Thursday, March 03, 2005


When westerners come to third-world countries attempting to do what they think is good, and noble, and riteous, it is, instead, the worst form of ego-massage imaginable -- thinking that our mere presence is going to improve the lives of those who never asked for it to begin with.

True? False?

I don't know.

I'm asking because I watched the Oscar-winning documentary Born Into Brothels last night, and it depicts the lives of the children of prosititutes in Calcutta, the streets ofwhich looked not unlike Phnom Penh (from the little I saw of it in the film). These children are given the gift of cameras by a white Western woman, and they learn about art, each other, themselves. They shoot the world around them for our entertainment, so we can ooh and ahh and cry at their misery before seeing who's on Letterman.

Nice, right? Humanistic, in the best sense of the word?

I think so.

Although there's some criticism of the film for it's somewhat paternalistic (maternalistic?) nature: I, the western white man/woman, will come and help you, the poor, brown, helpless Asian. And you will thank me for it, and I will feel good.

That's what happens, and it's true -- you do feel good for helping those who need it.

Is that wrong?

I don't think so, necessarily, but I can see why detractors might think so. Are we just getting off on other's misery, and redeeming ourselves by doing what we think might help, imaginary pats on the backs all the way home?

There's no easy answer, I guess. Anytime anyone helps anybody else, there's always accusations of selfishness, which seem to me to be pretty much beside the point, anyways. Everything we do is selfish, even the goodwill we offer to others; in the end, we're looking to fulfill what we feel needs to fulfilled within ourselves. If others benefit, and we feel good, it's a two-for-the-price-of-one deal.

Perhaps it is only a movie designed for our entertainment and our own guilt. (That's the harsh, cynical way of approaching the subject -- not the way I particularly want to view it, but a valid view, I admit.) But by watching it you are able to enter a new round of empathy; and perhaps that same empathy, actualized, can benefit those around you. All art may be exploitive, but this kind of art could, if deeply felt, lead to action. And that can only be a good thing.

And yet, the anxieties linger. Most of the world is in a desperately wretched condition, poor and getting poorer, yet somehow still filled to bursting with the goodwill and generosity exhibited by the kids in the documentary, the kids I see on the streets every day, the kids who have nothing to give, but who still, more often than you'd think, offer even that to a passing stranger.

If we match our goodwill (backed with money, and resources, and expertise) with their goodwill (backed by only their honest intentions), then both sides gain, even if the inital intentions have more to do with our own internal needs than those we are helping. No?


bethanie_odd said...

You are right, it is not a black and white situation. I really don't think alturism exists in it's pure form. Just as I don't think it is truly possible to be happy without giving in some way. My family likes to do NGO projects and at Christmas time, the only time we are together, there are always livly debates about the benifit of irragation in the field in Botswana etc. Intention is so much, inention and follow through. I sometimes think that is the missing link. At least it is with a lot of the Tsunami efforts with its billions of baht unable that have yet to be distributed and used. Yet there are people with pic axes hackign to bits the remains of their homes and there are tons of people still dontating money. whew... ok... good post.

bethanie_odd said...

ummm... i wish i had ran that through spell check. :)