Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Should You Give A Bum A Buck?

Sticking plaster on a suppurating wound?
Here’s an every day scene from my every day life. I drive up to a T junction where the traffic light is on red. A man holding up a tatty cardboard sign saying ‘Hungry and Homeless’ shuffles towards my car. I feel troubled by his hunger and his homelessness. A dialogue starts in my head. Should I wind down the window and give him a dollar? Aside from the immediate alleviation of his hunger, why would I do that?

The charitable side of my brain says: “What's wrong with immediately alleviating hunger, you tight-fisted, mean-hearted bastard, all warm and secure behind your locked car door listening to your alt country indie-pop hard bop yadda yadda wank. How can you ignore this man’s plight? He is hungry. He needs money for food. Now. You have more than enough money. Give him a buck. Now.”

“Oh yeah?” says the resistant (read: ‘cheap’) side of my brain. “You think that if I give him a buck now that I’m in any way helping the plight of the hungry and homeless? Or am I just giving him a buck to make myself feel better? Maybe I’ll even feel a frisson of superiority over the woman in the car in front of me who shook her head and refused his plea.”

“It’s not all about you,” says Charity. “It’s not about you at all. It’s about his need for food, right here and now.”

“No,” says Resistance. “It’s about your conscience, right here and now. It’s not that you care about his hunger. You care about driving away and seeing him in your rear mirror, and feeling guilty in your gut because you gave him nothing. The homeless, hungry guy makes you feel like a bad person, and you can not face up to that truth, even though the huge material gap between you and the needy reflects your willing engagement in a system that perpetuates hunger and homelessness. But how will it actually help this guy if you give him a buck? He’ll be hungry again tomorrow, and all he had was the benefit of your self-serving condescension.”

“Nice rhetoric,” says Charity. “So would you hand him the Communist Party Manifesto instead, and tell him to start organizing? You believe that the hungrier he becomes, the more revolutionary he will be, thus increasing the chances that he will overthrow his oppressors and institute a fairer system where no one goes hungry. Better still, you get to save a buck.”

“You’re being absurd,” Resistance replies. “You are taking to an extreme my belief in Rights Not Charity.”

“Maybe the homeless guy believes in Rights too, but in the meantime he’d like a little Charity because his belly’s empty, and you can’t eat slogans. And besides, what’s wrong with you feeling a little better about yourself for giving him a buck?”

“I can’t bear his gratitude and humility,” says Resistance. “If I’m going to give him a dollar, I’d rather he tell me to fuck off.”

“Why would he do that?”

“So that I’d give him another buck tomorrow.”

“Well, here he comes now. We’ve got three seconds to make a decision.”

Citing my finely honed political principles, I used to ignore the homeless man. Or I’d give him an apologetic smile. Sometimes I’d justify not giving on the grounds that the light might suddenly change to green, and I’d end up holding up the other cars while fumbling around in my wallet. There are few more wrathful phenomena than a column of car-confined westerners being delayed from pressing their well-fed feet down on the gas pedal.

Lately, though, I’ve stashed a bundle of dollar notes in the spare change compartment where I keep quarters for parking meters. I’ve become tired of the reasoning behind Resistance, even though I still harbour profound doubts about Charity’s motivation. But if I were asked to talk to the man with the ‘Homeless and Hungry’ sign, I’d find it much easier to give him a buck than to explain why a properly functional democracy in a wealthy, western society should be providing sufficient welfare for every last one of its citizens.

I suppose I could make my point and then give him the buck, but any such cop-out would feel too much like church-sponsored soup kitchens where the hungry are made to pray and sit through a sermon before they get their food. A gift should come with no strings attached, especially a gift as small as a dollar. Impressive words hold little nutrition for a hungry man.


Nathan said...

I had this same internal should I/shouldn't I dialogue when encountering Hungry and Homeless until I encountered a gentleman outside a corner store on the Upper West Side who was so desperate and pitiful, and so visibly grateful that I stopped that I could have wept right there. Now I just hand it over.

Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop said...

I liked the way this was handled in Nick Hornby's 'How To Be Good' when a A-grade asshole realises he's an asshole and starts trying to redeem himself by emptying his pockets to every homeless person he comes across, causing himself a few immediate economic and marital problems.