[guest post] Harry Potter and the Fuzzies of Altruism

Here’s a guest post from Robby Bensinger about the psychology of altruism with a little bit of Harry Potter thrown in. 

Effective Altruists are do-gooders with a special interest in researching the very best ways to do good, such as high-impact poverty reduction and existential risk reduction. A surprising number of them are also Harry Potter fans, probably owing to the success of the EA-promoting fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

The author, Eliezer Yudkowsky, calls that nice inner glow you feel when you help people “warm fuzzies“. But I’ve noticed that not everyone who’s interested in charity and social justice gets identical “fuzzies”. People with the same humanitarian goals can differ not only in their philosophy and tactics, but even in their basic psychological motivations. So I decided to construct a taxonomy of fuzzies modeled after the four Houses of Hogwarts.

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slytherfuzzies — how it feels to save the world by improving yourself, mastering your own will, and achieving your personal goals.

Slytherfuzzies are that self-esteem boost, that sense of being effective and just plain Awesome, when you successfully help people. Fuzzies are especially slytherin when people’s happiness is seen as an indispensable means to achieving slytherfuzzies (or just Victory), rather than your altruistic impulses being used as a mere means for making the world a better place. Picture Gandhi cackling in a darkened, smoke-filled room and muttering, ‘All goes according to plan…’

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ravenfuzzies — how it feels to save the world as an intellectually stimulating puzzle.

One helps people not so much out of felt empathy as out of boredom, or curiosity, or a conviction that happy, healthy human-style intelligences help make the world a more beautiful, interesting, and complicated place. Any altruist can recognize the value of doing research and figuring out what actually works, but when you’re driven by ravenfuzzies your altruism will exhibit a ravenclaw’s detachment and openness to experience.

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gryffinfuzzies — how it feels to save the world from within a hero narrative, (e)utopian vision, or any sort of Moral Quest.

A gryffinfuzzy can be as proud as a slytherfuzzy, but the grounds for pride are externalized — things are finally The Right Way, not necessarily my right way. Compared to hufflefuzzies, gryffinfuzzies are more bold, epic, blazing, and abstract.

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hufflefuzzies — how it feels to save the world in the form of lots and lots of sick baby bunnies.

Hufflefuzzies are warm. Personal. Social. Fuzzy. They’re probably the most common and essential source of altruism. They are units of reverse schadenfreude, of empathic joy, of emotional connection, solidarity, or belonging.

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I’m not trying to get a perfect mapping from canonical Houses to moral sentiments. Experiencing hufflefuzzies doesn’t make you a hard worker. Experiencing slytherfuzzies doesn’t make you a conservative.

Instead, I’m using the Houses as an excuse to investigate the different reasons people do good. It’s a common error to assume that everyone thinks and perceives the same way you do. If adopting a more complicated view of happy glowy squishy humanitarian fuzzies helps us better understand each other, and better reach out to people with different styles of moral reasoning, then adopt it we should!

In my own case, I seem to be mostly motivated by gryffinfuzzies. I find that especially interesting because philosophically I’m much more likely to explain and defend my ethical views in terms of the value of empathy (like a hufflepuff bodhisattva), or the value of diversity (like a ravenclaw Feyerabendian), or just in terms of my personal preferences (like a slytherin existentialist). Apparently my core moral intuitions are quite distinct from my intellectualizations of morality.

What about you? What drives you to do good? What combinations of fuzzies do you experience, and do they vary for different kinds of charitable work? Are you working on cultivating some of the varieties that you’re currently missing out on? Do my groupings make sense to you, and are there any fuzzies I’ve left out?

Robby Bensinger is critical thinking activist and philosopher. The former president of the Indiana University Philosophical Society, he does research in the intersection of science and religion, consciousness studies, value theory, and metametaphysics. (Yes, metametaphysics.) He has been heavily involved with the IU Secular Alliance for the past five years, and works much of his mischief at the blog Nothing Is Mere.

I’m Blogothonning for the Secular Student Alliance!

It's SSA Week! Yay!

This may be naive given my recent recovery from a spell of writer’s block, but this Sunday, I’ll be doing a blogathon to raise money for the Secular Student Alliance with fellow badasses Kate Donovan, Chana Messinger, and Mike Mei. SSA Week is the organization’s annual fundraiser, and this year two supporters have pledged a $250,000 matching donation.

There are many reasons to support the SSA, such as the excellent training it provides for young activists and the support it gives to secular students in parts of the country where atheism is extremely stigmatized.

I love the SSA for these reasons and also for much more personal ones. The SSA is the reason I’m involved in this movement to begin with. It’s indirectly responsible for most of my fantastic friends and partners, for the success of my writing, and for the fact that I’m here on FtB now. Some of my best memories from the past year or so have been of SSA events, of people I met through the SSA, and of conferences I’ve traveled to thanks to my involvement in the movement. And the awesome things that have happened to my life because of all this have helped me mostly avoid depression for almost a year.

SO. That’s quite tangential to why you should support the SSA, but I wanted to share it anyway because it’s not entirely irrelevant. It’s not just any organization that could create such a supportive, welcoming environment, that could bring such cool people together to do activism. There are many organizations that are important and that I donate to regularly, but few have been so important to my own life and personal development.

Now, the blogathon! Here’s how it’s going to work.

1. I’ll be publishing a post every hour from 10 AM to 6 PM central time this Sunday, May 5. No, they will not be as long as my normal posts. :P
2. If you pledge at least $10 to the SSA, I will do my absolute best to write a post about anything you choose! It can really be anything, even personal stuff about me (fuck knows I’m not modest about that). So, if you donate at least $10, let me know that you did so and tell me what you’d like me to write about! You can donate here. (Also, I know I said anything, but please for the love of cheezits don’t make me write about thermodynamics or British politics or something. Nobody wants to see that.)
3. If you cannot donate at least $10, you’re still welcome to submit suggestions for posts! I’m going to need them.

This is my first blogathon ever, so we’ll see how it goes. My writing style is usually more like, sit on an idea for days until I’m thinking about it so much that I can’t focus on anything else and sit down and suddenly produce a 1,500-word post, so this will be quite different.

Wish me luck, and please give me post suggestions and, most importantly, donate!

HoboJacket’s Casual Classism: Ethical Humor and Objectifying the Homeless

Elite college students being snobby and idiotic isn’t really newsworthy, but a group of MIT students went above and beyond the standard this past week.

The students thought it’d be funny to give local homeless people jackets from Caltech, MIT’s rival, in order to “show the true value of a Caltech degree.” And then, to practice their coding skills, they actually made a website called HoboJacket where you can donate to do just that.

In a way, it’s a brilliant idea. The students get to practice valuable skills and diss a rival school while simultaneously performing a nominally charitable act. And then, just as Tucker Max did with his solipsistic Planned Parenthood donation, they and their defenders can claim that anyone who disagrees with any part of their methods doesn’t really care about the homeless, puts ideology before practicality, and, worst of all, can’t take a joke.

The criticism, of course, was plentiful. The students literally used homeless people as props to make a (fairly inane and classist) point, and while the joke was supposed to be at Caltech students’ expense, what it really accomplishes is objectifying homeless people. As Laura Beck at Jezebel wrote, “Being homeless already carries enough social shame, it doesn’t need your help. The barb at the end of the particular stick you’ve built is that homeless people are gross and dirty and making them wear clothes with rivals logos somehow degrades the logo.”

This, of course, is where a certain type of liberal comes out and protests that “Yeah well at least it’s getting them jackets/what are you complaining about/would you rather they went without clothes/if that’s what it takes to get people to donate then that’s just how it works.”

Raising money is hard. Duh. Sometimes gimmicks are necessary. Sometimes these gimmicks will be controversial. However, I believe that ethical humor is humor that punches up, not down, and I believe that if you can’t do something ethically, you shouldn’t be doing it. Leave it to someone who can.

And nevertheless, many non-profits and charities are able to solicit donations without exploiting existing social inequalities. If you really believe that you need to use marginalized people as props to attract attention to your cause because “that’s just how it works,” that probably says more about you than it does about the psychology of charitable giving.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that we objectify and dehumanize the homeless. A research study that I was coincidentally assigned to present in one of my neuroscience classes yesterday comes to this conclusion*. The researchers scanned people’s brains with an fMRI machine as they looked at photos of different types of people–the elderly, the rich, the disabled, the homeless. Only for homeless people and drug addicts did the medial prefrontal cortex–a part of the brain that activates when analyzing people as opposed to objects–fail to activate.

Before you rush to give this some sort of evolutionary explanation, remember the way our brain functions is not set in stone by genetics and biology. We are probably not born viewing homeless people as any different from other kinds of people. That’s something we learn, and that’s something to which the brain adapts. And even if we were born that way, the cool thing about being a sentient being is that you can choose to override the signals your brain sends you. That’s why people can choose to be celibate, go on hunger strikes, become doctors and treat sick people, and overcome “natural” fears like snakes and heights.

My point in discussing this study is not to excuse the MIT students’ actions by claiming that they were compelled to do what they did because that’s the way their brains function. Rather, it’s to show that this is not an “isolated incident,” as people love to claim when someone does something insensitive and awful. The objectification of homeless people is real and supported by evidence, so casting this as a silly college prank is inaccurate and socially irresponsible.

Although the students initially dismissed criticism of their project by comparing it to Facebook’s origins as a tool to objectify women (an overly ambitious comparison, I’d say), they eventually understood what they did wrong, apologized, and took the site down. Honestly, that’s great, and they deserve credit for listening to their critics.

But I still wanted to write about this because, as I mentioned, it’s not an isolated incident. This particular type of prank might be, but the prejudice inherent in it is not. It’s worth discussing. It sheds light on how we view the homeless, which should in turn inform how we attempt to help them.

Of course, in my view, donating clothing to homeless people is kind and important but does not address the roots of the problem. The problem, unfortunately, is structural, and we can’t really talk about homelessness without talking about the pervasive economic inequality that our society has.

*Harris, L.T. & Fiske, S.T. (2006). Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuroimaging responses to extreme out-groups. Psychological Science, 17(10), 847-53.

Chikin With a Side of Homophobia: Why You Should Boycott Chick-Fil-A

The president of Chick-Fil-A, Dan Cathy, recently confirmed what most of us have known for a while–the company is virulently homophobic.

I mean, he didn’t come right out and say, “We’re a homophobic company.” But he did say, “Well, guilty as charged” when asked about Chick-Fil-A’s position on LGBT rights. He went on:

“We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that…we know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.”

There are several interesting things about this statement. First of all, Cathy claims to support “the biblical definition of the family unit.” The Religious Right seems to believe that the Bible defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. But in fact, as this graphic humorously points out, there are various other configurations that the Bible deems acceptable, such as men having multiple wives or keeping concubines in addition to their wives. In addition, rape victims and female prisoners of war can be required to marry their rapists/captors, and a childless widow is required to marry her late husband’s brother.

So if we’re going to support “the biblical definition of the family unit” in this country, why aren’t we going all-out?

Second, Cathy proclaims that “we are married to our first wives.” Does the company discriminate against divorcees in hiring decisions? What would happen to an employee who decides to get a divorce? Is Cathy aware that divorce is a legal, accepted facet of American culture? On that last question, apparently not.

Third, Cathy seems to at least recognize that his position will draw a lot of ire when he says that “it might not be popular with everyone.” But I despise the use of the word “popular” in this context. Denying rights to people on the basis of their sexual orientation–which is what the organizations to which Chick-Fil-A donates promote, as I’ll discuss later–isn’t merely “unpopular.” It’s, you know, discriminatory. Unpopular is tie-dye and ponchos. Unpopular is crappy 70s music. When people like Cathy claim that they’re doing something “unpopular,” they make it sound like they’re bravely going against the grain, flaunting their nonconformity, in order to…deny rights to people on the basis of their sexual orientation. Edgy.

Finally, it is interesting to note that, up until now, Chick-Fil-A has denied its anti-gay position. As I’m about to show, these were just blatant lies, which ought to make you even angrier. If you’re going to be a homophobe, at the very least own it. And then, you know, change.

Now, as for Chick-Fil-A’s actual anti-gay advocacy, the facts are quite condemning. In 2009, WinShape, the charitable arm of the company, donated nearly $2 million to anti-gay groups like Marriage & Family Legal Fund (started by Chick-Fil-A senior VP Donald Cathy), Focus on the Family, and Eagle Forum.

In case you need any convincing that these are really terrible organizations, I will provide some evidence. The founder of Focus on the Family, James Dobson, supported the Federal Marriage Amendment, which, had it passed, would have made same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Besides its stance against LGBT rights, Focus on the Family also supports school prayer, corporal punishment, and creationism, and opposes abortion (duh). It also donates to the campaigns of anti-gay politicians, and it started a ministry called Love Won Out, which supports scientifically-discredited gay conversion therapy, and sold it to Exodus International, another one of Chick-Fil-A’s charity recipients.

Eagle Forum is a conservative interest group founded by noted anti-feminist and professional asshole Phyllis Schafly. Eagle Forum does way too much terrible creepy stuff for me to list here, but you can read all about it on the wiki page. Its (and Schafly’s) main claim to fame, though, is that they led the effort to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. Although the ERA is mainly known as a women’s rights amendment, Schafly believed that it would pave the way for legalized same-sex marriage:

“ERA would make all federal and state laws sex neutral. If two men show up and say we want a marriage license and [the person] says ‘you’re both men, I’m not giving it to you,’ that would be discriminatory.”

So, two things are clear: Chick-Fil-A has given a LOT of money to these organizations (probably more in that single year than I will earn in a lifetime), and these organizations do plenty of tangible things that prevent LGBT rights from being fully realized in the United States. And not only gay rights, really–in virulently opposing abortion and supporting corporal punishment, for instance, these organizations also seek to infringe upon the rights of women and children. Actually, given their anti-divorce claptrap, they’ve managed to do the impossible and infringe upon the rights of straight white men, too. They’re equal-opportunity rights infringers!

All of this is why I think that you–yes, you–should never set foot in Chick-Fil-A again.

Now, I’m generally quite skeptical about boycotts. Unless it’s very well-organized and happens on a large scale (see: Montgomery Bus Boycott), it’s unlikely to work. One individual withdrawing their business from a company won’t make it improve its labor practices, stop stocking an offensive product, and so on.

Indeed, if we boycotted every company that does shitty things, we’d probably have to live off the grid. I buy Apple and Coca-Cola products even though I have much to criticize them for, because honestly, refusing to buy them wouldn’t do anything, and you have to pick your battles.

However, with Chick-Fil-A we have a very different situation. This is a company that gives large sums of money–money provided to it by consumers–to organizations that actively work to oppose social justice, full stop. So when you give money to Chick-Fil-A, you can be certain beyond a doubt that some of that money is going to these organizations. Collectively, we as a nation helped Chick-Fil-A send nearly $2 million to these organizations in a single year. If you support equality, you should not be okay with that.

I haven’t eaten at Chick-Fil-A in years. In high school, I wasn’t old enough to care about things like this, and besides–embarrassingly enough–my high school band had a monthly fundraiser night there. As I was raising money for my own band, I was also raising money for wingnut politicians’ campaigns and for harmful conversion therapy.

I don’t miss eating there. The food was pretty good, but the knowledge that not a cent of those two million dollars came from me is better.

P.S. If you need any more incentive to ditch Chick-Fil-A for good, I present you with this:

*Edit* This is just too good not to link to.

I Hope They Serve Beer in the Abortion Clinic: Tucker Max vs. Planned Parenthood

Planned Parenthood's newest supporter

I feel bad for Planned Parenthood. Not only have they been facing attacks from conservative politicians and cancer charities, defunding threats, and–I kid you not–firebombs, but now they have to deal with the odious filth that is Tucker Max and his publicity machine.

First, an aside–I’m not going to waste space here discussing who Tucker Max is and why he’s one of my least favorite people in the world, though I may do so in a future post. For now, Google is your friend. I will, however, say this–if you think Tucker is funny, please just take five minutes and ask yourself why. Why does he make you laugh?

Anyway, our favorite misogynist (and racist, etc.) Tucker Max has a little problem. An image problem. Thing is, people seem to think that poor Tucker is a Bad Guy. But he’s not, I swear! He’s actually a Nice Guy. He just needs to find a way to show it.

Tucker also has another problem: he makes so much money from his narcissistic writings that he has to pay really high taxes. There must be a way around this!

Luckily, Tucker happens to have an excellent media consultant, Ryan Holiday, to whom he wrote the following email:

Ryan, I have a huge tax burden this year. I can reduce it with a large donation to charity, but I want to promote my new book at the same time. Can you come up with something cool that does both?

To this, Holiday responded with a Brilliant Idea:

What if you gave a bunch of money to Planned Parenthood and they named a clinic after you? They need donors, it’d be awesome and you’d get a ton of positive press out of it for a change.

Tucker agreed and offered $500,000 to Planned Parenthood of Texas, which soon declined the donation. In a stunning demonstration of his and Tucker’s selfless altruism, Holiday immediately wrote a diatribe in Forbes about how this is “one of the stupidest and most depressing things” he’s ever seen, and how PP has “acted like a fool.”

(As another aside, I’m really starting to hate Forbes magazine.)

At first glance, rejecting a $500,000 donation may indeed seem pretty stupid. But here are some things Holiday declined to mention in his whiny rant:

1. This isn’t the first time Tucker has attempted to donate to PP. Three other affiliates have already turned down his money, not merely because he’s a sexist douchebag, but because his demands in exchange for the donation–such as building naming rights–violate PP’s gifts policy. I respect an organization that has the integrity to turn down money that would violate its own policies.

2. We all know how Tucker really feels about PP, thanks to his Twitter account. In a miraculous burst of intelligence, he removed this tweet when Holiday’s Forbes piece went up, but the internet is forever:

You’ll notice that this is from just a few weeks ago–presumably long after Tucker had already began his campaign to rehabilitate his image using Planned Parenthood.

3. Despite Holiday’s claim that this was a poor business decision for PP, it actually wasn’t–if you look at the big picture. While it’d be great to have $500,000 right now, yoking one’s public image to that of Tucker Max would be a terrible business decision. What will PP’s other donors think when it names a clinic after a notorious sexist who belittles and shames women of different shapes, sizes, and colors? How many press releases will PP have to issue every time Tucker winds up in the news for being an awful person? How would PP answer the (accurate) claims that it has violated its own gifts policy just to get some more cash?

4. Finally, the unavoidable point–the respective missions of Tucker Max and Planned Parenthood are not only disparate; they are mutually exclusive. Tucker Max’s mission is to attain fame and money by treating women like dirt and writing about it in a way that some consider funny. Planned Parenthood’s mission is to help women of all kinds stay healthy, happy, and safe. A partnership between these two entities simply doesn’t make sense. “Tucker Max Women’s Clinic” has the same ironic ring to it as, say, Santorum University or Romney Animal Shelter.

Incidentally, although Holiday tries to make the point in his piece that Tucker is really such an avid supporter of Planned Parenthood and has been pro-choice his whole life, a comment on the Jezebel piece clarifies this:

Well, he is all for women’s rights to choose… upon knocking up a girlfriend of mine, the chivalrous Master of Equality himself instructed her to “take care of it”, but made it clear he would not help support her financially or emotionally through the ordeal.

Granted, there’s no proof, so take this with a grain of salt. But judging by Tucker’s attitude towards women, I’d believe it.

Could PP have used Tucker’s money? Of course it could’ve. What it couldn’t have used is a business deal with someone who maintains a persona that is simply antithetical to PP’s mission.

For what it’s worth, knowing that Planned Parenthood is willing to take a financial fall in order to stay true to both its mission and its actual policies makes me only more likely to support it in the future. I hope other PP donors feel the same way.

To close, I’ll leave you with some of Tucker Max’s quotes about women.

Your gender is hardwired for whoredom.

Fat girls aren’t real people.

Cum dumpsters.

I’m going to be real clear about this, ladies, so pay attention: Prince Charming doesn’t come to rescue cunty lunatics.

Look, I know everything is shitty right now, but if you don’t stop acting like such a bitch, someone’s gonna fuck that pussy on your face.

She may be a vacuous slut with no taste, but at least she’s not a stripper.

Except for one thing…she was not attractive. On a scale of 1 to 10, she should have hung herself. The pear-shape of her body was so pronounced she looked like a nesting doll made of owl pellets.

Even though I’d slept with one, part of me still believed that midgets were mythical creatures, like unicorns and educated guidos.

You show me a truly funny girl who doesn’t have emotional issues, and I’ll introduce you to my stable of unicorn thoroughbreds ridden by leprechaun jockeys.

Look, I’m not trying to judge you about it. I’m slutty sometimes too. And personally, I like sluts; they’re the most fun. But if you act like a slut, you should be ready for some guys to call you a slut.

I know this really sexy move you can do with your mouth. It’s called ‘shutting the fuck up.’

You know that saying, ‘no matter how hot she is, someone somewhere is sick of her shit?’ This was the type of girl that had a lot of someones in a lot of somewheres.

Your back fat could have its own bra! Look at yourself—you look like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup!

Contrary to what some assholes think, Fat Tuesday is NOT Adele’s birthday. Shame on all of us who thought that.

Any hot black girls free today? Looking to knock out Valentines Day and Black History Month all at once.

There is a girl lying next to me on the bed, shaking me, saying something. She is not happy. She is also not skinny. Or attractive. She may not even be human.

Not even human.

Edit 4/6/12: I cannot bring myself to link to Tucker Max’s blog from my own, but here is a brilliant analysis of his blog post about the issue, over at Feministe.

Not All Activism is Good Activism

I’ll be honest with you: whenever I see a social media campaign going viral, I get suspicious.

It’s not because I think people are evil or stupid, or because I dislike popular things (although that is often the case). It’s because for anything to become popular, it must be simple, easy-to-understand, without nuance.

The violence in Uganda is none of these things.

I have not posted the Kony 2012 video to my Facebook like so many of my friends have. That is because I don’t know–I can’t know, really–if the video does justice to the reality in Uganda. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can watch the video here.

My views on this subject are much more complex than the act of posting a video. That’s why I’ve chosen to add my two cents not by reposting it, but by writing this.

First of all, look at some other types of activism that have gone viral lately. There were the SlutWalks, started when a Toronto cop told a bunch of students that women should avoid “dressing like sluts” in order to not be raped. SlutWalk consists of some very simple concepts: Don’t blame women for their own rapes. It’s not about what they’re wearing. And, by the way, what’s so bad about being a “slut?”

Then there was Occupy Wall Street, and all the other Occupy protests it spawned. The message of OWS was simple, too: there is too much damn inequality. The gap between the One Percent and the 99 Percent is too wide. Wall Street’s gains have become excessive.

There’s obviously plenty to criticize about SlutWalk and OWS. The former has been accused of marginalizing the voices of non-white, non-hetero, non-middle class women and pandering to the very sexist forces it seeks to combat by having women march around in their underwear.

The latter, meanwhile, has been criticized for being too ambiguous, not having specific demands for the government or for the financial sector, being anarchist/socialist/Communist, being unrealistic, consisting of too many people who supposedly majored in something stupid in college and don’t deserve jobs anyway.

But for all of their failures, SlutWalk and OWS have ensured that the issues of victim-blaming and economic inequality have entered our public dialogue–and stayed in it.

Kony 2012 seeks to do a similar thing. By “making Kony famous,” its creators insist, we can place Joseph Kony on the public agenda and “do something” about his terrible crimes.

But this is where things start to get dicey.

First of all, let me just say that I think awareness is extremely important. I think that American citizens, as a whole, aren’t nearly aware enough of what’s going on in their own backyards, let alone on another continent. More awareness, in my opinion, is almost always better than less awareness.

So on that front, I commend Invisible Children and the Kony 2012 campaign. The video they have created is well-made in a way that ensures that nobody who watches it can remain ambivalent about what’s going on in Uganda.

However, the purpose of the video isn’t just to spread awareness. It’s to raise money.

For what, exactly?

Invisible Children supports military intervention–yes, you read that correctly–to stop Kony. Specifically, the money it raises goes towards supporting Uganda’s government and its army, which Kony’s LRA is fighting against.

But here’s the sad, sad irony of the situation: Uganda’s army is likely just as bad as Kony’s. It has also been reported to use child soldiers and has been accused of raping civilians and looting their property.

Guys, I don’t know how else to say this: do not give money to these people.

Besides this glaring issue, Invisible Children has also been criticized for their own actions as a charity organization. Last year, they spent about 8.7 million dollars, but only 32% of that money went to direct services. The rest covered the organization’s internal costs.

I know what you’re thinking: yeah, yeah, that’s any charity. Sure, all charities have to cover certain costs before they can contribute money to the actual causes that they support. However, not all charities are as bad about this as Invisible Children, which was rated 2/4 stars by Charity Navigator.

Here’s another thing not all charities do, but Invisible Children does. That’s right, they’re actually posing with guns and soldiers from the Ugandan army. This is unprofessional at best and narcissistic and self-congratulatory at worst. (Here’s the source.)

According to Foreign Affairs magazine, Invisible Children has also exaggerated its “facts” about the LRA in order to gain support. Now, some people don’t see much of a problem with this. Whatever keeps the checks coming, right?

Needless to say, I disagree. If you need to manipulate information in order to raise money, you’re not behaving ethically, and that’s the case whether you’re a Fortune 500 company or a non-profit. That’s just what I believe.

Fortunately, there are plenty of more reputable charities that provide aid to Uganda. Here are some: War Child, Children of Uganda, Kiva (you can make microloans to people all over the world, including, obviously, Uganda). Some great organizations that aren’t specific to Uganda are Doctors Without Borders, Help International, Women for Women.

So giving money to Invisible Children might not be the best idea, especially if you don’t want your money going to an army that rapes people. But what about the other half of Kony 2012′s mission, raising awareness?

I’m not sure how making Kony a “household name” is going to help things, to be honest. Unlike campaigns like SlutWalk and OWS, which targeted ordinary American citizens to make themselves aware of issues they can actually do something about, Invisible Children wants to stop a powerful Ugandan warlord. But contrary to their claims that Kony needs to be “made famous,” he’s already quite well-known among the people who matter. The International Criminal Court indicted him for war crimes back in 2005, and the American government has already had Kony on their radar for some time. In fact, as the Foreign Affairs article I linked to above discusses, they’ve been sending troops there for a while. So far, though, they haven’t succeeded in actually capturing him.

But even that raises difficult questions. Does Invisible Children want the United States to intervene militarily in order to stop Kony? If so, how is this any different from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (which, ironically, were strongly opposed by the very same progressive-minded people who are now feverishly posting the Kony video on Facebook)? And if not, what exactly are ordinary Americans supposed to do upon learning about Kony?

These are all questions that aren’t really being asked in the rush to spread an admittedly powerful and emotional video. But they need to be asked. You’ve Facebooked it, you’ve Tweeted it, you’ve favorited the video on YouTube. Now what?

Unfortunately, just the act of asking these questions, and of suggesting that Invisible Children may not be winning any awards for the world’s most ethical charity, is frowned upon. Every article and Facebook post I’ve come across that criticizes this campaign has been deluged with comments about how “they’re just trying to do a good thing” and “why do you have to criticize everything.”

Ah, the age-old question–why, indeed, must we criticize everything?

Here’s the thing. The stakes are quite a bit higher here than for other viral campaigns. If SlutWalk fails, nothing happens. If Occupy Wall Street fails, nothing happens. If Kony 2012 fails, nothing may happen–or, Uganda’s army will obtain more power that it can use to rape more people and enslave more child soldiers. Kony may be captured and someone else may take over who is even crueler. The United States may become involved in yet another costly foreign entanglement.

Another fact worth noting is that many, many African writers (including Ugandan ones) have been criticizing this campaign very strongly. Now, I’m not one of those people who claim that Americans have no place doing charity work in Africa because White Man’s Burden, but I do think that when the very people you’re trying to help are criticizing the help you’re providing, you need to sit down and listen. I’ve included some links to these criticisms at the end of this post.

I keep hearing the remark that criticizing Kony 2012 only “brings down morale” and keeps people from donating money. However, as long as the criticism is factual–that is, as long as Invisible Children really does support the Ugandan army and really is only spending a third of its money on actual aid to Uganda–then those are facts that potential donors ought to know before they make their decision.

If you’re relying on misinformation or lack of information to get people to donate to your cause, what you’re spreading isn’t awareness. It’s propaganda.

As I said before, awareness is important. But a free society thrives on dialogue. Posting a video and then condemning everyone who dares to criticize it is not dialogue.

These are, quite literally, matters of life or death. This is not the time to be upbeat and positive about everything you hear just because you don’t want to rain on the parade.

For more perspectives on Kony and Invisible Children’s campaign, here are some good sources:

Alternative Student Break: Helping Rich Kids Feel Good About Themselves Since 2007

This is my column for the Daily Northwestern this week.

This week, students from all over Northwestern will be applying for Alternative Student Break, a program that sends students to other parts of the country or the world to do volunteer work for a week. ASB is popular because it’s so hard to find anything negative about it. Traveling! Helping poor people! Making friends! What’s not to like?

I’ll concede that ASB is a great learning experience and a good way to bond with other NU students. It’s important to make yourself aware of the difficulties people and communities face elsewhere in the United States and in the world. However, I’d stop short of viewing ASB as some grand act of charity, which is the way that many students seem to view it.

First of all, as volunteer work goes, it’s not cheap. Domestic ASB trips usually cost at least several hundred dollars while Hillel’s trip to Cuba this spring costs a whopping $2,900. That’s probably twice as much as I’ve ever had in my bank account, and I’m comfortably middle-class.

It seems that many NU students assume that several hundred bucks for a spring break trip is small change. After all, chances are that many of the students who will spend their spring break on ASB in Kansas City or Pittsburgh will have friends vacationing in Paris, Madrid or the Caribbean. But given that you could just as easily volunteer at no cost right here in Chicago (not exactly free of its own problems) or in your hometown, one really has to wonder about the sense of paying to volunteer elsewhere.

More troubling than ASB’s price tag is the implicit assumption it makes about service work: that it’s something wealthy people do for poor people. This assumption may seem like common sense at first; after all, what are poor people supposed to do? Help themselves?

Yes and no. I do believe that those with the resources to help improve their society should do so. Sometimes it’s the richer people who have the time and money to do things like march in protests, call their representatives in Congress, donate to charity and go on ASB trips. But I think that the highest level of helping is to help others help themselves, and sometimes that means making a commitment that lasts much longer than a week. It means becoming a mentor to a child at risk of dropping out of school or volunteering at a job skills training center for unemployed people. It means starting a ripple effect by helping people raise themselves up, so that they will keep rising long after you’re gone.

Although throwing money at problems rarely helps, there are still ways to use money to help people improve their own lives. Microlending, which has really taken off in recent years, involves giving small loans to people in developing countries who want to start their own business and make it out of poverty. Loans can be as small as $25 and Kiva.org, one of the most well-known microlending websites, boasts of about a 99 percent loan repayment rate. It’s like giving to charity, except you get your money back.

But I get it. Giving some money to a stranger across the world doesn’t make nearly as cool of a story as spending a week rehabilitating abused animals. Nobody’s going to gaze at you in adoration because you gave $100 to a man in Tajikistan so he can buy seed and fertilizer for his farm. But that doesn’t mean you won’t have done a really important thing.

If you’re interested, NU even has its own microlending organization. It’s called LEND and it supports Evanston businesses. If I had several extra hundred dollars lying around, I’d invest it in this organization or in a Kiva loan. After all, when you take an ASB trip, a substantial amount of the fee you pay goes towards things like travel, lodging and food. What if you took all that money and invested it directly? Such an investment means that all the money you have to spend goes right to the people who need it most.

Just as ASB neglects the long-term view, it neglects the roots of societal problems, such as discrimination, ignorance and bad government policies. Are ASB programs helpful? Sure, to a certain extent, they are. But they treat the symptoms rather than the disease. The houses you build during your week on ASB may help people, but they do nothing to solve the problems that made those people homeless.

NU is quite an apolitical campus, but it still boggles my mind that many NU students love helping poor people so much but take so little interest in the government policies that keep those people poor. The sorts of changes our society would need to make to end poverty and make ASB trips unnecessary are much more far-reaching — and perhaps less compelling. These changes take years, and they include things like educating yourself and others, talking to members of Congress, starting campaigns and teaching your own children to vote intelligently and with empathy.

This is why I feel that ASB is really more about the students than about the people and communities they’re helping. It’s more about the students’ experience, their desire to learn about others, their need to feel helpful. To put it less charitably, it’s a way for rich kids to feel good about themselves.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t go on ASB trips. Go ahead and go. Have a great time. But always remember that your responsibility to the world doesn’t end after a week of building houses or tutoring kids.