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There is a recurring theme in certain activists/radical discourse of individualism. It is a problem when people who think the are proposing an alternative are actually just strengthening mainstream views (reproducing hegemonic value systems some might say).
The other day i saw a post on tumblr stating that the idea of body-love was prescriptive, you shouldn’t tell anyone how they should feel about their bodies, you should mind your own business, other people’s bodies are never your business, so you should never express your views about what might help people deal with body shame. While I also have a problem with the discourse of ‘loving your body’ and i agree that its a problem to tell people how they should feel about their body, the insinuation that you should never have/express any suggestions or opinions on other people and how they behave and deal with issues i find profoundly individualistic.
To take a seemingly unrelated view, I am also long used to hearing people say that you should only ever help out an oppressed group if it’s because ‘none are free while others are oppressed’, that helping others or altruism is not a welcome motive. i.e. your actions should only ever be self-motivated.
To me, both this examples, along with numerous others i see on the tumblrsphere and beyond, reproduce the idea of the atomised individual, who should mind their own business, and only engage in behaviour that concerns them. ‘Helping’ is a dirty word - why would you do something for others? It’s not possible, you must be being disingenuous or *whispers* a dirty liberal *gasp*.
When people say that no-one should care about issues that don’t effect them, and no-one should try and suggest ways for people to feel better, they are buying into the dominant belief that we are all just self-interested individual, cut off from others; as Margaret Thatcher once said ‘there is no such thing as society’. This ignores that humans are social creatures, who are only capable of anything human because they are immersed in society, who can be as altruistic as they are empathetic, and certainly who can be co-operative as they can be competitive. It ignores that we are products of our communities, cultures, and society, and we rely on others all the time. It ignores that how others behave, think, feel and speak effects us, that we effect them.
While i agree that sometimes what people mean by ‘helping’ is condescending, patronising, and when you boil it down, actually just self-interested, i want to defend the idea of helping. ‘Helping’ is only a problem when it is take place within a hierarchy. If you are helping from a position of power, and it is in one direction, from you to them, then that is charity, and often, you are just reinforces the power discrepancy. But when helping is between equals then what ‘help’ means is something different. So, although I have a problem with some types of body positivity, it’s not because i think that it is wrong to be concerned about others and how they feel, it’s because i’m not sure how helpful some of it is. Similarly, i don’t think it’s a problem to want to help oppressed group, provided you are offering your support as an equal and are actually being helpful, rather than as charity to the poor less fortunate people, which, in the end, cements the hierarchy. It is a good thing that people support, help and care for each other, we all need support, help and care.
Thats not to say that either altruism or helping are straightfoward, simple ideas. Altruism is definitely complicated, because, to an extent, it is true that ‘no-one is free until we are all free’, so no matter how fortunate you are, you often do have an interest in helping others. And because helping people only escapes being problematic when it is no longer charity (i.e. one way, down a hierarchy), it only escapes being a problem when you would expect the people you are helping to help you back if you needed it and they had the ability to. I.E. Help is good when it is based on ideas of mutual aid, inter-dependence, co-operativity, and equality. So again, there is the idea that you will benefit from helping others, or, to be more precise, you will benefit from creating a community where people help to the extent that they can. (From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs: communism (with a little ‘c’)).
Its possible to have more than one motivation for doing something. You can do something because you want to help someone, and, at the same time, you can do it because you want to live in a society where people help each other, which would mean that you can expect others to help you if they can. That doesn’t convert altruism into self-interest, it just means many altruistic acts have a feedback loop, and can be motivated by at least a couple of inter-related reasons.
Another complication is, that at the moment, there is hierarchies between groups of people, so help doesn’t happen within an equal society, and often does come under the guise of charity. This is definitely a problem, but i don’t think it means that help is always patronising, and a liberal concept, it means we have to be careful, mindful, and maybe try to think along these types of lines: Ethical alternatives of being an ally. Another thing that helps make help more like help than charity, is as i’ve said above, the idea that it is two way, mutualistic. Even if a less advantaged group or person cannot help a more advantaged or person because of lack of time, energy or resources, within a mutualistic framework there is the expectation that people or groups, will help each other if they can.
Basically, i am a big softy who wants to live in a world where everyone cares about each other, not in a world where it is frowned on to express care. And i find a lot of tumblr people who posit themselves as alternative or radical often expressing pretty individualistic capitalistic notions. This is never clearer than when you come across one of these people reblogging an Ayn Rand quote, completely unaware of who she is and what the connotations of her philosophy are, sometimes unaware that it is her quote since she hasn’t been cited. Doh.