(28) Altruism Gone Wrong

Photo by Chris Slupski on Unsplash

INTRO: Hello deep thinkers, this is your host Agrita and welcome to Mind Full of Everything, the podcast, that questions the deeper and bigger things in life, from intersectional environmentalism to self-development and everything else in between. 

Today I discuss the issues with modern-day altruism, and the emphasis on enacting kindness without much thought into the actual cause, or the benefits to others, leading to issues like the saviour complex which are detrimental to all. This episode aims to redefine altruism, from being a self-promoting strategy to a powerful tool for large-scale societal change.

I think it’s safe to say that we all live in an age of altruism, we could say that the youth are actually part of an altruistic generation, where everything is pretty much centred around being more ethical, sustainable, having a good impact on the world, and those around you, whilst doing anything you wish, whether it’s running a business, or going on holiday.

Every single action that you do as a human, needs to be ethical and sustainable. That is what has been emphasised, in our society. If you are on social media, you see it flooded with different ways to become a “better person”, to engage in altruistic acts, be the one who’s ready to help and be the one who’s ready to support others when they need that help. But if you look around you, coming off social media, looking in reality, can you really see any major positive changes? Can you see that the world is kinder, or a better place to be? 

If anything, without sounding too pessimistic, this world has really become so hostile and cold, on average. Selfishness and pride overtake altruism and generosity, and the act of using others for personal gain has become way too common, to the point that if you genuinely want to help someone, they will think twice about getting your support, in the fear that you perhaps could be using that support to your advantage, and making that person who is asking for help dependent on you. 

So then how does it make sense for us to be part of an altruistic generation, when pain and suffering has essentially increased over the years, decades, centuries, as we evolve collectively. Surely, if we’re encouraging everyone to become more altruistic, more caring, to help those in need, the world problems that we see today would have been reduced significantly, yet we’re seeing the intensity of social issues multiply, increase exponentially. If we were genuinely part of an altruistic generation, so many of the problems that society faces would have been reduced significantly, but that is not the case

So when I’m asking these questions to myself, I identify a massive gap in the way in which we define altruism, we define kindness, and the ways in which we go about being altruists ourselves, and how this has actually caused more harm to ourself and society, than benefit. Especially to those parts of society that are marginalised and oppressed, that are not as privileged as the rest of us. 

If you search up the dictionary definition of an altruist, it is a person that is unselfishly concerned for or devoted to the welfare of others, so the opposite to an egoist. I think the key words here are unselfishly and devoted or concerned, both key aspects, essential aspects of the altruistic trait, that so many people muddle up. A lot of actions that so many of us deem as altruistic either a have a) hidden agenda behind them, so for the benefit of the so-called altruist, or for their image, and b) are just basic manners that everyone should have, that should not be desired as a trait in humans, it’s basic manners that everyone should have, and we shouldn’t want to connect with people that have these manners, everyone should have them. 

First off, let’s talk about the hidden agenda behind altruistic actions. I think documentation of essentially everything we do through social media can be largely to blame for this. It sounds like I have a thing against social media. Absolutely not. Social media is so important, it’s important for my podcast, it’s important to connect with people that are like-minded, it’s important to revolutionise societal change, it’s important in so many different ways. You could call it a life-saving tool for many people, but equally it can be a threat to livelihoods as well. This unnecessary pressure to document everything you do in your personal life on social media really perpetuates this idea of seeking validation from others and people pleasing

It’s so easy for us to see what people are doing in a click of a button, jump on social media like Instagram and you can see who is active, what people are doing, what people are thinking, especially for very transparent people like me who post a lot. I would say, if anybody wants to find out about who I am, as a person, go to my Instagram and you will see every little thing I think about and how I like to present myself. That’s powerful in its own way, I see Instagram as a way to express myself in a very good way, in a way in which words can’t describe myself, it really paints an accurate picture of who I am. But for many, it’s like a mask to who they are. Even then, I think social media really helps me to see people’s true sides, the sides that perhaps you don’t get to see in person. People think that you can get fooled by how people present themselves on social media, but I think it’s the opposite. It reveals a lot about people, what they post, how they post, how they respond to you, how they respond to others, you can see a lot online. But yes, I do agree that a lot of things can be hidden on social media, and when it comes to altruism, it can be a very big obstacle in distinguishing the genuine altruists from those are painting a picture that they are caring and unselfish people. 

Coming back to the urge of documenting everything that you do, when you see others are having fun, posting great content, especially during summer, of course you do get the urge to do the same, to showcase your life as fun and carefree. Social media is genuinely all about the aesthetics and making your life look amazing, usually. In terms of activism, it has boosted immensely with social media, you can easily post a link for a cause in your bio, repost content, everybody can see it and access it and share it. It’s become extremely easy to gain momentum for social change online. We’ve seen it through the Black Lives Matter movement, the Uighur Muslims, the Beirut eruption, the Yemen crisis. Without social media, a lot of things would go undocumented; we don’t have to rely on mainstream media to cover major humanitarian crises. Social media has become a powerful way to document a lot of things that mean mainstream media wouldn’t. So social media is powerful, but it does have its tolls. 

When people see a trend on social, majority of us feel the need to join in. We saw that with a Black Lives Matter movement, where everybody started posting that black box on their social media, and that was it. For so many people, whenever there is a social cause, people feel the need to join in; if we don’t join in, we are labelled as selfish, rude, insensitive, and that leads to people abusing those are silent, whether it’s directly or indirectly. What’s the issue with this? We end up getting into a massive movement that ends up dying down as quickly as it rose, because a lot of those that are deemed as “warriors” of change, as the altruists were just pressurised to show support when they plainly didn’t want to, or they were not comfortable to join something that they hadn’t researched into properly. This is so dangerous, because change no longer sustainable and the support you thought you had that was genuine turns out to be fictitious, and you essentially are in the same place as you started with, the social issue that you and your community are facing, or the communities of other people that you want to be allies for are facing, becomes even more daunting and difficult to solve. And that’s when communities begin to feel betrayed, broken, and distrust arises between effective communities and genuine allies. They begin to ask this question, what if these allies abandon us like the rest? 

Since I mentioned the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ll give that as an example. Of course, being silent and not discussing about Black Lives Matter within your friend groups, within your families, is demonstrating that you have a lack of concern for such an alarmingly dangerous situation of systemic racism and hate crime against Black people in America and around the world. If you’re not discussing it with your loved ones, if you’re not showing your support and also concern for the safety of Black people, that is a major problem and you need to fix that. But silence on social media does not mean you don’t care. I posted this on my social media when I saw the amount of people attacking people for being silent, I posted this because it was really, really irritating me. I understand that being upset and calling out celebrities who choose to be silent when it comes to Black Lives Matter or any other issue, any other social issue, especially because celebrities have such a massive platform that they constantly use to promote their work, their friends’ work, to document their glamorous lives, so if they have that time to be documenting their lives so much, they should be having that time and energy to utilise their platform to show solidarity to Black Americans. But when it comes to normal people like me and you, hating on normal people for not regularly posting or even posting once about Black Lives Matter is wrong. First of all, how do you know that the person that you’re indirectly or directly lashing out at is not doing the most for that issue? How do you know that whilst you keep posting about Black Lives Matter, reposting etc. the person that you are attacking is actually donating to as many organisations, charities and Black businesses as possible? Don’t synonymise silence on social media to inaction; just because someone is not actively participating in a social media movement, not publicising their support when they aren’t famous, does not mean that they’re not doing anything, does not mean that issues like systemic racism don’t keep them up at night. So stop putting your expectations onto others, it’s toxic. All we end up doing when we attack people for not using social media in the way that you expect people to use social media, we end up incorrectly channelising our energy, we don’t channelise our energy into momentum for change. Instead, we engage in attacking others that perhaps are doing more work than you are. Posting on social media is important, so many people are on there. Building an online movement is important, that is not the only step that we need to take. What can we do more once that social media movement dies down, because it will die down? Another really toxic thing about social media is it makes it so easy to attack whoever, whenever, and that’s extremely detrimental to change. Desiree Kane that I interviewed in a previous episode, mentioned the same, people will be attacking her for not doing something when she has essentially dedicated her whole life into supporting Native American communities. And yet she is not silent on social media, so it makes no sense for people to attack her. But even if she was, social media is not indicative of what do you genuinely care about and what you do in your personal life to help others. So those are certainly doing the most just get violated for doing what? Helping out other people, but not openly? And those that do openly help get attacked and violated for not doing more. And that’s why people lose hope and allyship, because they think that all that allies will do is stray away from the true cause and begin fighting within themselves.

It’s like we have manifested this race to becoming altruists where people will put down others for not following the “altruistic pathway” that most people follow, which is through social media and openly showing support or networking. I think redefining activism is also very, very important. Activists don’t need to be standing on a BP oil tank risking their lives or standing out in the cold holding a climate change poster. Even though we genuinely need more grassroots activists, activists are also those who take time from their personal lives, to learn about issues that they’re really interested in, and seek out ways to help silently, but powerfully

Now talking about those people that use social media to paint a very inaccurate picture of themselves, especially when it comes to altruism. Social media can be very harmful for change when people only support certain causes to look better in front of others. So, these are the ones that choose to jump on the bandwagon without feeling pressured or guilty for not doing so, aka the fake altruists. So, they’re not pressurised to follow a particular trend, they jump on the bandwagon because they want to look good, whether it’s for their personal brand or just to look good in front of their friends and family. Many companies, for example, portray themselves as being ethical, being sustainable, being more for people than profit. But then when we enter into complex situations like the COVID-19 pandemic that we’re still in, we finally realise how greenwashed and self-centred these same organisations are. The PayUp campaign was so important because it showed which fast fashion companies genuinely cared about their workers in Bangladesh, and which didn’t and the majority did not. They [fast fashion companies] needed us to create a campaign on social media to force them to pay their workers when they should have been doing that anyways. A pandemic is no excuse for not paying workers in a developing region that require that payment, they have no other source of income. Adding on to that, we saw how selfish so many UK based companies, owned by millionaires, who relied on government funding to pay their employees through the furlough scheme. So, it’s very easy to portray yourself as compassionate, as an altruist, who works for people and only for the people. It’s very, very easy to transform lies into genuine trust for loyal customers. 

Another drawback to social media is we are so used to seeing bite-sized information that true facts, and determining which is fake and which is real news, becomes very difficult. We tend not to look into things as much because of this bite-sized information, we’ve kind of been told to believe that that is all we need, a key information we need and that’s it, we don’t need to look into anything because what’s on social media is on social media and it most likely is right, especially because mainstream media doesn’t cover many topics. Unfortunately, that’s how fake news spreads like wildfire. Whether it’s bite-sized information that we’re relying on or that verified tick, we automatically think a lot of things on social media will be right and don’t look into it, and that is again, very harmful, for long- term change.

Enough of those people that want to use social movements for their own personal gain, or for those that are forced into joining particular causes. This episode is really made for those that genuinely want to help those in need, those less privileged than them, who perhaps want to dedicate a significant portion of their life or perhaps their whole life into social causes, who deem themselves as altruists and most likely are altruists, but still get it wrong. Unfortunately, these people are essentially doing everything that I’ve talked about so far in terms of fake altruism, but they either don’t know it or don’t want to admit to it. And unfortunately, others fail to detect it as well, which can be dangerous, and which can amplify the distrust that marginalised communities already have for allies. These people have what we call the saviour complex, something that I suffered with immensely in my life and still do, and since I have experience in it, I can say that it has always been very harmful to me and my relationships, so I think I can give a fair share of advice on this. 

The saviour complex, or the white knight syndrome, is the need to save people by trying to fix their problems, even though they didn’t need your help or did not need your help in the way you delivered it. I can really say, saviour complex is a wicked thing. In terms of personal relationships, saviours feel this urge to fix everything. They also feel attracted to those people, mostly those people who have suffered a lot in their life, in the hope that they can sort out their problems for them. And this is mostly because you yourself have suffered a lot in life too. So, you can connect to those that suffer, have suffered. Essentially having this “Bob the Builder” take on relationships, where you think you can fix anything out of compassion, and out of love for that person. You have this strong belief that you can change anyone for the good. But what saviours fail to realise, and what I failed to realise in the past, is that it just destroys intimacy in relationships, whether it be intimate relationships, or platonic ones. The person that you are trying so hard to fix will eventually start to feel captive and claustrophobic around you. They’ll feel like their privacy and their control over their life has started to fade. And even though you are really meaning to help them out of a good intention, not because you want to show yourself as an amazing person, as a caring person, etc. you will start to appear as a nuisance to them. And then that leads to people taking you for granted while you continue to dedicate a lot of time and love into that relationship. 

I’m going to be very, very brutal now, tt may be controversial, but the truth is the truth and it needs to be said. If you overdo anything in a relationship, no matter how much you love someone or how much someone else loves you, if you overdo anything in your relationship, people will 100% take you for granted, whether it be overdoing your love for your parents, sibling, a significant other, even animal companions. Every single individual will take you for granted if you show them that you are 24/7 available for them, that you are that support mechanism that will always be present. And taking for granted does not always have to be out of malice. No genuinely good parent, sibling or partner will want to be using you as a personal slave, as emotional support all the time. But we need to realise that whatever relationship you’re in, if you’re giving someone too much, you’re just spoiling them, you’re allowing them to depend on you, and to lose their independent self. If parents can easily spoil their kids to the core, then anyone can spoil anyone with their love. And this overdoing of love is only because of saviour complex, and this obsession with helping everyone before yourself all the time. One of the key things about saviour complex is completely ignoring your preferences and your personal health, be it mental or physical health, to prioritise your loved one’s life. Of course, if somebody is in genuine need of your support, you will have to sacrifice things in life. Losing a person is much more painful than sacrificing a few things in life, and it does become necessary, and that’s fine. But in the end, you really do need to step back from a painful situation, a physically or/and mentally draining situation to rejuvenise your soul through focusing on what you need. 

I think the saviour complex is very apparent in femme-identifying people who are attracted to male-identifying people, especially heterosexual women, who feel like it’s their job to be the second mothers to their partners, or the guy that they’re really interested in, by solving all of their problems, and essentially being their therapist. Women that suffer this and I’ve also suffered this enough, I want to say just one thing to you: it is NOT your duty to keep other people’s mental health in check. You can advise people, you can provide moral support, but that is it. I don’t care if it’s your husband, or a guy who has done a lot for you, or a guy that you’re really interested in. You are not obliged to be anyone’s therapist except your own. Because the truth is, in the end, everybody gets out of their troubles by themselves. Whatever trouble you’re in, you have the most experience of that pain, of that situation, nobody else does. And your loved ones are there to support you when you feel like you’re going to break down, but it is you that will get out of that situation by yourselfThat’s how we heal. Nobody does healing for us. People can help you get out of a painful situation, but it needs to be you that is at the forefront of that change that you are striving for in your life. As Amy Oestreicher said healing does not happen in a vacuum, it happens in communities, but if healing is not driven by your desire for change in your life, it will not happen. You are your only therapist and unless you are a professional in counselling, you have no obligation to be somebody else’s emotional support all the time. 

In terms of activism, saviour complex takes a slightly different form, but it has the same foundation. Perhaps it is more detrimental for activism because there is a lot of people, a lot of communities most of the time in question. And so, you can cause a lot of damage without even realising it. I think saviour complex in activism becomes more dominating and less compassionate, more hostile even. It’s this view that a community that has been constantly violated, that has been deprived of human rights, essentially needs a “leader” like a saviour who essentially saved the community from their troubles. That’s what most saviours that are trying to help oppressed communities portray. A lot of people think that saviour complexes are limited to those outside affected communities. So those that have nothing to do with the community, but they do want to be allies. And it is true. If you’re not part of a community, you will not realise what sort of power dynamics you’re establishing, because of the saviour complex that you have, and then you’ll end up dominating over communities. That’s usually the case with white activists in developing regions, which is why so many community projects really become wary of who they appoint as a face of a campaign so as not to hurt the communities that are trying to be helped. But saviour complexes are not just limited to those who are not part of the community. They can easily affect those that are part of the community, so the community members, but those community members that are perhaps more privileged than the rest of their community. So for example, if I, as an Indian, go into India and try to take part in a project that is set up in a village in India, because I’m more privileged and I’ve lived in the UK, of course I haven’t experienced the level of suffering that less financially able people in India have faced; because of that disconnect, saviour complex can really develop very quickly without you even realising it, and without you wanting it to develop. So saviours in this instance, because they are privileged, more privileged and the rest of their community, they can naturally develop this “coloniser control” over their community, another issue that was raised by Desiree Kane, and these people begin to feel like just being a part of their community is enough to help the community out. And if people begin to resist to this form of altruism, people in that community begin to dislike this saviour, then the saviour gets frustrated, and they end up hurting their communities even more.

Just a few months ago, I actually realised that there is no need for privileged people to be going into developing regions to set up projects, to help “alleviate” the pain of hurting communities or broken communities, there is actually no need. Why? Because all of these communities that we label as helpless, are genuinely full of courage, power and brimming with ideas to change their realities, we really need to stop infantilising residents of lands that we deem as “less civilised” or developed than us, and start seeing these lands as opportunity hotspotsfor radical change. We think that these communities that we label as helpless can’t help themselves, but the communities themselves know exactly how to help themselves, communities surrounding them, and they have that full intent to help themselves. The problem is, so many of these communities have been deprived from the necessary tools that western countries have to bring about good change, major tools being money and education. So instead of thrusting our saviour complexes on these communities, we need to actively engage with organisations that have already set up community-led projects for social causes, we need to be the allies, the support standing in the background for these communities, ready to lend a hand whenever these communities need us. Instead of pushing to be at the forefront of change, we can help these communities in terms of resources or ideas for innovation, that’s it. These communities know exactly how to help themselves and their land, they need to be given that opportunity, and they need to be given those resources that western countries have, and they don’t. We need to be the helping hands, we need to act like allies. It’s not the job of the allies to be at the forefront of change, it’s the job of the allies to build momentum to change, show support when it’s needed, at the request of the community. I mean, we just need to stop thinking that we are the saviours of those that are suffering. Because like I said, healing happens individually. It happens in communities, but it also happens individually, and communities actually do act like single bodies, all of them know exactly what they want. They need time to get it. We shouldn’t be urging these communities to do certain things, according to what we western people think is right. Change is a very subjective, change will be how you want it to be. Only you and your community that is affected by certain issues, decide that, not outsiders or privileged people

On a positive note, human beings can be, and are, very beautiful beings. Genuinely our emotional capacity is so enormous, we don’t understand how enormous it is. And because of our emotional capacity, we can save this dying planet, if we really, really want to, very quickly as well. But for that to happen, we need to reconnect to the altruists in us, the selfless, genuinely supportive and compassionate human beings that we are so capable of being, the stewards that can protect the planet and life forms on earth through supporting causes when needed and in moderation. And it really starts by engaging in causes that you yourself are passionate about, for absolutely no benefit to you whatsoever, all except the desire to feel more alive, to feel more human.

OUTRO: It’s been so long since I’ve done a solo podcast episode I’ve become so used to interviews, interviewing inspirational people is is just so addictive! But I realised that perhaps you would be missing my take on certain things, so I am back and I will be focusing more on solo podcast episodes. Remember to subscribe to the newsletter and the podcast on your favourite podcast apps. Follow me on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. You can also support Mind Full of Everything through purchasing my fully recycled acrylic pin badges from my website and also leaving reviews for the show. I hope you all stay positive, stay safe, socially distance and until the next episode, happy listening!

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