Critique without Criticism

Imagine you are asked to donate to a charity that distributes shoes in an African country. Seeking to improve the lives of the less fortunate, you accept, contributing a portion of your hard earned money to a cause you believe to be virtuous. Minutes later, you are challenged, angrily told that such a charity may give a few children shoes, but it does not contribute to improved education or employment. For the short time that a child’s shoe size is the same, his days might be marginally more comfortable. But without a systemic overhaul of the political system in his country, wealth inequality will continue to persist, education levels will continue to stagnate, and his children will likely grow up in the same impoverished conditions that he did. Moreover, you are told, such an initiative actually worsens the economic situation in the target country — those natives who rely on manufacturing and selling shoes for a living will be unable to compete with a charity who gives them away for free.

These points are certainly valid, and the ability to pinpoint similar flaws of an idea or initiative is invaluable. Yet in many circles, criticism has become less constructive analysis and more intellectual flexing. It is easy to point out that charity is a band-aid solution and does not address systemic problems, or that many charities interfere with local economies, but to stop there achieves nothing.

If we apply such a model to every aspect of our lives, we would scarcely be able to leave our house before being stopped in our tracks. Our cars contribute to the slow death of our planet; our food is produced through exploitation of workers and animals; and our participation in the economy perpetuates a capitalist system that entrenches existing inequalities. Are we to abstain from driving, eating, and working?

Rather than ending our efforts at the exposure of shortcomings, we must direct them towards alleviating them. Convincing a potential donor that charities are hopeless will do little more than massage our egos. Contributing to local initiatives — while retaining our critical eye — will do much more.

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