Defying Market Logic: “Doing Charity” and Acts of Co-Suffering

First, read: Pedaling for a Good Cause—But Why?

This is an interesting discussion and I’ve talked about it with some of my profs before. One of the thoughts that has stuck with me is that legitimacy and authenticity can be gained through co-suffering. The journalist comes near it by saying:

“The best answer seems to be that they are paying for the intensity of dedication. By riding 60 miles through the night, I and my fellow riders accomplished precious little other than causing ourselves a great deal of discomfort. The very futility of the endeavor is meant to show how strongly participants feel about the importance of the cause being supported. People ask others all the time to reward this intensity of conviction with their own money in support of that cause.”

and:

“One interesting feature of these fundraisers is that suffering does seem to be a key element. If I were to offer to lie on a beach in Thailand for a week for charity, I doubt I would raise much aside from a cocktail glass.”

Of course, the co-suffering idea is something I’ve touched on in previous writing and through my study on food charity volunteers. No one has to go into the hood to hand out soup, but without the experience of doing so, many of the volunteers would feel robbed of the experience. It lends a sense of authenticity to their claim of “I’m a good person” or “I care about the homeless.” If you don’t care enough to suffer, then you risk being seen as not caring enough. However, the “suffering” that the participant undergoes pales in comparison to the suffering inherent in the cause the participant is supporting. Spending 3 minutes under a dank-ass bridge in Bronx handing out soup isn’t being homeless. Riding a bike 60 miles through the night isn’t cancer.

I’ve heard it said before: “writing a check is just too easy.”

Surely, some people prefer to just write a check (my parents fit into that category). But the interesting group of people to me is those who can afford to “just write a check” but are either ambivalent about writing a check or “participating” in some way, and those who feel compelled to “participate” in the so-called suffering. These are the folks for whom the ideas of acting out class and some of it’s pre-defined or expected social behaviors may best apply. In a way, these acts may be less about the charity of interest than about the overt act of doing charity. Hence, doing charity may be seen as a right of passage–something expected of particular groups of people. Oversimplification would see this as self-interest, my hypothesis is that it’s more of an identity interest. Moreover, because acting out charity is the goal, the particular cause for which the charity is done becomes somewhat arbitrary. Not to the point where the charity doesn’t matter at all, but to the point where the “good” inherent in the charity is a priori accepted, the meaning of charity isn’t fully theorized by the participant, and the means of contributing to the charity (e.g. a bike ride) isn’t subjected to the scrutiny about its efficiency.

Explicit connection between charity participant and individual with Leukemia/Lymphoma
If a charity ride is annual, does that imply the expectation that there will always be a need for charity? So do they expect their charity to actually make a difference? (Also note how this charity ride hits every cause imaginable…)
My dad does this ride and regularly points out the irony that, as far as organized bike rides go, this one has the absolute best food at the rest stops. So if I burn 2000 calories in 60 miles–shouldn’t I just donate my 8 Clif bars instead?
AIDS and Marathons – the white, college-educated parvenu rejoice!
Bake sale to end hunger…
…does it get more ironic?
Making explicit the connection between in-situ voyeurism and supporting a cause. For me to give: I must see the problem first hand; I must suffer.
Legitimacy claims are clutch.
How does walking accomplish this? On another thought, maybe one of the few types of “co-suffering” charity that makes sense are ones with the goal of promoting fitness and health where people participate in fitness/health activities (e.g. Jump Rope for Heart?)
Makes explicit the connection between participants activities and progress on the cause.
AIDS: justification for a sweet par-tay.

I don’t think the journalist’s justification for why people give to participants in charity rides is fully sufficient (note, however, that I don’t disagree with it and moreover I don’t have the data to controvert it!). He argues that perhaps people see the participant is so crazy as to do something that they feel compelled to support the person’s interest. What he misses however as a possible avenue of explanation is that participants in charity rides and the donors who contribute to the participant’s money raising efforts are likely embedded in a similar situation where doing charity is similarly seen (acting out class, right of passage, seeking legitimacy), and they themselves at some point are likely participants in other, possibly similar, forms of doing charity. Thus–there is a very real possibility of reciprocation or expected reciprocation. Interestingly, the expectation of reciprocation may also contribute to the genesis of an act for which reciprocal contributions may be due. For example, if I do a charity ride and this inspires my friend to do a charity ride, he will probably expect donation reciprocity from me. Moreover, if he co-identifies as someone in a similar social position as me, he may feel compelled to do charity in some form because of the social meaning and normative qualities of my act of charity. Crazy. From this perspective, you can see how the proliferation of participant forms of charity (rides, walks, etc.) has been so great. It’d be interesting to map this growth out. For example, in DC there seems to be a particular attraction to “get involved with a non-profit.” In Silicon Valley, there’s a huge class-based focus on participation in start-ups. Is the proliferation and participation in these forms of charity similarly geographic?

Another point on the article is the notion that bake sales are inherently different from charity bike rides. The journalist argues this is because there is a clear economic exchange:

“So it’s not: Donate money, I’ll give you a cookie. It’s more akin to: This is really important to me, and I’ll prove it to you, so please donate.”

But let’s say his baking really is terrible. His cookies taste like gluten-free sand. Just because he’s already done the act of baking (and unlike going on a charity ride the act isn’t prospective), doesn’t mean people aren’t buying his shit-tastic cookies just because they realize this cause is “really important to me.” This raises another interesting question: does the temporality of the act impact how compelled people are to give? When the financial donations are made, the cookies are already baked, the charity rides are yet to be completed. Would people pay for a bike ride you’ve already done? Would that corrupt the meaning of your and their participation?

Here’s the rub: the journalist ends the article by saying “sometimes we do things that don’t make sense.” Insufficient. I shouldn’t expect more from the highly economic bent of WSJ, but there’s actually a lot of sense in these forms of action, it just doesn’t meet the cut-and-dry market logic through which it’s being scrutinized. The soc-economists would argue that market activity inherently has social meaning. To apply it to a sort of market-social continuum of Amitai Etzioni, these particular acts fall more along the “social logic” frontier. But them simply not meeting simple market logic doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be scrutinized for the failures of social logic. Just saying “sometimes we do things that don’t make sense,” is both recognizing the shortcomings of strict market logic and noting the inefficiencies of the act! So, it seems that, without explicitly stating it, he recognizes (at least in part) the social meaning of the activity in which he is engaged. Normatively, he also recognizes that this is not an efficient means of giving.

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