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On Charity and Criticism of the #CEOSleepOutZA

This post wast authored by Simon Shear (@axaxaxasimon on Twitter). Amongst all of the opinions expressed around the CEO Sleep Out it is by far the most eloquent and appropriate, which is why I have chosen to share it on my blog (with permission).

The CEO Sleep Out is like Henry Kissinger winning the Nobel Peace Prize while calling North Korea the Democratic People’s Republic: self-parody that needs no further exposition. But it may be useful to investigate the allegations made by the critics of the critics (aka ‘haters’) of this ultrapremium sympathy fest.

But first some preliminary remarks

1. Charity

– Charity is elective. It’s an act of largesse. Taxes are not charity. Charity confers some prestige on the giver. It is, inevitably, an act of power.

– The burden of taxation often feels onerous. The burden of charity usually doesn’t. The normal charitable giver will tend to choose the level of giving that she feels will sufficiently burnish her moral self-worth but doesn’t hit the pocket too deeply. Finding that sweet spot is an art. There is nothing wrong with this. People who give to charity doing a good thing and are, to that extent, better people than those of us who don’t.

– Charity is not justice. It can make the community more just, but it has built in limits. Compare the benefits to the poorest of the welfare state, funded by highly burdensome taxation, to discretionary charity. Compare also the benefit of the welfare state to the most highly taxed: i.e. not being lynched in their mansions. The latter point may be contested, but I hope it is still plausible that justice may sometimes demand principles that go against one’s immediate interests.

– Sometimes the state of affairs is so bad that ordinary charity is not enough. Something must be done. This may mean fundamental reform, or it may mean a pantomime, an enactment of a radical gesture, that forecloses systemic change. No doubt there’s a neat Lacanian-Zizekian term for this.

2. Empathy

– If you need a camping trip to learn that sleeping in a non-branded* cardboard box during a Highveld winter without K-Way thermal underwear or hot chocolate with marshmallows (with the metro police present to ensure you have a safe night’s sleep, rather than harass, assault and displace you) then you are an idiot.

– Our CEOs are not idiots, so the exercise could not possibly have been undertaken as an investigation into the conditions of being homeless. (And if it were, it would have failed, given the additional provisions and protections mentioned above.)

– Furthermore, if the country’s financial elite wanted to learn about being poor, there are plenty of experiences they may have only a vague understanding of, but about which at least something can be learned through exposure. What is it like for their poorest employees (do outsourced cleaning staff count as employees? I guess the CEO of the cleaner outsourcing firm will have to take one for the team) to wake up at 5am in a low cost house or shack and walk (unprotected by armed response) to catch a succession of unsafe, overcrowded taxis to get to work on time? An unglamorous but interesting way to learn more about people poorer than you is to take public transport for a few days.

– ‘But the events are about raising awareness’. What does this even mean? Does is mean that CEOs are real humans whose suffering matters, whereas the authentically homeless are statistical abstractions, or apparitions glimpsed briefly through the window as the Uber speeds through Doornfontein on the way to Maboneng? Not consciously, it doesn’t. It means that social issues need to be sold to us like deodorant or Big Macs. It means that how, when and in what degree to alleviate suffering is a consumer choice and advertising is the key to social change.

– Consumer choices are driven by desire. Your hunger for power or acceptance or pizza. What we now think of as empathy is the affective result of socially conscious advertising. You are not a good person unless you feel deeply. You must be sad for the suffering. The misery of the destitute is all about is.

– But why address suffering in this way? Why emulate, in however watered down a fashion, the conditions we seek to relieve? Because charity, advertising and empathy are symptoms of the same malady.

– What will the homeless think of our parlour game? Who cares, it’s not for them. Why listen to the homeless people directly, why let their voices be heard, when we can inhabit their sprit ourselves and make our own, more rational, policy decisions?

– What’s wrong with imagining the conditions of others? Nothing. That is what not being a psychopath is. And there exist ways of gesturing towards an approximation of the experiences of others. One could imagine – and I think these actually exist – experiences held in total darkness to get a sense of the way blind people navigate the world, which is maybe not wholly unproblematic (sic) but at least is not obviously condescending – this is about imagining different ways of being in the world, not cloaking yourself in a fancy dress of other people’s misery – and invoke the mystery of human experience as such, and of the particular ways of experiencing the world of the unsighted.

On the critics of the haters

Some very obvious points that nonetheless need to be made:

“At least these people are out in the freezing raising money, while you sit in your warm bed trolling on your iPhone.” I don’t wish to be ungracious, but the CEOs were hardly suffering. This was a high prestige social event and, I bet, a lot of fun. But that’s a secondary point. Yes, it took effort and initiative to go out there and make this thing happen. We should be impressed and, yes, our criticisms shouldn’t be gratuitous or personal. But that doesn’t invalidate those criticisms. We could imagine people working very hard and suffering greatly (early colonial missionaries, say) and doing work that is condemnable. We should be sympathetic to these people, even praise their good intentions and hard work and lament our own laziness and moral ineptitude. But that does not exclude strong criticism.

(Note, by the way, that running a marathon is also a source of suffering, but it is a privilege to choose to suffer like that and the beneficiary is yourself.)

“I see debate on Twitter streets about #CEOSleepOutZA. R25m for our destitute kids looks good to me. If you think it’s flawed, do it better!” This is an actual Lindiwe Mazibuko quote. The point is not trivial and impeccably Harvardian. A good sum of money was raised by the event that will directly benefit people. But do we truly think raising an adequate amount of money (where do we set that bar?) renders something beyond criticism? How about a charity ball where the guests come in blackface to increase awareness of racism? Or a party where we take ketamine and pretend to have muscular dystrophy to raise fund for medical research? How about every time I kick a homeless man, you donate R100 to charity? Is that too low? R200? R5 000? At what price does it become ok?

“Can the haters present a R25 million cheque to aid the homeless?!” Yeah, sure. No problem. Just nobody try cash it.

“Also, to all the haters saying the #CEOSleepOutZA is offensive and ‘poverty porn’ what have you done lately to help those less fortunate?” Pretty much nothing. I gave a guy at the robots some coins. Is this the end of the conversation? Is the event not patronising because I’m selfish? Can we patronise the less fortunate because others, who are more fortunate, haven’t done anything constructive either?

Hating is sometimes *the most constructive* thing you can do. Not often, but sometimes. And never singly, but together. It is much easier for journalists, who are dependent on their corporate employers, to condemn government than to hold business to task.

We need to do the hating on their behalf.

P.S. If you are an important business person who took part in this event and we happen to enter some sort of scenario that involves money flowing from your business to my bank account, I’d like to make it clear that this is all a joke, hahaha, and you guys are the best.

* The CEOs slept in boxes with the sponsor’s logo emblazoned on the side. This is not a joke.