I was lucky enough recently to receive a gift of the book “A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry. Giving a gift of a cherished book is a wonderful act of generosity and sharing, and A Fine Balance is simply beautiful.
I was struck by one of the characters in the book, named Beggarmaster, who is in charge of all the beggars on the streets of Bombay. Beggarmaster is the semi-benevolent mafioso who runs the begging racket in the city, offering protection in exchange for payment from the beggars. Beggarmaster figured out a long time ago which beggars are most effective: ones who are deformed or disfigured in some way, who really pull at the heartstrings. Beggarmaster has gone so far as to draw his own ultimate (artistic?) creation, the most effective beggars imaginable:
“For this, I need a lame beggar and a blind beggar. The blind man will carry the cripple on his shoulders. A living, breathing image of the ancient story about friendship and cooperation. And it will produce a fortune in coins, I am absolutely certain, because will give not only from pity or piety but also from admiration.” The hitch was in finding a blind beggar who was strong enough or a lame beggar who was light enough.
Those of us in the business of motivating people to give to charity have a fine line to walk. Going for pity is the easy route and it’s actually pretty effective: we’ve all seen the image of the destitute, mournful child with flies on his face — and all its equivalents. But if as storytellers we are translating, teaching, and communicating meaning in the world, then there is a feedback loop here, just one that’s hard to see at first. It’s about reinforcing a stereotype of difference, distance and safety — and reducing real, living human beings to caricature, a means to an end.
There are matters of degree, of course, and tapping into pity or guilt isn’t the same as putting a $10,000 purse on a nameless poor person just to sell a few magazines. At the same time, your average black tie fundraising dinner or non-profit annual report falls into this trap pretty often.