Sunday, December 10, 2006

I had an idea for an entry, but first I would like to follow up another entry since it was just so contoversial. Shan has posted a review of my new clean-shaven look, while Sasha briefly spoke for the opposing side here. I encourage all of you to make up your minds independently and submit your votes via text message.

Almost as absurd was today's Toronto Santa Speedo Run, featuring 100 Speedo-clad participants wearing red Speedos who jogged about 2.5 km through Yorkville. Together, they raised about $15,000 for the Hospital for Sick Children. The question this prompted was this: what can't you do in the name of charity? On the surface, of course, it is a good thing to raise that much money for charity. At the same time, the charity seemed almost an afterthought, the entire spectacle seemed to be more about the participants than anything else.

The intersection of charity with narcissism and market forces in the way of self-interest is troubling because it is questionable whether such instances of charity are even charity in the first place. When someone, usually generously proportioned, female and unathletic, runs a marathon to raise money for a charity, is it really about whatever charity benefits? Or, more likely, is raising money for charity merely incidental to the act of running a marathon? The local chapter of Team in Training will train me for a marathon and take me to Honolulu, Dublin or some other exotic locale to run the race, all in the name of charity.

The choice in locations highlights the reality that doing something for someone with nothing in return is suddenly very unfashionable. The hundred or so participants in today's swimsuit-clad freak show could just as easily have canvassed friends and co-workers for the average of $150 they each raised. That such shock value is required to yield donations is an even sadder commentary on those involved. Alternatively, they could have run down the street inebriated and nearly naked for whatever enjoyment it brought. To twin the two is to attribute a moral goodness to acting like a complete idiot. It would hardly be charity if I had solicited donations from you in exchange for shaving off my goatee. It would hardly be charity if you donated money to charity for the sake of amusement.

Those participating in such these would point to the results and argue, quite plausibly, that though the machinations are less than ideal, the end result easily justifies the means. Team in Training claims that it has raised $660 million dollars in 18 years of operation. The claim is a powerful one, but it simply transfers the question from the participants to society at large. That charity is impossible if it does not coincide with an appeal to self-interest is almost tragic. Moreover those receiving fame and accomplishment, however deluded and undeserving, in exchange for charity are not simply doing whatever they can to raise money for charity. Those who run a marathon to fund a cure leukemia did not, for many years, unsuccessfully raise money for leukemia. Rather, they decided to run a marathon and then decided that they "may as well do it for a good cause".

The coincidence of self-interest and that of others, namely the sick, could be touted as being as much of a "win win" situation as any. I do not dispute that self-interest should not accompany some social good. I do not dispute that good comes out of otherwise insipid events that have a charitable aim. I dispute that these events are charitable and, most strongly, that the participants are performing an act of charity or are doing much more than bringing attention to themselves. Good actions performed coincidentally are not as good as good actions performed for the right reasons, with the right intentions. True charity, to take today's case, would be canvassing meekly and fully clothed in Yorkville for the sake of those same children. Charity entails sacrifice and is not something that can be appended to the Speedo-clad posterior of narcissism.

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