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I was recently privy to a conversation regarding the funding of an 18th birthday celebration. The daughter was telling her mother that it is normal for people to pay for their own food and drink when out celebrating. Her mother, troubled by this, questioned whether she would follow this move away from the generosity she had been raised with. In my head, I understood both arguments. As a child I have seen my parents pay for outings for their friends, but as an adult I have attended celebrations where we each paid for ourselves, including an uncomfortable moment where a friend ticked my name off a list once I had paid. A lack of generosity obviously doesn’t sit right, but being asked for money doesn’t sit right either. Of course, few of us have the means to pay for everyone, but at the same time it seems a bit rash to suggest that if you don’t have the money you shouldn’t celebrate, doesn’t it? Paying for a birthday celebration isn’t the most pressing of issues, but it does highlight a larger issue. We cringe at the idea of appearing ungenerous, yet we are unwilling or unable to give. Are we becoming increasingly ungenerous?
Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene,’ published in 1976, examines the raw human’s selfish biology, determining that altruism is taught, not inherent, ‘Let us try to teach generosity and altruism because we are born selfish.’ Dawkins argues that we were born to ensure that we ourselves survive, that the survival of others is not as important. I wonder if we are failing to teach altruism, if we are becoming increasingly lazy and selfish. Many of us are struggling on measly wages, which clearly doesn’t augment chances of being generous with others. It seems that Dawkins’ theory is still apt, as our callous spending of time and money that, when juxtaposed against the rejection of someone in need asking for help, forces many into guiltily giving.
Charity giving is tough to decipher. No one wants to be approached on the street by the person selling £10 key-chains for charity. Many of us, understandably, bow our heads or stare intently at our phones, avoiding all eye contact as we pass them. We all want to make our own decisions about money, but we also don’t want to be seen as ungenerous. The guilt that surrounds this and spurs people to be generous, it could be argued, falsifies certain acts of generosity. Last summer saw a surge in charity challenges. The Motor Neurone Disease ice bucket challenge, for example, offered a new way of supporting and raising awareness for MNDA. You threw a bucket of ice water over your head if you were nominated, and donated. The only problem with the ice bucket challenge was that people got so wrapped up in making a video of themselves that they didn’t donate or even realise that the point of the ice bucket challenge was to raise money for Motor Neurone Disease. Regardless of this, MNDA raised a fantastic amount of money, but for many it merely appeared to be a fun way of getting Facebook likes. This drew my attention to the idea that being generous is often a means of attracting attention to yourself. Generosity can be a selfish act, an act of kindness that while seemingly altruistic is deeply selfish, which is highly problematic. If we are only generous when it suits us, or when it makes us feel/look good, can this be considered as generosity?
Even when we are generous, we are often pressed for more, which creates reluctance to be generous in the future. After completing a charity event last year, raising and donating a large sum, I was hassled for more money over the phone. When I told the charity I was a student and couldn’t afford to pay a regular monthly sum, I was told not to worry, that I could pay the lump sum now over the phone. The feeling of being guilt-tripped, persuaded into giving more is not a comfortable one. We like to be in control of what we spend our hard-earned money on, we don’t like being pressured to give money, especially money we don’t have.
When considering a larger scale problem are people more likely to be generous? Last week we saw a surge in generosity as a CrowdFund campaign was created to help raise ‘a bailout fund for Greece.’ British citizen Thom Feeney started the campaign after calculating that in order to bailout Greece it would cost each European only €3.19 to reach the €1.6bn target. Unfortunately it didn’t meet the target, but people donated an incredible €1,930,366, proving that perhaps we aren’t as stingy as we feel. When it truly matters, perhaps people do rummage in their pockets. But how do we decide when it does actually matter? When it affects us personally? When it affects people on a large scale, as seen in Greece?
Social media is a platform for egotistical ‘selflessness.’ People post pictures and statuses of good deeds they’ve done, to show off that they have helped someone in some way, to tell people that they are a good person. So yes, taking a cynical view, it could be said that we are becoming increasingly ungenerous from the social pressure to appear a particular way online. After all, we fail to mention our system of choosing whom to help, highlighting that generosity is selective; we pick and choose how and who to be generous to, inevitably devaluing generosity. This act of charity, it could be said, often stems from a feeling of superiority in the giver, the thought, “I have what these people don’t have. I have the power to give.” This unhealthy hierarchy diminishes the idea of generosity. Then again, is generosity a form of hierarchy? How do we know? Are we ever selfless? Is there always an underlying self-indulgence in acting altruistically? Does altruism truly exist? These questions can’t be answered easily, but it will be interesting to see, with current events, how generous countries will be to each other. Fear and devastation change mind-sets and , and hopefully we will, in the future, become more generous, more giving, more altruistic.