No Charity Is Selfless: The Problem With Self-Benefiting Kindness
Before I even get started, I would like to do a little PR control and say that I don’t hate Taylor Swift and admittedly, have many of her songs on my iPod’s “most played” playlist. This isn't personal, it’s just commentary.
Imagine if I described a booming business to you. It’s an up-and-coming company that is paid by an outside source to give $5 meals to the homeless every day.
For every $5 meal given away, an outside source pays the company $10. Even though this business profits from feeding the homeless, it is still doing great things for those who need it.
It's important to acknowledge that without this business, many would go hungry. However, would you praise this business for its charitable heart if you knew it made double the profits? Probably not.
You might praise it for benefiting society while making money, but not for its sacrifice.
You also might want to keep it in business because of the impact it is making in the community, but you won't post on your Facebook page about what a genuinely charitable organization it is. Why? Because the very essence of charity is that it doesn't benefit the giver.
If this business did such work and got no profit in return, perhaps you would go ahead and make your Facebook post.
Naturally, we’re conflicted about these kinds of thing. As humans, we want to help others and we want to see others help others. However, we also have an innate drive to seek out legitimacy. So, the public sometimes scours even the most humanitarian acts if they aren't paved with good intentions.
But, would we rather have good acts with selfish motives, or no acts at all?
The answer to this is subjective to the individual, but the argument can be taken further when analyzing recent celebrity activities.
This is where Ms. Swift comes in. Known for her abundance of fan-based outreach, Taylor has made a name for herself as one of the most beloved singers in current pop culture. Her most recent outreach was sending a $1,989 check to a fan to help with her college tuition.
A well-made video of Taylor also shows her wrapping presents for her fans over the holiday season, an act of kindness the media praised that could make even the most relentless Swift-hater’s cold heart melt.
Without saying she isn't because certainly it takes time and effort to do these kinds of things, you have to admit, doing so kind of helps her as an artist. Good publicity is, well, good publicity.
Why are we so fascinated with public figures doing good deeds? Why are we enthralled by YouTube personalities who monetize viral videos of themselves donating money to the homeless, when there are millions of “nobodies” around the world who ask to not be televised for their charity?
Cara Finnegan addresses this kind of human phenomenon in her article, "The Naturalistic Enthymeme and Visual Argument: Photographic Representation in the 'Skull Controversy.'"
The concept of "naturalistic enthymeme" is often used in debate forums. It's the idea that we, as people, inherently seek out truth in photographs.
Even though we cognitively know that there is the possibility of it being somewhat fake — with room for digital enhancements, Photoshop or perhaps, the photographer simply staged the picture —, we still desire to deem the photograph true, and will therefore use it to justify an argument.
Similarly, we, as humans, desire to see genuinely charitable acts of kindness from others, so when public figures, like celebrities, perform these acts, we readily deem them to be authentic, well-intentioned acts of kindness.
In reality, most (not all) celebrities do these humanitarian acts because it benefits them with brand enhancements.
Thinking back to the business I spoke of earlier, brand notoriety can be equivocated to monetary gain. In this way, celebrities who use charity to enhance their brands benefit similarly to the business feeding the homeless for $5.
Manipulated publicity stunts may help the receiver, but they also greatly benefit the giver. Daniel Boorstin coined similar stunts as “pseudo events” in his book, "The Image: a Guide to Pseudo Events in America."
We, as the public, are ready to eat up the generous act of kindness because that’s who we are, and more importantly, that’s what sells. It’s a whole vicious cycle:
The public figure wants brand enhancement, so he or she does something nice with the media watching. The media wants an audience, so it publicizes that nice thing to the audience, which desires to see good things in the world.
The public gets to be happy when the famous person does something good. What’s so bad about that?
Very rarely is there a win in this debate. Undoubtedly, there must be public figures who quietly donate their time or money to organizations, without inviting camera crews along.
This idea of being charitable without reaping benefits is ideal, yet the catch-22 is that we won’t hear about it without the publicity.
So, we’re back to the drawing board with the age-old question of whether it's better to give and benefit or to not give at all?
This is not an argument to say, “celebrities should stop doing good things,” nor is it to say that we should be cynical to every good deed a public figure does.
It is simply to say that we must be skeptical of good deeds anyone does, especially those who clearly profit from them. It doesn’t matter which side of the debate you take, so long as we maintain the ability to recognize motives instead of ignore them.
I can’t stress enough that this is not a personal attack on Taylor Swift or any Swift fans. Personally, I hope she continues to give back to her fans. Maybe you’re reading this thinking, “I totally agree with that.”
More likely though, you’re a “Swifter,” reading this and getting ready to send me hate mail. Least likely, you’re a celebrity (hi, Taylor) reading this and you’re like, “What am I supposed to do? Never donate $1,989 ever again??”
This isn’t a call for celebrity humanitarian acts to stop; it’s simply a conversation about why we can be grateful for and skeptical of those acts.
Or maybe, I’m just bitter I didn’t get money from T-Swift for my student loans.