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Pondering the South African Memesphere – Looking for the Good in Everything

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The Life You Can Save

September 8th, 2009 · Posted by Hugo · 16 Comments

The last weekend of August saw me on a mountain bike trip to Flumserberg. Riding the train on my own, I had the opportunity to try out podcasts again. It so turned out that the first podcast I could think of and easily access was Point of Inquiry. I ended up listening to two and a half episodes.

One of them was an interview with Peter Singer about his book The Life You Can Save: Acting Now To End World Poverty. He challenges the “western world” about its apparent apathy towards poverty.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Peter Singer details how twenty-six thousand children die each day of preventable diseases and poverty worldwide, and contrasts this toll with the public’s moral outrage over the blackest days in our history, such as 9/11/2001. He talks about the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth regarding the poor, and questions why most Christians today have seemed not to make ending world poverty a priority, instead focusing on issues such as abortion and homosexuality, which are not mentioned by Jesus. Singer argues that when people in affluent societies value even small luxuries more highly than saving the lives of the world’s poor, that it is morally equivalent to standing by when one could easily save someone from drowning.

He acknowledges the psychological differences, but argues for equivalence with regards to morality/ethics. (Seeing someone drowning in front of you is in your face, whereas poverty is typically on the other side of the world.)

That’s something about Europe, or America, or the developed world in general: these nations are typically quite out of touch with what real poverty looks like, or what it feels like. Cinema and TVs show images, good movies evoke emotions, but it’s a two hour experience of something “exotic”, then it’s over.

Of course, “back home” (Cape Town, Stellenbosch) most of us are probably also shockingly out of touch, considering the fact that real poverty is within walking distance there. (In Stellenbosch, it’s even within rich-folks’ walking distance: only 2km. Perspective!)

If you’re curious, go read the synopsis, or listen to the podcast. Maybe read his book (I’m considering it). Check out thelifeyoucansave.com, or GiveWell. For some ideas challenging Singer’s apparent simplification of the matter (referring the drowning-person example), there’s some debate in the comments on the Point of Inquiry site. Then come share your thoughts!

In what ways do you currently contribute to charitable causes? What other ways might you investigate in the near future? And how do you feel about the suggestion raised in the podcast, that in some ways Peter Singer, an atheist, could be considered “a better Christian than most Christians”?

Categories: Worldviews
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16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Wim Conradie // Sep 16, 2009 at 10:58 pm

    I like the points that he makes about today’s Christians, making a bigger fuss about abortion and homosexuality than poverty.
    But in practise, I think it’s not that bad. I think it’s actually media flaming the issues, because is sensational. In my experience, which is unfortunately only limited to a couple of Christian churches in South Africa, all of them spent practically more time and money on the community, than on controversial matters.

  • 2 Hugo // Sep 17, 2009 at 12:10 am

    I think media and stereotypes is driven much by American culture. I’ve been brought to believe American “Conservative Evangelicals” fit the stereotype scarily well. It’s the hot-button political litmus test: “how do you feel about homosexuality?” “how do you feel about abortion?” Based on those questions, they decide whether you’re a real Christian or not. Why? Precisely because the non-Christians are also serious about poverty, so they don’t feel that’s a sufficient litmus test. I think it’s sick. Wanting to be different, to be “the chosen ones”, is what drives them away from what’s important to what makes them different, for different’s sake.

    But yes, it’s likely I’m biased by the blogosphere and media’s version of it.

    We would need more input from Americans with … what, unbiased views? As if anyone has unbiased views? It much depends on context. So to stop talking about “them”, and instead talk about “us”… I agree: all the South African Christian friends I can think of, that’s serious about Christianity, is concerned about poverty, while I’ve never heard any discuss abortion. I’ve picked up on some homophobia though (NG friend), mostly in response to Brokeback Mountain. It’s still not a publicly discussed “issue”, outside of Shofar or EveryNation circles. Some churches have support groups for gays, focused on “what does it mean to be gay in the kingdom”, not on “how to not be gay”. It’s just in Shofar and EveryNation that I hear about the idea of “curing gays”…

    So why is there this big difference? I believe it helps a lot that we’re not so far removed from real poverty as USA and Europe, thus the Christian faith doesn’t forget that part of what Jesus was all about.

    However, what would the state of Christianity be, in South Africa, if we were a developed nation without any “real poverty” anymore?

    Because contexts differ, it would be wrong for us to feel we’re any “better” than those evangelicals: we might really be just as bad, and suffer the same “moral decay” if we became a “well off first-world country”. Hence, we really must not judge, but we can still talk about what’s wrong and what can be better.

    Thoughts?

  • 3 Wim Conradie // Sep 17, 2009 at 12:48 am

    I have no facts to base this on: but I have a gut feel the 1st world countries are also not that bad.

    Some idiot might say something like “gays go to hell” and its all over the media in America, but maybe his church still actually spends more money on community work. Even in radical churches I guess this to be the case. I’m sure gay support groups doesn’t really make a dent in the church’es revenue.

    Again I don’t really have facts to base this on.

    I have heard though of dozens of charities being funded from 1st world countries. And isn’t the UN’s food support mainly from 1st world countries.

    Also I would like to see some statistics w.r.t. eastern and other nations. Would be interesting to compare with the western world.

  • 4 Hugo // Sep 17, 2009 at 12:51 am

    True, and would be interesting… so where might we get money for such studies? :-P

  • 5 Hugo // Sep 17, 2009 at 1:09 am

    I can try to pick up some anecdotes in Europe. Won’t exactly be rigorous, but it will satisfy my curiosity as to European perspectives of “what’s important”.

  • 6 gerhard // Sep 22, 2009 at 9:52 am

    [That’s something about Europe, or America, or the developed world in general: these nations are typically quite out of touch with what real poverty looks like, or what it feels like. ]
    yes, and people in africa are out of touch with what _real_ wealth is. the converse of the problem. people not knowing what “real money” is so they get jealous of relatively “poor” people, just because they are better off. not well off. just better off. like you said the “rich folks” of stellies.. hahaha yes there are some well off folks there , but to suggest they are rich as a community is laughable.

  • 7 wouter // Sep 29, 2009 at 2:25 am

    This is definitely something I am currently experiencing. I have moved to San Diego from Johannesburg. My wife worked for a non profit that exposed her to rural areas in Botswana, Kenya, Uganda, Zambia. We lived next to Zandspruit squatter camp in a golf estate (what a weird screwed up setup). Poverty was in my face. Yet not in my life. Here in San Diego poverty is in the distance covered under the smog of Tijuana and not something I see (been there once almost a year ago with habitat for humanity). I can sense that poverty has become foreign to me. Poverty come to me in the form of streaming video and then when it is done I close my laptop and finish my breakfast. The thoughts of poverty linger in my mind for some time mixed with emotion and it slowly fades away as I continue with my day, get in my car and drive to work surrounded but luxury vehicles with single passengers in them. This world is a crazy place. I used to ridicule the reaction of tourists in South Africa towards the poverty. Now I am starting to understand. I guess when I am going to visit again I will get a wake up call.

  • 8 Hugo // Sep 29, 2009 at 9:01 am

    Thanks wouter, a great contribution!

  • 9 Time to Start Giving // Nov 18, 2010 at 11:07 pm

    [...] desire to do good, of course. However, more than a year ago I blogged about Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save. All talk and no action on my [...]

  • 10 Al // Nov 19, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    Hi H

    China, you blow my fucking mind sometimes. Super-insight and then super-dof. And fuck knows – I actually DO respect you.

    What the blue sweet fucking Heebus Jeebus does money and giving have to do with one another – considering one of them does not acually belong to you in any fucking Tax Form starting with Octavian AND a sack full of Xhinese and other Imperators.

    DON’T YOU GET IT = MONEY ONLY BELONGS TO YOU FOR THE INSTANT THE GOVERNMENT WHO OWNS IT AND VALUES IT – LETS YOU “OWN” IN A FISCAL CYCLE.

    How the fuck fuck can you give something that does not, OR, was not somethig brokered for the purpose of belonging to you?

    Are you too rich and feeling guilty ???

    Try giving living DNA in the form of fresh or carefully denatured protein to someone once a day, say something really simple like some bread and fish – just like you need monkey without a tail = otherwise YOU DIE. oh, and Like millions are

    You missed the point.

    GIVE.

    If he, she or IT does not look you in the eyes personally – you gave nothing, and you bought nothing as well.

    And ancient Rabbi once said: If you save ONE life … you have saved the world.

    Al

    Hugo, try getting your hands low down and dirty and trust me – doing so is a frightening and an inexact and messy process that takes time and hurts and is flooded with feelings of failure, ineffectiveness and self-reprisal. Take a step back from praising your wallet intellectually – you are looking into the wrong All seeing-EYE. Fix the world like you miss your dad.

  • 11 Al // Nov 19, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    Brother Gerhard

    All of Stellenbosch’s Spritual Riches and all the Crowns of Celestial Glory lie buried under the Kayamandi Railway bridge.

    Al

    P.S. Gettitt? X marks the spot….

  • 12 Al // Nov 19, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    Poetry id, no oopd, no ooops – er, oops … is a processsss.

    [Revixited]

    ISCARIOT PRIESTS

    there will always and forever be more life
    in sweet morsels of ever-ancient bread and fish
    happy in the mouth
    until twelve baskets of leftovers
    of a single forgotten Infant

    than all the Imperator’s Tax
    in a a One honey coloured coin
    tossed back at the myriad graspings
    of a lesser multitude
    . . .
    of microphones
    hissing away in Tongues of God
    through perfect fangs
    and from viper lips
    counting preacher’s tithes
    praising pockets and cruxifying reward

    TV’s thirty pious seasons of dead crimson silver.

    Nema.

  • 13 Hugo // Nov 19, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    Hey Al…

    China, you blow my fucking mind sometimes. Super-insight and then super-dof. And fuck knows – I actually DO respect you.

    If you do respect me, please stop making abusive comments, they’re getting ridiculous. You’re downright wrong about money here…

    I’m curious about the motivations behind your comment – did my most recent post (which we’re not commenting on right now) come across too much as a “you should also give”? If so, apologies, and I’ll work that into another post with a little thought I thought of sharing. Continuing with my situation:

    What the blue sweet fucking Heebus Jeebus does money and giving have to do with one another – considering one of them does not acually belong to you in any fucking Tax Form starting with Octavian AND a sack full of Xhinese and other Imperators.

    DON’T YOU GET IT = MONEY ONLY BELONGS TO YOU FOR THE INSTANT THE GOVERNMENT WHO OWNS IT AND VALUES IT – LETS YOU “OWN” IN A FISCAL CYCLE.

    How the fuck fuck can you give something that does not, OR, was not somethig brokered for the purpose of belonging to you?

    You’re calling another dof. And in the same breath you write this comment above.

    Charities need time, volunteers, people. Of course. Donating time is a wonderful thing to do. But organisations also need money. It is a token by which we trade (duh), irrespective of government’s involvement here. Many organisations that do wonderful work can’t do it without financial support. The mechanism of that support? Someone has to give it to them. Duh. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s good to give the deserving organisations money. It is good to give wikimedia money.

    Are you too rich and feeling guilty ???

    Shut up or wisen up, Al. Who are you to presume what I feel? A single question mark would’ve been fine, a sincere question goes a long way. Rhetorics fall flat on its face if it lacks clue.

    I don’t feel guilty, no. Guilt of various kinds was something in my past, I’ve gotten over that, I’ve moved on. I’m giving because I do have more than I need, and giving money is an excellent way to contribute. Simple as that. Suggesting I shouldn’t give money is downright daft.

    If he, she or IT does not look you in the eyes personally – you gave nothing, and you bought nothing as well.

    False. OK, you’re arguing for a certain kind of giving, but you’re not connecting to the conversation I started out with. Of course giving money, impersonally, is a case of giving. In one sense of the word.

    So let’s put all that behind us, and see if we can salvage the useful conversation that the rest of your comment can start:

    Try giving living DNA in the form of fresh or carefully denatured protein to someone once a day, say something really simple like some bread and fish –

    I checked wikipedia for “denatured” to get a clue what you’re talking about. Food, I take it. ;) You do realise I’m not living in Africa at the moment, right? So who do you suggest I give food to? (If I want to give food in Africa, the best way I can do it, at the moment, is via financial contribution. Do you have any constructive suggestions as to what I could contribute to?)

    just like you need monkey without a tail = otherwise YOU DIE. oh, and Like millions are

    You missed the point.

    I’m going to ignore that.

    And ancient Rabbi once said: If you save ONE life … you have saved the world.

    Fine. So how do I do that?

    Hugo, try getting your hands low down and dirty and trust me – doing so is a frightening and an inexact and messy process that takes time and hurts and is flooded with feelings of failure, ineffectiveness and self-reprisal. Take a step back from praising your wallet intellectually – you are looking into the wrong All seeing-EYE.

    Ignoring the comments about finances, considering the hope that we’ve now put that behind us.

    How and where do you suggest I get my hands dirty? Are you suggesting I quit my job, or change jobs to something that you consider more “down and dirty”? Yes or no is probably enough here — I have no desire right now to discuss whether the job I do is of benefit to the world or not. We could potentially discuss whether, if this is where my talent is, making lots of money and then contributing financially would be a better or worse contribution than dedicating my life to “getting down and dirty”. We could maybe even potentially discuss Bill Gates as a case study: made a shitload of money doing shit (a bit of my open-source propaganda days sneaking through in my rhetoric here ;) ), but now dedicates that shitload in an attempt to make as big and effective a difference as possible. So — was that a bad/incorrect course for him to choose? Since the “money isn’t his” and he should rather have gotten down and dirty and spent his hours every weak doing one man worth’s work on the streets?

    Fix the world like you miss your dad.

    Don’t make a cheap shot out of that. And that was a long time ago, yearly observance, partly via making a blog post, is a ritual of remembrance to me.

    *sigh*

    Please stay out of the newest post’s comment thread (the “Time to Start Giving” thread): if a discussion actually starts up there, I think it would be more beneficial to those taking part, and to the world, if the discussion doesn’t turn sour. Constructive comments, please.

  • 14 Al // Nov 24, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    It started a long time ago for me, being force fed the me-me-me-me version of Christianity – that has always nauseated me, even when I tried to endure it in the Church and childishly thought I could point it out. I offer no appologies and don’t be so sensitive when challenged to think outside your comfort box.

    Give something to get something.

    Show me a Charity Organisation and I’ll show you a softly-cock Obese Person clutching a title and a cheap tin of Diet Coke with a picture of a missing child and considering a new BMW dealer.

    Question is: How’s that diet working for you?

    Real question is: How is that diet working for the millions of Them?

    Question you should have asked me and excluding my only son is: What is the name of the neglected kid you and your wife are caring for Al and how many more do you dream for? (See that has Jack shit to with money and everything to do with giving, and it will never stop until I build them a Home – Here and Now.)

    It is not a cheap shot Hugo – How much do you think any orphan like either one of us misses and misses and misses….someone you can call a Father. Fix it.

    I obviously can no longer afford this conversation.

    P.S. And it looks like you will never afford to buy Acid Alex. Tough shit both sides huh?

  • 15 Hugo // Nov 24, 2010 at 11:13 pm

    Sorry Al, I’m again having trouble understanding what you’re saying. And too exhausted to study your comment in depth.

  • 16 Hugo // Nov 24, 2010 at 11:27 pm

    Read it again, I suppose I understand most of it, but I feel I’m probably missing what’s supposed to be the most important message in the comment.

    I don’t think we’re successfully connecting with each other in our conversation here. There’s some chasm and I fail to see any sign of a bridge.

    You’re not meeting me half-way. And I’m not sure how I can better meet you half-way.

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