Posted on January 12, 2005

We and They

John Derbyshire, National Review Online, January 12, 2005

“A humanitarian is always a hypocrite,” said Orwell. That crusty misanthrope got a lot of things wrong, and it looks, on the evidence of these past few weeks, that this is one of those things.

The recent disaster in south Asia has brought out the humanitarian instincts of Americans. Quite aside from the hundreds of millions pledged by the U.S. government, private citizens and companies have been giving in abundance. By January 4 the American Red Cross had logged $79 million in donations, Oxfam $12 million, the American Jewish World Service $2 million just in online contributions. Doctors Without Borders has received so many gifts they are referring donors to other charities. Big corporations are checking in with seven-figure sums. Movie stars are on board: Sandra Bullock has pledged a million, Leonardo DiCaprio some unspecified large amount.

I doubt that more than a small percentage of these people are hypocrites. Most are just acting on an impulse to help strangers in distress. If there is anything to be said against that impulse, I don’t know what it is.

Orwell had good grounds for saying what he said, though, and his saying of it points up some differences between his time and ours. In the first place, he was writing from the perspective of a still-imperial Britain, whose middle-class public, by and large, believed that their nation was engaged in a civilizing mission in all those pink-colored regions of the map. Echoes of this mentality were still around in children’s periodical literature when I was growing up in England: I recall pictures in the Empire Boys Annual of happy African youngsters in crisp school uniforms welcoming a visit from the queen, smiling enthusiastically, waving little Union Jacks. Message: See how much good we are doing!

Orwell had seen the empire at close quarters and thought it was mainly a money racket. He was ill disposed to imperial propaganda of the humanitarian type, believing it a cover, if perhaps an unconscious one, for darker motivations.

He knew, too, that an exaggerated humanitarianism, especially one focused on remote places, is often a kind of escapism from more ordinary emotional obligations. If he did not know this from instinct, he certainly learned it from his beloved Dickens, who drew the definitive portrait of this particular pathology: Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House. This lady gives over all her time to her grand Borrioboola-Gha project, which involves settling destitute English people in Africa, for the mutual benefit of themselves and the Africans. So absorbed is Mrs. Jellyby in this effort, she grossly neglects her husband and children. One of the daughters is so traumatized by her mother’s fanatical humanitarianism that she comes to detest the very name of Africa: “One great comfort is,” this young Miss Jellyby tells Esther Summerson after announcing her engagement, “that I shall never hear of Africa after I am married. Young Mr. Turveydrop [her fiancé] hates it for my sake, and if old Mr. Turveydrop knows there is such a place, it’s as much as he does.” (The Borrioboola-Gha project collapses at last when a local African chief sells the settlers into slavery in exchange for rum.)

There was also the humanitarianism of the Left, who in Orwell’s time were still in thrall to the idea of social revolution. This was so much the case, in fact, that the early 20th-century Left was hostile to charity, believing that “bourgeois” aid for the sufferings of the poor only postponed the day of that revolution which would bring the only true and permanent improvement in the human condition. (Lenin wrote a pamphlet against famine relief.) The idea of extreme-Left politics as a humanitarian project seems weird to us now, when the horrors of communism are well known. Seventy years ago, though, it was still possible to believe, if you really wanted to, that Stalin was establishing a society free from want, hunger, and distress. Orwell saw through all that, and rightly mocked those who thought that kindness and justice could be imposed by commissars with machine pistols.

For all these differences, however, and with all proper respect to those who have selflessly given to the suffering people in south Asia, Orwell’s remark is not quite truth-free. There is, for example, a capricious quality to rich-world charity. Our charitable impulses are mediated by, well, our media. We see an orphaned child or a weeping mother on our TV screen, and are moved to pity. Nothing the least bit wrong with that; but the world is full of orphaned children and weeping mothers who never make it to the nightly news. Here is a country that for five years has endured a horrible civil war, with fatalities guessed at three million. Must be lots of orphans and bereaved mothers there. Did you send any money to relieve their distress? No, neither did I.

I have not, in fact, sent anything to the tsunami victims. I don’t say this with any satisfaction, though I’m not particularly ashamed of it, either. Some numbers of my tax dollars are there in Uncle Sam’s package. That’ll have to do. It’s not that I’m uncharitable. I don’t think I come up to the old Wesleyan standard of “Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can,” no more in the first two clauses than the last, but I write a check now and again. This past few weeks I’ve sent 50 bucks to the Marine Corps League and $200 to a building appeal by my church. I’ve diverted one small income stream to a medical charity in memory of a friend who died last month. It’s not much, but from a modest lower-middle-class income, it’s not nothing.

So why haven’t I given to the tsunami funds? Because I haven’t been sufficiently moved to. Why not? What claim do the Marine Corps League, the Episcopal Church, and the Lahey Clinic have on my meager charitable impulses that the suffering people of south Asia don’t have?

The short answer is that the south Asians are too distant and too foreign. The way human beings are made, we give up most of our interpersonal emotions to our families and friends. What little is left we spread among people, or causes, with whom we feel some natural sympathy. Most of those are going to be close at hand: our church, our political party, our school funds and youth groups, our associations of common interest. Obviously Thai storekeepers and Sri Lankan peasants don’t fall into any of those groups.

That’s not a full account of our human sympathies, of course. A person whose tender emotions are strictly limited to family and associates is either a member of the Mafia, or a citizen of one of those unhappy societies Francis Fukuyama describes as having a “limited radius of trust,” like the clan-dominated, cousin-marrying regions of the Middle East. The sympathies of a well-adjusted person can easily be aroused by the plight of strangers. Indeed, the skillful writer of a novel, a play, or an opera can engage our emotions on behalf of people who are not only strangers to us, but who do not even exist! And a person whose emotions cannot be so aroused is not behaving normally. When Shakespeare has Hamlet say: “What’s Hecuba to me or me to Hecuba that I should weep for her?” we understand that there’s something wrong with the guy. He should weep for Hecuba.

I’m perfectly normal in that way, but when I see TV footage of the tsunami victims I feel no more than a mild sadness at their plight. I don’t know anything about them, not even as much as the playgoer knows about Hecuba.

Furthermore I have no connection with them, no handle on which to hang my sympathy. “Racism”? Certainly not. My wife and her family belong to a race different from mine, and live in Manchuria. If the tsunami had come ashore there I should be fully engaged. These folk in south Asia, though: They are people-in-the-abstract, not people-I-have-anything-to-do-with.

Most of us believe—I myself certainly believe—that something is owed to our common humanity, and that there is something unkind and inhuman about a stony indifference to the sufferings of strangers in distant places. I am not that cold; it’s just that the warmth of my feelings for these poor people doesn’t rise to the level of reaching for my checkbook. I’ll gladly join in a prayer for them; I don’t mind my government spending some of our public monies to relieve their distress; I absolutely would not do or say anything to hinder or discourage anyone from trying to help them.

I think there is also a Miss Jellyby factor. The cant of our age, endlessly repeated to us in our media and educational institutions, is that we are all of us, all the peoples of the world, brothers and sisters, the differences between us the merest superficial inconsequentialities—which we must, however, “celebrate” till we bust. It is natural for people of a skeptical or contrary disposition to react against all that flapdoodle; to find ourselves, when confronted with a situation in which we are supposed to act on our common humanity, thinking: “Some of these people are a whole lot different from us in quite important ways. Some of them, for example, are fundamentalist Muslims, who believe that the killing of Jews and infidels is meritorious. Should I help them?”

One’s fellow-feeling towards remote members of the human race is, in most of us, a feeble thing. Beyond those intimate fellow feelings for family, friends, and so on, our residual loyalties are mainly tribal. We are not supposed to say this nowadays, and I am sure that some proportion of my readers are already swooning with outrage at the suggestion, which I am obviously just about to make, that to an ordinary healthy human being, some groups of his fellow human beings matter more than others. This is, though, perfectly obvious—look at the European press coverage, which has concentrated on the suffering of European tourists—and normal. Patriotism, now deeply out of fashion among the over-educated classes of the Western world, but still strong among decent people everywhere, is just one aspect of this. People who look like us, behave like us, and speak our language, are easier for us to engage with in the abstract than people from other groups.

The key phrase there is “in the abstract.” I am talking here about our feelings towards large masses of people, which are of a different kind from our feeling for individuals—though the two kinds of feelings are connected at some level, and are often deliberately confused by political operators for their own fell purposes. I once lived in Thailand, as it happened, and got to know some Thais. My feelings towards those individuals then became of the personal kind, rather as the very abstract wave function of quantum mechanics “collapses” to an actual subatomic particle once an observation has been made. This is the phenomenon Kipling was commenting on in his poem “We and They”:

All good people agree,

And all good people say,

All nice people, like Us, are We

And everyone else is They:

But if you cross over the sea,

Instead of over the way,

You may end by (think of it!) looking on We

As only a sort of They!

The problem is, that until the wave function collapses at a personal encounter, strangers in remote places are an abstraction. Their media-mediated sufferings can move us to some degree (though obviously not much of a degree in my case); but if you tell me that the sight of an orphaned child in Sri Lanka moves you just as much as that of one in your own town, let alone your own family, I shall tell you that you are either lying, or (much more likely) are in the grip of a sentimental delusion. To that small extent, at least, and with no offense to anyone at all, Orwell was on to something.