It used to be the “under-privileged” that social reformers spoke about, from their privileged position.
Now that term makes you cringe, because it defines a swath of people in a way that seems to disempower them.
Maybe now’s the time to talk about another term that has always mades me cringe: The term, “giving back.”
Of course, the rich and powerful have always tried to spread the love. They did so through charity, mostly. And the euphemism they always used for “charity” was, “giving back.”
I’ve always been troubled by that expression. These days I’m kind of astonished to still be hearing it.
To “give back” to a community, you have to have taken from that community first. In which case, I doubt donating 2% of your profits to the Black Lung Society, or spending a Saturday morning cleaning up trash at the local Cherokee reservation constitutes reasonable restitution.
But I don’t think you think you were truly taking from a community. If I know the typical humble businessperson who “just wants to give back,” I think she thinks her organization has benefited the community all along. In which case, your talk of “giving back” is disingenuous.
And in any case, look at this term from the point of view of the recipients of the largesse, and try to imagine their quote in the press release. “We’re just grateful to Goodyear, for giving back,” said Francine Smith, executive director of the Akron Coalition for Homeless Former Rubber Workers. “We’ll take whatever we can get!”
Now in the age of the new Purpose of a Corporation that says companies exist to make life better for all stakeholders—and at a moment when most of us see social problems as systemic issues rather than ad hoc repairs—this idea of “giving back” seems impossibly smarmy, antiquated, condescending and privileged.
No charge for this blog post, by the way, or for any of my more than three thousand daily blog posts going back to 2008. It’s just my little way of giving back. —DM
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