Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Answering the Critic(s)

As a writer, I don't think you ever really feel like you've "made it" until you have a strong critic. Well, I now have one! Yeah me!

Motivated by the Herald Bulletin newspaper article, there is one individual (who I shall call "The Anonymous One") who has decided that I should be the temporary target of his ire. I am pleased to serve in this capacity for him because, quite frankly, it seems like he needs something like this in his life to feel complete.

He brings up a number of excellent points, which I would like to take some time to address.

1. A Religious Sacrifice

"... to describe [this project] as a Lenten sacrifice is a despicable sacrilege. Any TRULY religious philanthropist would give anonymously to a worthy cause, rather than make a public display like a foolish braggart, hoping to make money on a future book." - The Anonymous One

I agree with this completely and, had I ever described this as a primarily religious effort, I would certainly feel the same way.

But I didn't.

In fact, here is the precise quote from the Herald Bulletin article, taken from the interview with me about the project. After explaining that I came up with the idea and the title, 40 Days of Giving, I said about my choice of timing:

"You begin thinking '40 days,' and immediately Lent pops in your head. So I decided to start on Ash Wednesday."

The choice of Lent is clearly, from this statement, not a strongly-held religious statement about my own desire to sacrifice for religious reasons, but a matter of symbolic convenience. It is not a "Lenten sacrifice" in a religious sense, nor do I particularly think of myself as a "religious philanthropist." In fact, I specifically describe myself, in the interview, as a skeptic.

The Anonymous One certainly cannot be faulted for believing that I was trying to position myself as a religious giver, though, because the article emphasizes that aspect of the story far more than I was comfortable with. The photo caption says that it's showing us "explain the Lent-based reason for handing out grocery gift cards." The first line of the article reads, "Andrew Zimmerman Jones is taking his Lenten sacrifice to his wallet."

Honestly, when I read that I fumed for about 5 seconds. I wasn't "taking my Lenten sacrifice" anywhere ... if I hadn't come up with the idea for this project, I wouldn't have been sacrificing anything for Lent. It really is a bit of a misrepresentation of how I want the project to be perceived, and there it was in the very first line of the article! (From a writing standpoint, though, it is a good hook for the story, so I don't particularly blame the writer for framing it that way.)

2. Giving to Bad People

"The people who accepted your offer did NOTHING that you knew of to be rewarded for, in fact, they may well have been (for all you knew) thieves, crack addicts & prostitutes who were more worthy of PENALTY (the OPPOSITE of REWARD!)…

…or are YOU declaring yourself a DEITY who is capable & worthy of passing judgment upon those who you bestowed your Holy Gift Cards?" - The Anonymous One

Giving to worthy people is an issue that's come up (in more civil forms) a number of times between Amber and me. Part of my initial conception of this project was that it would be giving without really worrying about where it's going. In other words, if I chose to give in a certain way, I'd give to whoever showed up, without any form of judgement on my part. If this means I'm buying gas for someone in a Hummer, well, them's the breaks.

(The one time I faltered on this goal was at the first grocery store give, where I was about to walk up to a woman with three children to offer to buy her groceries. I glanced in the cart and noticed that it was full of pretty much nothing but junk food and soda. I didn't offer to buy her groceries. We all have our limits, I suppose.)

I actually made a poor taste joke about this to a guy at church this weekend (which, I suppose, I'll pass on in poor taste here). Let's say that I go out and do something nice for people, and one of the people I help is a serial killer. Should I not do the project at all because there's a possibility I might do something nice for a serial killer? What if I do something nice for him when he's on the way to kill someone and my act of charity makes him decide not to kill someone that day? "You know, rather than killing someone, I'm going to sit here and enjoy this nice ice cream cone that guy bought me," or something like that.

Yes, it's an extreme case. But what's the alternative? Don't help anyone? Because any help you ever provide to anyone could be used in ways that you don't particularly like. It could, ultimately, benefit someone who is "bad."

And that brings us to a second problem that I have with this criticism - I don't believe in "bad people." I used to believe that peoples' nature was somehow innate, and that there were roads that you went down that set you for life. I don't really believe that anymore. The longer I live, the more evidence I see that people can - sometimes with great effort or only under extreme circumstances - choose to change a lifetime of bad behavior, with the proper motivation.

Certainly, there are people (such as our hypothetical serial killer) who do absolutely horrible things, and these people need to be arrested or stopped ... but I don't believe that there's anything inherent in their nature that's bad. They do bad things, and they may even be driven by strong impulses to continue to do bad things, but are not necessarily themselves bad, and in different circumstances I believe that same person could probably be convinced to make good choices.

Consider the example of Jabbar Gibson, a man with multiple felony arrests. He is currently awaiting trial on a number of charges, including a 2006 arrest for possession of cocaine, heroin, and a revolver. This is one of the quintessential examples of a "bad person" that I might accidentally help during this project, to be sure.

Yet why does anyone care about Jabbar Gibson, in comparison to the many other drug-related felons in the country? It's because on September 1, 2005, twenty-year-old Jabbar Gibson (already a felon) commandeered a bus in his hometown of New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina headed toward the city, loaded up 70 passengers from his impoverished neighborhood, and drove 7 hours to Houston. They arrived well before any government-sanctioned evacuation efforts reached Houston. They had to stop the bus for gas three times, and did so by passing a hat around to get gas money.

Jabbar Gibson made (and continues to make, by the look of things) a lot of bad choices about how to live his life. From all accounts it's probably better for a lot of people that he's in jail right now. However, when Katrina hit, he made the right choice, a choice which helped others. Does this make him a "good person?" Not necessarily, but it certainly makes it harder to make the case that he's a "bad person."

So I don't agree that there are bad people out there. And if I help someone who is making a lot of bad choices ... well, I figure those are the people who need the most help.

3. Socialism!

"Your “gifting” could easily be perceived as a thinly-veiled “experimental” microcosm of a welfare state & of your enthusiasm to participate in such a socialist debacle" - The Anonymous One

I won't go into much more depth than this, but did want to make it clear. Socialism implies that the government controls the majority of wealth and the systems by which the wealth is distributed among the citizens. The acts of giving are random, non-systemic, and non-governmental - therefore, the project is not an experiment in socialism. I'm not a socialist, nor do I support socialist causes. I am, in fact, not a member of any political party or broad-based political ideology. I support individual ideas and policies on their own merits.