The mask of altruism in seasons of giving

By Zoso

There's a local television show where the host dresses incongruously like a modern Abe Lincoln, taut waistcoat, tall hat, beard and all.
"Here's 10 million rupiah. Spend it all in half an hour. Whatever you buy is yours, any cash that is left must be returned," he tells an unsuspecting person, usually someone living in abject poverty.
Flabbergasted, the poor man, who does not earn as much from a year's hard labor (perhaps even from two), embarks on a spending spree.
Thirty minutes later the exhausted, yet triumphant, person returns to his shanty. Four men carry a freezer, another a microwave as helpers lug boxes and plastic bags filled with superfluous luxuries. The sudden star of the show parades a cellular phone before his envious but cheering neighbors.
Alas, as the closing credits roll, the single electrical fuse in the one-room house short-circuits as the microwave is plugged in. Unfortunately, the man has nobody to call on his flashy cell phone because no relatives have a telephone.
It's OK though. The audience had a good laugh watching the frantic buying spree, oblivious to the likely fact that despite owning a new freezer, microwave and cell phone, the family probably does not have cash to buy food next week.
Switching channels, an ad comes on telling people that if they buy a particular brand of soap they will be contributing a portion of the money to charity. There's no turn of phrase about how well the soap cleanses, its fresh scent or long-lasting freshness. The copywriter's tag line is that the more you buy, the more goes to a good cause.
We are at that time of year again, the season of giving. A time when it's chic to become holy hypocrites, as shy agnostics suddenly return to the fold. Mosques, churches and temples swell for two months as reflexive acts of altruism descend to justify 10 months of selfishness.
When philosopher Auguste Comte coined the term altruism 150 years ago, he meant it as an opposite to egoism. Modernity, as is often the case, has perverted its benevolent significance by subtracting the essence of giving, while accenting its symbolism to a point that it actually reinforces egoism.
The giver gives as a source of immolation, as the receiver is falsely endowed with a sense of entitlement.
Whether on television or against the backdrop of a religious observance, one cannot help feel something amiss about the pervading moral cannibalism. Like buying expensive jewelry, the art of giving becomes an act of self-gratification. People donate because they can, not because they want to.
Thus the icons of philanthropy are those who have the most, because they can also spend the most.
But the measure of benevolence lies not in the nominal sum proffered, but in the level of sacrifice we endure to make it. That is to say that a 1,000 rupiah donation from someone who only has 1,000 rupiah in his account is more virtuous than a one million rupiah donation from someone with billions of rupiah.
It is about doing the right thing for the right reasons. In Islam, for example, the first practical religious teaching is that giving must be done consciously and with sincerity.
Simply helping others is not altruism. Like giving the beggar money so he will stop pestering us, putting in the highest bid at a charity auction or governments providing aid in order to gain political leverage.
The difference between giving because we can, out of pity or when the setting dictates it, and giving because helping others defines our reason for existence (even if it is at our own expense) is the distinction between giving out of necessity and doing it out of love.

The above article appeared in The Jakarta Post of October 31, 2004