Screen shot of Canadian Red Cross Pick Your Gift Campaign choices

by Elysée Nouvet

Giving Tuesday launched in countries across the globe on December 3rd this year. Following Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday asks consumers to make meaningful gifts. As the Red Cross stated: “We’re inviting you to take part in Canada’s first national day dedicated to giving and thinking about others in need.”

It is the key phrase of the Canadian Red Cross Campaign that grabs me before my second cup of coffee on December 3rd as I sift through my InBox: Choose what moves you.

Charities have long played on our emotions and senses of right and wrong. Here was a slightly different campaign. One that was inviting us as Canadians to render what might otherwise be a subconscious motivator for giving – affect – into the conscious basis for giving. This had potential. Charity has some serious shortcomings, not least of these being its representations of certain needs and responses to need as natural when these are socially, politically, and historically specific and complex. Private donor funding aimed at providing for basic human needs facilitates the erosion and privatization of social spending and protections (Poppendieck 1998). Where we put our charitable funds delineates our values and priorities. Privatized giving to charities as caring can and often does serve to forge solidarity and communicate key areas of concern within or across societies. The dark side of this is that there are charities or charitable ‘subjects’ we do not choose. Facilitated through our patterns of giving or private politics of care are patterns of abandonment.

Would the Red Cross Giving Tuesday Campaign challenge Canadians to examine our affective attraction to (and parallel dismissal of) certain causes or sufferers? Or would this campaign tap into our checkered affective relationships to groups and individuals in need without making that checkered geography and its consequence on lives and local, national, or global funding priorities explicit?

I click on the link.

Three images appear.

A senior citizen stares at the camera with a subtle smile on her lips: Support healthy communities.

A baby is supported on his faceless mother’s shoulder: Support babies and children.

A woman, presumably mom, and three red-head children smile at the camera: Support Families in need.

As I move my cursor over each of the three images, the ones I am not selecting seem to fade a little but it is that they are turning black and white. A mother of young children myself, I click on the image of the Family. A caption appears with the family’s story of need (home lost in fire) and images of FAMILY NEEDS. There is a blanket for $25, a family day of groceries for $30, replacement clothes $50. I am invited to ‘choose your own items.’ There is the choice factor again. Am I supposed to imagine myself as the mother or child in this family and choose what I would want? This opening up of my boundaries of experience has potential to mediate new social awareness of what it is to lose one’s house in a fire. I hope I am not meant to feel okay about paternalistically dictating what basics families in need get: this could be another way to interpret the invitation to ‘choose your own items’. Everything seems essential.

I click on ‘Let us choose for you’ and select the dollar amount of $75. Like in a video game, a red ball bounces off the $75 button and becomes a hand-drawn box of clothes and groceries on a table behind the family. It is clever. It is even a little fun. I’m not sure if this is a good thing.

What does it mean if a humanitarian giving campaign is more successful if it looks like, and feels like, a game? There is no shortage of innovation in humanitarian and all non-profit fundraising efforts. The context for the sometimes surprising creativity of giving campaigns includes a context where competition between non-profits for limited private citizens’ donations is fierce, and an environment where images of suffering and appeals related to suffering wash or hang over us almost constantly. I have no doubt that we as publics require innovation to take note of one cause (over another) and thus respond. We have grown numb to suffering perhaps as a defensive mechanism. This in itself is troubling, but what troubles me is the Red Cross’ attempt to mobilize funds for a cause by offering us a combination of choice and fun. My agency to “make a difference” is recognized, but it is simultaneously rendered into a form of entertainment and reduced to an act of consumption.

As Lilie Chouliaraki states in her book The Ironic Spectator (2013), this is an era where consumption, once privatized emotional landscapes, and public engagement are no longer separate. This is an era where ‘making a difference’ is a bracelet or rock concert ticket away, an era in which senses of solidarity abound, but they are, sadly, more often than not just that: feelings. Solidarity has socially transformative potential if based on recognition of injustice, operations of power, structural inequalities, but what is an act of solidarity – a purchase, a donation – if it is done with only feeling and no thought?

As someone whose research focuses on inequalities in health and social determinants of distress, I am concerned about a social environment where the vulnerable communities or individuals that obtain assistance increasingly depend on the charities we support. The privatization of ethical obligations is particularly problematic if it is based on ‘choices’ made, based not on any measures of inequality and need, but instead based on what ‘moves me.’ Despite its potential to do otherwise, the Canadian Red Cross Giving Tuesday campaign does not challenge me to question or open up further the culturally, biographically shaped borders of my imagined moral community: my inner landscape of caring that is also my external landscape of action. It does not invite me to reflect on why and how we have gotten to a point where many Canadian families in need cannot afford food (even without a fire in their recent history) and many elderly live in isolation and thus in need of paid visits by the Red Cross. Instead, in this campaign, I am invited to quickly, easily, translate whatever habits of compassion I bring to the website into a gift.

Feelings certainly can energize crucial questioning of the status quo (think of the mothers of the disappeared mobilizing their grief in Argentina’s Plaza de Mayo during the dictatorship or senses of injustice mobilizing countless activists) and instigate radical and creative social change, but they can also do nothing of the sort. Normative feelings are the intimate material at the core of systems of inequality and war whose violent outcomes are most non-profits’ raison d’être. I do not want to dismiss the importance of that click of the mouse that donates a bag of groceries for a family in need: the Red Cross does work I admire and respect which requires private money and responds to needs that are all too real. I only hope the Canadian Red Cross is wrong when it plans such a campaign that seems to presume we as Canadians will give more if we are invited to feel more without thinking more.

Elysée Nouvet (nouvete@mcmaster.ca) is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Humanitarian Healthcare Ethics at McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada.

Works Cited

Chouliaraki L. 2013. The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism. Cambridge: Polity Press. Poppendieck J. 1998. Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement. Toronto: Penguin.

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