about the women’s suffrage movement, or the Civil Rights Movement?

Alexander talks about the Black Lives Matter movement. He thinks it isn’t effective. Except that it has been truly, astoundingly, effective. A handful of people doggedly protesting in a random suburb of a medium-sized Midwestern city has grown to a movement of tens of thousands with the capability of responding to new acts of police violence in different cities. It has led to legislative proposals for police body-cams in multiple states. It has led to a legislative proposal for police shootings to be prosecuted by special, independent prosecutors, in Missouri, and the New York Attorney General to seek power for his office to investigate and prosecute police who shoot unarmed civilians. It has led to more interest in police violence at US protests from Amnesty International than Amnesty International has ever shown before – and to young black Ferguson organizer Netta Elzie getting an important job with Amnesty International, such that her voice will be able to influence the direction of the organization. It has led to Ferguson and Chicago activists testifying before the UN Committee Against Torture, and the UNCAT writing a report rebuking the US for police failures to comply with the Convention Against Torture. It has led to Ferguson activists getting to meet personally with President Barack Obama, and this meeting combined with the protests themselves led to Obama offering a giant pile of money for police retraining and police body-cams and creating a task force on policing. It has led to the governor of Missouri forming an independent commission to address issues raised by the Ferguson protests, with one of the young organizers being appointed to the commission. It has led to the mainstreaming of the conversation about state racism and police violence in the US.

For a movement that’s only been going on for a few months? That is improbably, ridiculously, effective. Movements struggle for years and years to make that much progress.

And that’s just one cause. There have been a lot of important causes that were advanced because of activist politics – I already mentioned women’s suffrage and the Civil Rights Movement. There’s a lot more. Like the LGBTQ movement(s). And the labor movement. And the abolitionists. And the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (still young and ongoing) with their anti-farmworker-slavery accomplishments. The New Deal and the War on Poverty, while they are different kinds of politics (and flawed in certain ways) were influenced by years of activist politics beforehand. Sorry, this is a very US-centric list because that’s the country that I know best.

Now let’s look at the charity part of the post. There are some basic points that need to be made. The world does not ignore charity in favor of politics – we have everything from the Gates Foundation to charity galas to demonstrate that. Most charity is not the Against Malaria Foundation – there’s a reason that it’s a top-rated charity in various rankings. In the US, at least, you get a lot of “charity” contribution going to universities and churches, for instance. The AMF is not hurting for money. “Room for more funding” issues are an actual problem with large charities. And it’s perfectly possible to give money to charity and to be an activist at the same time; there’s nothing mutually exclusive there. In addition, Alexander appears to see helping people as primarily about preventing deaths, which is surely a noble cause and I’m not going to knock it or anyone who chooses to strongly prioritize it, but helping people is also about better quality of life, dignity, civil rights and civil liberties, freedom from and recovery from violence, and so on.

There can be issues with the concept of charity. Too much charity comes from a white savior/upper-class savior/etc mindset. Too much charity involves well-meaning people from outside a community trying to solve a community’s problems when they don’t even understand the community and think they’re above it. Too much charity is moralistic and makes recipients jump through hoops to prove that they’re “deserving”. Because of the need for funding, too many charities, even those that are more activist groups than traditional charities, have to tailor their agendas to the sensibilities of wealthy potential donors. This is why some activists who do social service-y activism (more on that below) like the slogan “Solidarity, not charity.”

In addition, groups, whether they’re charities, or lobbying groups, or unregistered radical collectives, or PACs, or what, that are committed to any kind of social change, whether that’s education or anti-poverty or LGBTQ liberation or what, are going to be staffed disproportionately by activists, and probably going to engage with governments or participate in coalition social movements. So you’re funding activism. For instance, if you give money to National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs affiliates, they are, technically speaking, “charities” that help LGBTQ/HIV+ people who are survivors of violence, but most of them also do organizing work and are staffed by activists operating from activist motives.

Also, social services (a phrase that I’m using to avoid the above-discussed connotations of “charity”, which is not a great phrase either, but I’m not sure of a better one, as “solidarity” is too broad here Edited to add: Maybe “mutual aid” is what I’m looking for here but that also seems a little too broad) are often an integral part of activism. The Black Panthers were great at social services activism, with their “survival programs”. They started educational programs, free clinics that are still open today, free sickle cell anemia testing, a free ambulance service, free clothing giveaways, and a free breakfast program for schoolchildren that was eventually superseded by the US government following their lead (most of which are mentioned at that link). Mountain Justice, an anti-fossil-fuel movement in Appalachia, periodically does social services work like flood relief in the areas where it operates. Food Not Bombs uses free meals as activism against poverty and war. Leftist activists, especially from the anti-globalization movement, provided a major and early-acting part of hurricane relief for New Orleans post-Katrina, through Common Ground Relief. Occupy camps provided food, shelter, and other social services to all-comers (my local camp provided, for instance, loaner interview clothing for folks going to job interviews who couldn’t afford business attire), and Occupy Sandy was a major component of hurricane relief in post-Sandy NYC. The street medic movement, of which I am part, supports social change through the provision of basic healthcare services, whether that’s caring for protesters in the streets (as in Ferguson/Black Lives Matter, at Occupy marches, at antiwar marches, etc) or through organizing and running longer-term activist healthcare services (like the clinics and medical canvassing efforts of Common Ground Relief and Occupy Sandy). Social services, if done right, are a form of activism, and a piece of broader non-social-service-focused activism.

3 comments to On politics, activism, charity, and efficiency

  • xavid

    He doesn’t say it clearly, but it seems like the post you’re responding to is basing its ideas on effectiveness on Givewell/Giving What We Can-style “effective altruism” charities, which absolutely do take things like “room for more funding” into account. (Givewell unlisted AMF last year for that reason, but relisted it this year.)

    I do think the post you’re responding sets up a false dichotomy between protests and donations, and donations are clearly also a form of activism. My focus is more on things like justice and reducing inequality, and while saving lives is a key part of that, it’s not because the goal is to maximize the number of people that exist. (I also care a lot about nature, which I haven’t figured out how most effectively to pursue.)

    It’s also a little confusing how you seem to say that social change charities are staffed by activists but also drawing a distinction between charities, which can be problematic, and activist social services/mutual aid groups. While I agree that charities can be problematic, I’m not sure how to evaluate this problematicness when I’m deciding where to give. (I definitely am drawn to GiveDirectly for its direct assistance without strings, which seems similar to the social services/mutual aid groups you like. But AMF-style groups may be able to provide very needed assistance in bulk that individuals wouldn’t be able to buy easily themselves.)

    • xavid

      Oh, and I forgot to mention. I find Giving What We Can rather problematic because it explicitly exempts students and the unemployed from 10% giving, but not, e.g., employed people living in poverty. It’s pretty rabid privileged/middle class. Something progressive, like http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/17/magazine/17charity.t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0, seems significantly better than the flat 10% the post you’re responding to advocates.

    • lirael

      Yeah, I think the post is drawing some from the “effective altruism” philosophies. I think it was Givewell that came up with the phrase “room for more funding”, though I am not sure about that.

      To try to address what you brought up in your last paragraph:

      – Traditional charity is often problematic for the reasons that I stated (some charities much more than others). However, traditional charity can still be useful for the reasons that you stated, like scale. My approach is to try to find traditional charities that I think are doing good work AND have good mindset/philosophy – I like GiveDirectly for that reason too! This can be a hard thing to balance.

      – I think the difference between traditional charities and mutual-aid-oriented/activist-perspective groups is mostly one of mindset/philosophy, so I guess you could frame this as a spectrum, and I try to balance “Where is the organization on this spectrum?” with other factors like “Is it serving an underserved niche that I think is important?”, “Is it being overlooked by other donors/big donors?”, “Can it effectively use the money?”, etc.

      – Even many traditional charities are still staffed by activists and trying to accomplish something that could be described as activist-y, even if I don’t think they’ve sufficiently embraced anti-oppressive perspectives, or are very top-down, or the serious activists are in the rank-and-file while the people running the show are more corporate. To use an example I was talking about elsewhere the other day, I volunteer with three organizations that relate to sexual violence and/or partner abuse – RAINN (huge, national, mainstream, broad base), BARCC (regional, medium-sized, quasi-mainstream), and The Network/La Red (niche, oriented toward marginalized groups, non-mainstream). All of these organizations are staffed to some significant degree by activists, but in philosophy/politics, strategy, implementation of strategy, understanding of intersectionality, and general culture, I consider RAINN clearly the most “traditional charity” of the three and TNLR the least so (and thus the most social-services-as-activism).

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