Benevolence as an instrument of tyranny

In my Modern Political Thought class, we’ve begun reading Hegel, a philosopher whom some consider to be the first modern thinker because he was able to envisage modern society – with its conceptions of freedom, goodness, and morality – as deriving its values from the times in which it exists, its instantiation in the march of history. I confess I’m only reading background information and the Preface at the moment, so my interactions with the text are at the moment frankly borrowed from other, much more established folks than myself.

In “A Short History of Ethics,” MacIntyre uses a striking phrase that is particularly relevant to the question of education in neoliberal America today: “[Hegel] is keenly aware that circumstances alter virtues…Benevolence can be an instrument of tyranny.” (206) This is interesting in light of American society; nowadays, it’s clear that free-market values determine the way we conduct most social efforts, from commerce to employment standards to political campaigns to procedures of punishment. I believe this extends to how we perceive our responsibility for the well-being of the poor, the marginalized, the persecuted, the powerless. I thought about non-profit education, a system in which low-income and struggling individuals can come to complete a GED course, study to become citizens, and train for new job opportunities, in light of this statement.

While it might seem controversial, from my view, this “charitable” response to the inequities of modern society is, indeed, an illustration of the times we’re in. In an era of growing inequality in terms of income, access, and agency, the existence of service organizations, which purport to help empower individuals to make change in their own lives, seems to provide a helpful and powerful response. Organizations like Catholic Charities have no doubt done much good in American society, helping, as their website claims, over 9 million people in need per year (and of course the website shows a little girl of color looking up to, we suppose, her benefactor).

However, such agents of benevolence also act to alleviate to a large degree the guilt, the mild sense of social responsibility the wealthy, the educated, the lighter-skinned, retain as they watch the news, glance over at the “wrong side of town,” or walk past a homeless veteran asking for change. As those of us in power are soothed in these concerns, we relinquish our ability to think critically about the millions of people who struggle in poverty every day, who can’t feed their children adequately; we put down our power to change a situation that, frankly, benefits us over others, and assume that things have been taken care of. Why are so many people poor, powerless, in pain in the first place? And what changes can be made in the system that produces this human suffering and isolation?

The rich continue to get richer, the powerful more powerful, and the sociopolitical and economic status quo that subordinates certain members of our society crushes on. In effect, the tyrannical violence committed against tens of thousands of Americans for being brown, being poor, being women, being gay, continues forward. I think that once we reconsider the assumption that the form of capitalism – and democracy – that defines our country is best for its citizens, what once was charity and service to others may begin to seem suspiciously like a Band-Aid solution. If you believe that my critique of service organizations and charities is unwarranted or unfair, ask yourself this: Why is it that income inequality has grown so quickly since the 1970s? Why is standardized testing replacing hours of teaching that students truly need? Why are our prisons so full of people when the rest of the world’s are not? And what benefit do all of us – including those same non-profit organizations – continue to take through our “benevolent” inaction in the face of injustice?

We have not yet learned that the American way of doing things is just one way, one of both freedom and self-perpetuating hegemony of bloodlust and consumption, of unbelievable wealth and terrible, dehumanizing poverty. Ours is a tyranny we have been all too slow to recognize.

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