Thursday, May 29, 2008

Do Gooder Better

Off a lot of conversations and thoughts recently (the conversations mostly with Tyromaven, the thoughts pretty much everywhere), I want it known and understood that I am not now, nor will never be again, a do-gooder.

This is not to deny that I have been. I have. When I was first teaching theater, in college, I don't think I knew what else to be. I was deeply beholden to students' every expressed whim and desire; I let feeling sorry for people, rather than feeling for/with people, guide my actions. I needed to do that, and I learned from it, and I'm doing all I can never to do it again.

A couple of years ago I posted on the concept of alfalsism, which drew rankled reactions from several of my readers. I understand why people got so prickly; while I still stand by the basic opinions, especially as I clarified them in the comments, it was an incredibly negative and hostile post, and manner of approaching it.

So here I am.

The definition of a do-gooder, as I see it, is someone who approaches work completely from the outside, and dispenses Band-Aids on the battlefield. This, again, is not to deny that Band-Aids are sometimes necessary. But in terms of social services, which in one way or another are almost all the organizations I've worked for in the last four years, do-gooders are almost omnipresent and not terrifically useful. A do-gooder is a person who sees terrible problems in the world that result in some sadness, and feels that the most important work to be done is addressing the sadness.

Again, this is not to say that the sadness does not need to be addressed. However, without addressing the source of the sadness people are just going to keep being sad. (I am simplifying by using the term "sadness," but I'm hoping you understand what I mean.) But a do-gooder pats herself on the back for her minimal work on mildly alleviating sadness, believing her work is genuinely changing the world of those she is ostensibly serving. A do-gooder can't view the changes she's making in scale, nor can she really take in that the problems she sees could possibly be systemic.

What are the alternatives to being a do-gooder? For a while, with Tyromaven, I was poking at "world-changer," but honestly I'm more and more convinced that teacher, in and of itself, is an alternative. To teach without assuming you know its results, without believing your contribution complete but still acknowledging its substance, to know where it fits into a larger picture—this is an alternative to do-gooding. World-changer is an ambition, and I'm willing to hold it as such, but for now I'm going to go with teacher.

I don't have the energy to write much more than this, but I hope it's clear enough.


At 4:49 AM, Blogger Lawrence said...

isn't the problem with posts like this that they make everyone who disagrees with you sound like a lamebrain?

At 5:19 AM, Blogger Lawrence said...

once you find the source of the sadness, you're going to need to find the source of the source of the sadness. and then the source of that. every level you get to *is* automatically now the new surface level, i mean... so there's nothing to blame....

At 5:28 AM, Blogger Lawrence said...

also... i do need to know how much of that old post from 2006 you still believe, because i'm certainly not going to go rev myself up to rave against something that isn't even current any more. but looking at that post i couldn't possibly understand how you could actually call yourself a teacher, and feel like you've gotten away with it. seems to me like it'd seem like such a hypocritical thing to do after all that railing.

At 8:28 AM, Blogger Ammegg said...

Hmmmm . . . I still think charity, and the kind of things people tend to call altruistic, reinforce(s) an existing, ultimately negative social order, one that we like to pretend charitable actions can fight or alleviate. I believe good teaching to be different from that, and I believe that good teaching is not altruistic, and I believe that in general, when people "need to feel/do something altruistic," they tend to be doing the thing for the most part for their own happiness, which sorta knocks down the concept of altruism. I don't have a problem with people doing things for their own happiness—in fact, I think we're often much better off that way (yes, I know it's a downward spiral from there into individuals owning a fleet of Hummers, but I honestly think that's a better foundation to build from than a community founded on martyrdom. At least, I think I think that). I do have a problem with the notion that since you've (ostensibly) erased yourself and your needs from the equation your actions become Better. I have a problem with the notion that a teacher, good or bad or anything in between, doesn't stand to gain just as much from teaching as her students do from her teaching, and I believe that if the students are, indeed, gaining more then it's likely no one's gaining very much.

I think the post I wrote in 2006 was hostile, and my behavior that inspired it was hostile. I am rarely into hostility, and I think the hostility in that case—certainly in real life, probably in the post—was inappropriate. I still think most acts people call altruism are, in fact, alfalsism, but all I really think that means is people shouldn't try to frame so many acts as altruistic. This is a case where I genuinely think changing the form would change the content.

On everything being a new surface level . . . okay, yes, I see what you mean. So unless we have revolution it's a logical fallacy, and I don't believe revolution could ever really work. Yes? So I need to dig a bit more here.

What I am talking about, basically, is "My brother got killed in a drive-by." "Here, have a cookie." But even when I put it down to such a silly level, I cannot deny that people need cookies. Which I *think* is your objection . . .? My specific objection, then, is to people who see the cookies as ends rather than means. *That* is being a do-gooder.

Am I then condemning people to dissatisfaction? Maybe, maybe not, and this could be where the dysphoria is. I don't think every single individual necessarily has to be working directly and constantly towards changing the system, even as I take it as a postulate that the system should be changed where others, possibly including yourself, may not. With that postulate, I'm not going to consider handing out cookies an accomplishment, and I'm going to feel that things have been stopped rather than solved by means of those cookies. Did shit need to be stopped? Often, yes, but just as often, people are trying to stop it not because it, itself, needs to be stopped, but because if this immediate problem can be staunched then Everything Will Be Okay. I don't believe that it will; I think cookies assuage one small difficulty right now, but are rarely something you can build from. If you go away and take your cookies, then nothing's changed except that people need cookies again. But there are a lot of people out there who think that cookies solve problems other than the immediate need for cookies. Those people are do-gooders, people who think everything *can* be okay because of cookies. And that may be to say, people who believe that your brother being shot in a drive-by is inevitable, so all we *can* do is offer cookies. I can kind of see the logic of that position, but I'm really uncomfortable with the notion of living as if it's the truth.

I hope that clarifies. So if you still believe me to be a hypocrite for teaching, please tell me why.

At 12:55 PM, Blogger Lawrence said...

weh. i love the fact that this spurred you on to write more here in the comment than in the original post. a couple of points before i've got to go off, to be continued later i hope...

i think it's actually not so much that i was saying that you *were* hypocritical as that i couldn't understand how your teaching didn't seem hypocritical to yourself after expressing what you did in that other post. specifically, like, accepting money for it, if the postulate is that teaching benefits you as much as it benefits the students. i mean i have an *answer* to that, in that if teaching is a social need then it does behoove the society to support people who decide to spend their time on it, but even with that, *i* can still feel plenty hypocritical knowing while i'm teaching that i'm accepting money for what certainly seems in the moment to be a back-and-forth, even as i *do* believe they're gaining more than i am on the whole. so if you really believe that in the act of teaching itself both parties are gaining an equal amount, how is it just for one to be taking money from the other??

also... it's a low blow to say i don't believe in changing the system. in a way, you know, i feel like the idea of changing the system is behind most of the most conscious level of actions i take in life. if you ask me whether i believe in learning to be happy within the system then the answer is of course yes. but i really don't at all anymore see any conflict between these goals, other than possibly a time conflict. they both seem so absolutely necessary that some sort of categorical imperative is set to smash them together willy-nilly.

At 3:54 PM, Blogger Ammegg said...

I'm sorry if it was a low blow. Those were not easy comments to wake up to. :>) I didn't mean it to offend, nor did I mean it as an accusation.

Money's an interesting point. I guess I could see it as reimbursement for training or something along those lines, but I am struggling a lot with that as I struggle to plan my youth theater company, which is a longer conversation whose ideas I don't necessarily want to post up here, but which I will Email you as soon as I've got 'em written out. But I am having trouble with the notion of paying professional actors to come in and do a professional-quality show with kids and not paying the kids. Working on the thoughts.


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