As soon as word began to spread last week that a vicious earthquake had destroyed much of Haiti, Facebook and Twitter lit up with altruistic updates. People encouraged those in their networks to leave clothing donations at local drop-spots, donate $10 with a simple text message, and make sure that Haiti did not "become another Katrina."
Joining in the mourning and media frenzy appeared to make people feel efficacious in the face of such overwhelming devastation -- and maybe even a little proud of their own ability to care at a time when the world's economic disparity was once again laid bare by a natural disaster. Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, sits just 600 miles from the Florida border; tens of thousands are believed dead and millions affected. How could we not take the suffering there seriously?
But did we take it seriously enough? Does a status update or a pithy prayer for a destitute, destroyed populace really constitute an ethical act? Do we let ourselves off too easily?
Contrast our tweets and donations with the acts of Miep Gies, the last surviving protector of Anne Frank, who died last week. Gies, with her husband and a few others, hid the Frank family for 25 months in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. They didn't just share their food, provide books and news, and even spend an evening in the attic along with the Franks to taste their ever-present fear. This was no small sacrifice: The Nazi punishment for hiding Jews was death.
The discomfort that Gies endured in order to act ethically is anathema to most Americans, especially those who felt their obligations were met by a mere text message. We live in a time when nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, and educational and religious institutions are constantly figuring out how to make "giving back" as painless as possible. Care about breast cancer awareness? Just put your bra color in your status update. Want to volunteer to help a child who is "less fortunate"? Be a mentor from the comfort of your own office, via e-mail. Want to help poor folks? Buy Tom's shoes for yourself and he'll donate a pair to someone abroad.
This makes sense. The easier people believe it is to be altruistic, the more likely they are to act. And there's no doubt that all those text messages added up to a massive financial donation on the part of well-intentioned Americans. But I believe there is a hidden cost of all this convenience. Being able to soothe our sense of guilt or act on our values by text messaging, tweeting, and donating the equivalent of a movie ticket just isn't enough. It's not enough in terms of basic resources. It's certainly not enough in terms of our own ethical imperative to experience acute discomfort at the state of the world.
As the saying goes: "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention." It shouldn't take a natural disaster of this magnitude to get our attention. Just as Katrina shined an undeniable light on economic disparity and institutional racism in this country, Haiti's most recent earthquake is illuminating a similarly inexcusable disparity on a global scale.
So how much can you give? Is $10 the most you can part with in a time when thousands of people are starving, injured, and staring down death? (This, of course, is the case in many countries who did not just experience a massive natural disaster.) How much would you have to give in order to feel at least a little bit uncomfortable?
And setting money aside, what could you do in order to feel a little bit uncomfortable? Could you cancel work for a day and devote all of your energy to raising funds for or educating people about a cause you believe in? Could you take care of a foster child? What could you not do? Could you choose not to spend thousands of dollars on your child's SAT prep in protest of an unfair college admissions system?
Gies went so far as to risk her life. That may not be possible or necessary at this time, in this place, but her legacy of discomfort in the pursuit of justice for others couldn't be more relevant. In Anne Frank's diary, which Gies actually saved, she wrote, "We are never far from Miep's thoughts." Miep's model of sacrifice shouldn't be far from ours.
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