On empathy and what the Great Gatsby can teach us

June 26, 2014
By Rang De Team

This is first in a series on the “Joy of Sharing” that looks at empathy as a virtue. To kick start the series, our Rang De team member has written down this short post.

A few weeks ago while explaining what I did for a living, I was startled by a statement from the person listening intently to me.” I don’t believe in charity”, he said. Perhaps noticing the surprise on my face, he then went on to indicate that the country’s socialist policies had held India back for decades and that it was time we did away with it. I couldn’t help but remark at the irony of this conversation happening in the confines of an air conditioned meeting room over cups of coffee served to us by a waiter wearing dazzling white gloves. Before he could respond, our coffee break was over and we had to head back to our respective corners. But I couldn’t get the conversation out of my head for it’s a sentiment I have heard time and again from the 10 percent-ers, people in positions of privilege, who are quick to dismiss charitable giving.

In all probability the gentleman I was speaking to is a great human being, intelligent, articulate, generous. My sense is, and I may be wrong, that most of us like to picture ourselves as self-made individuals and find it hard to accept the gifts and natural abilities we were born with. Not because we aren’t thankful but because accepting them diminishes the scale of our achievement and hence our self worth. Accepting that the birth lottery had been unusually kind to you would mean examining the reasons why the person who cleans your home isn’t someone you would socialize with. Accepting that there is not only inequality but injustice in our society would mean viewing oneself as an unconscious cog in the wheel of the status quo. Accepting that “there but for the grace of God goes me” means acknowledging our responsibility and our power to correct a wrong.

Fitzgerald begins The Great Gatsby with these lines “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages you’ve had.” As long as we continue to view the poor as the work shirkers, the charity cases, the politicians’ vote banks, we will always see them as the ‘other’, alien, unknowable lifeform.

Ofcourse the gentleman’s disdain might not have been for the underprivileged but for NGOs as a whole. The NGO sector hasn’t done itself any favours by operating with minimum levels of transparency. But there are a few rotten apples in each basket; we do not see people giving up on banking altogether because of the failure of a Lehman Brothers. Why then does an example of an unethical NGO taint the entire gamut of organizations that are doing something to better the world for everyone. Our humble request then is, please be cautious with your hard earned money, demand transparency and accountability from the NGO or cause you support. After all, free market efficiency also means that the inefficient organizations will be weeded out eventually. But do not turn a blind eye to those in need around you. As Azim Premji put it “I think that privilege gives us not only a responsibility but the way I see it, an opportunity, to help those around us who face inequality, injustice and deprivation. And I do believe that if each of us does whatever we can, within our capability, capacity and our constraints, to reach out to even one of our fellow underprivileged citizens, it can make an enormous difference to our country.”

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