Helping people that cross your path or who come to you is generally a good thing—benevolent, meritorious, generous, compassionate, however you would like to interpret it. But even there, we have to be careful of some traps, such as: Trying to show off that we are ‘generous’ and have resources to spare; helping mostly because social pressure, fear of criticism or other compulsions; or because you want to make somebody indebted to you.
Organized, systematic helping is much more dubious. It usually involves pressuring or seducing other people to do things; imposing preconceived ideas and theories on them; lecturing more than listening (we like to call it ‘educating’ them); making compromises in the name of efficiency or ‘mission’; becoming dogmatic about certain abstract theories or actions; using organizations and ideas as the platform for our own egos and vanity; becoming so involved in the organization that it becomes more about self-preservation and expansion than doing good.
Just think of some of the most well-known mass enterprises set up to help and serve other people: missionaries, colonialism, communists, structural adjustment and other economic advisors, armies and welfare states. I think that few of us would agree that all, or even most of these enterprises have done more good than bad. The same mix of vanity, bureaucracy, self-interest and dogmatism undermines even aid and activism projects that are less well-established and maintain better reputations. The success of a project to build a dam, empower women, provide microcredit, build public housing, free slaves (19c. abolition was probably one of the most successful do-gooding projects ever), fight apartheid, protect a park, encourage temperance, promote abstinence, or whatever obsesses you is entirely the luck of the draw. Most end up hurting as much as helping, with many unintended side-effects. The complexities of real life far transcend the theories and vanity and anger and compassion of do-gooders.
Take anti-trafficking activism as an example. Activists routinely misrepresent facts and spread false quantitative data; rely on sensationalist anecdotes and pimp fantasies rather than measured presentation of a problem; prefer to tell ‘victims’ how they feel rather than listen to them; use compulsion to rescue and reform ‘victims’; constantly expand the definition of trafficking in order to find more victims; and slander and browbeat those who disagree with them. The people who do this are a bizarre mix of government officials (esp. the U.S. State Department and UN agencies), moral dogmatists (such as conservative Christians and radical feminists) and people who just want to get on the bandwagon. Whatever the original intentions of people who get involved with this, the result is mostly Orwellian nightmare. To be sure, not all do-gooding operations are as extreme and oblivious as the anti-traffickers. But most will probably have to develop some mix of similar tactics if they are to have the mass effects that they dream of.
Organizations designed to promote their own interests are on more solid ground: gay rights, women’s rights, labor unions, sex worker rights and so on. Sure they can get dogmatic and make compromises. But they are less about telling other people what to do, and less invested in denying that their own ego and vanity (i.e. respect and self-respect) is at the center of their activism. Since that impulse to help is sometimes hard to suppress, perhaps it is best to contribute to groups like these that are serving themselves.
But if you still feel the compulsion to join or organize some large do-gooding enterprise to help those who can’t help themselves, or give voice to the voiceless . . . well it would probably be best to first spend a couple of years first trying to listen and see if they are already speaking and we just are unable to perceive it. 1) Spend 2 to 3 years living with the people you want to help, depending on them for resources, friendship and love, putting your ties with your old life on hold. Argue with them, learn from them, fuck them, pray with them and eat with them. Then try to figure out what kind of help they need; and 2) Spend at least 2-3 years in some kind of spiritual practice or psychological self-analysis to better understand the many devious ways that our egos put our own needs first and camouflage these needs behind moral dogma or labels like “helping others.” And keep up with this, even as you are helping.