The paradox of numb benevolence

Those who wandered into the Downtown Campus or the Sama Dining Hall sometime in the past week probably encountered a couple of students sitting by ...

Nov 23, 2013

Those who wandered into the Downtown Campus or the Sama Dining Hall sometime in the past week probably encountered a couple of students sitting by monetary donations boxes in support of the victims of Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines earlier this month.
I volunteered to sit at the table for an hour or so, during which time I was committed to drawing the attention of anyone who passed by to the relief initiative. In response, a few people would readily pull out their wallets and make a generous donation, while others would apologetically point out that they didn't have money with them. A few would walk straight past, ignoring the table completely. But one person in particular, who shall remain anonymous, refused to donate upon my approach. I was curious as to why, and the reply included an honest, "I don't get a warm, cozy feeling from doing it."
"Fair enough," I thought. Most people don't get this cozy feeling either — although I can really only speak for myself. But then why do we donate money to this cause? Especially when there are so many other urgent efforts to be supported all over the world, in our communities, both in the UAE and back home? Is the value of donating in the symbolic support for the victims of the typhoon? Is it in the actual monetary contribution? Are donations equally valuable if only a result of social expectations associated with these sorts of relief campaigns? Supporting the Haiyan victims would rarely be put into question as a bad thing, but if depositing money in a box is enough to free our consciences from any further consideration of the issue, then I cannot help but wonder if we are giving way to the paradox of numb benevolence.
By the end of the week, the drive yielded over 10,000 AED worth of donations to the Humanitarian Aid for the Philippines and a student parody of a Beyoncé video for having hit a target value. But its implicit success was in bringing the NYU Abu Dhabi community face-to-face with a case that illustrates the predicament of a global education surrounded by the material privileges of a select few: We are, in many instances, encouraged to be intellectually engaged in issues of an international scale, while at the same time we remain truly distant from the conundrums that affect people everywhere on a day-to-day basis. Then how do we effectively contribute to a crisis taking place half a world away?
That is exactly the kind of question that those initiatives raise. And far from assigning any moral value to donating money to a cause, my point is that even the good actions need to be questioned. In thinking back to that interaction over the donations table, I thank the person who withheld from donating for raising the point that questioning those who donate is just as valid as questioning those who do not. If we are not critical of our support, then we fall under the danger of distancing ourselves from the problem altogether. And indifference, I would argue, is the worst deterrent to any meaningful engagement in affecting social change at any scale.
Clara Bicalho is a contributing writer. Email her at
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