My Granny used to raise money for Mother Theresa‘s work with the destitute in Calcutta by running jumble sales and whatnot. Then one day, to Granny’s deep chagrin, Mother T told her supporters that henceforth, simply running jumble sales was not enough. It was too easy. They should find ways of “giving till it hurts”.
How shocked she would be to discover that nowadays we can help simply by pressing a button.
Granny was also one of the first to donate used clothes to Oxfam‘s (and the world’s) first ever charity shop in Oxford’s Broad Street. Charity, since then, has become big business. There are pros and cons to this. Oxfam at one point allegedly had more followers than the then ruling Labour party had members, and can therefore cause big (corporate) businesses to quake at the mere suggestion of a campaign.
Modern charities and campaigning organisations like these can harness the power of social media to make it easy – effortless even – for us to support their causes. Their healthy marketing budgets help them craft the sound bite that will most effectively push our emotional buttons so that we unquestioningly push their ‘donate’ buttons, or their ‘Sign the petition’ buttons.
I am not (necessarily) questioning the good intentions of these organisations, but I think it is too easy to be swayed by the pull of a heartstring. In this age of information democratisation, I think we have a responsibility not to take the easy path, but to look deeply and honestly at both sides of any argument presented to us, and make our own informed decisions.
I learned this lesson last year when, like many in Oxford, I was being frequently waylaid by campaigners to ‘Save Temple Cowley Pool‘. They would regale me, like so many yellow-tshirted Ancient Mariners, with tales of corrupt Oxford City Councillors trying to deprive them of their swimming pool for nefarious economic and political reasons and build it in Blackbird Leys, a low income housing estate on the outskirts of Oxford. They argued that Blackbird Leys residents were being tricked into losing their green spaces to car parks and having their gardens flooded.
Then an actual Blackbird Leys resident told me, quietly, “We would really like to have the pool here – it would be great for the kids – but those town ladies don’t want us to have it for some reason”.
Another friend, who worked for Oxford City Council, told me the campaign was doomed because the pool itself was; it had a structural fault which meant it would be impossible to keep it open. Now all of this could be – as the campaigners tried to convince me – scurrilous misinformation, but at the very least it shows that the story is more complex than they would have had us believe. I expect the truth is always more complex than anyone thinks.
That’s when I vowed never to sign another petition or make another donation without first checking the facts for myself as far as possible. So I have been steadfastly hardening my heart to pictures of cute, sad-eyed beagles who may or may not be being tortured in science labs, hesitating over emails urging me to ‘donate now to end the killing of garment workers‘ and even callously refusing to share a Facebook post informing people (wrongly) how to survive a heart attack when they are alone.
Before I do anything, I will check the facts.
It’s not easy. It takes time. It seems cynical. But it’s better than supporting a flawed cause, spreading misinformation that could actually cost someone’s life, or being used as an emotional cash machine by organisations that may or may not be able to achieve what they claim they can.
Even this wouldn’t be going far enough for Mother Theresa, but I think she would approve of the principle. (Sorry, Granny).