The Art of Begging

What do you first think of when you hear the word “begging”?

For me, growing up in The Netherlands where there was social security, it used to be the hungry children in developing countries I saw on TV.

It wasn’t until I started travelling abroad that I noticed people at night checking garbage bins for something worthwhile. Of course, it is perfectly possible that this also happened in the big cities in The Netherlands, but I had never seen it and being confronted with it in Athens, Brussels and New York – places I had considered rich and therefore capable of providing their citizens with at least enough to eat and a place to live – shocked me.

Since then I’ve learned that the wealth of a country that calls itself democratic is not a reflection of the wealth of its citizens (its voting population) and I have become somewhat used to seeing people sit on the pavement in a busy shopping area with a sign and a pot asking for money – even though it makes me uncomfortable.

But this post is not intended as a discussion of the rights and wrongs of western economy and politics or the poverty of a large part of the world population.

I want to discuss the act of begging itself.

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, “to beg” means “to ask for as a charity”, “to entreat” (plead urgently) or “to require as necessary or appropriate”.

Considering these definitions, the child begging on the street corner for a bit of money to pay for food, clothing or school books is asking for charity for himself as a necessity – not just in his own eyes, but in those of most people – and this requirement is urgent, so that it can be considered appropriate. Though it makes me sad that it is necessary for many people to beg for their basic needs of life, I have no ethical issue with the act of begging for this purpose.

What I do have an issue with is the begging that is required of western children (often those of well-off parents) in order to help pay for a communal project or a larger charity in which the interest for the involved children is only that of being the beggar – not the beneficiary or the organizer. In other words, it is not their project but a project that is imposed upon them and which they may not even know the details of or agree with. They are not asking for themselves but for a third party.

Thus,  they may be asking for a charity and this may even be an urgent need, but the individual beggar has no necessity and my issue here is to question its appropriateness.

Now there are different angles to approach this topic with and it depends on the personality type of each person how they will feel about it.

There are those who consider it a good way to instil in children a sense of community and responsibility and to create awareness of how good they have it if compared to those the charity is for – it can be a larger project like “feed the world”, an awareness project to support a minority group, a project for research (cancer charities) or a project that has to do with raising money for a local club or hospital.

The other view – and the population is roughly 50:50 divided according to personality type theory – considers this manner of begging an ethical insult on their autonomy for two reasons: firstly, the being forced to participate because it is expected (the sense of making the act of begging into a moral obligation) and secondly, the act of begging itself being presented as a legitimate way to get to your funds rather than to work for the money.

Note that (despite my own preference) I do not say that either view – “group-responsibility” or “self-accountability” – is right or wrong, since these differences are directly related to a person’s psychological type and thus to one’s inborn perspective of life.

I have defined “group responsibility” as “the sense of belonging to the community one lives in and the duty of every member to partake in what needs to be done” (Concerto for Mankind: 351). In other words, the community is expected to take priority over the individual; the responsibility to obey the moral values of the group and to do one’s duty comes with being a member of the group, regardless of whether that membership was a choice. Thus being born in a certain country or being legally obliged to attend school makes one a member with obligations.

I have defined “self-accountability” as “the expectation that a person actively chooses his membership in groups and is fully accountable for the obligations that follow from this choice” (Concerto for Mankind: 372). Thus the group is expected to allow for the views of each individual and being born in a place or a legal requirement to attend school does not make one morally responsible for participating in that group since it was not an autonomous decision.

Again, this is an inborn perspective difference that cannot be changed. Western society currently supports the first perspective and thus believes that all citizens should share this view or else be considered undemocratic, selfish, manipulative, psychopathic, antisocial and so on. Today, with the risk of pre-emptive justice based on such labels greater than ever, it is extremely important that people become aware of these different perspectives as being different expressions of normal human psychology.

Allow me some personal examples.

When I was young all the fifth and sixth graders of both public and religious primary schools were supposed to go door to door to sell “children’s stamps” – specially printed sets of postage stamps and postcards of which the proceeds went to a nationwide charity – once a year. Not only was each child expected to participate, but between schools it was a competition with some schools allowing their students to leave fifteen minutes early so as to get a head start.

I absolutely detested that project because it is not in my nature to go and ring the doorbell of a stranger to try and sell them something and because asking for money (regardless of whether it is in exchange for goods) is something I don’t like doing. Today, knowing personality type theory, I know why that is and I know that I’m not alone in this view, but when I was ten and eleven I felt forced to go to a few neighbours I knew and have my family buy the rest to prevent being berated at school by teachers saying I was antisocial, did not care for the poor people and was not helping the school win the most points.

Later, when I had my own family in the UK, the US, Australia and New Zealand, I have had children ringing my doorbell asking for money (usually in exchange for chocolate bars) for their local scout group, their local netball team or their school. My daughters have occasionally been given boxes of chocolate with the expectation they sell them – by the same schools that lecture these children about how bad chocolate is for your health.

If the child at the door was one I knew I’d usually buy something – so as not to burden them with my political views and for that same reason I gave my children the choice whether they wanted to participate – otherwise I turned those children away, especially those that wore some kind of uniform (scouts or school).

In New Zealand they regularly have high school children (in uniform) standing at street corners or in supermarkets trying to get shoppers to part with their money before buying their groceries – yet those same schools complain that parents are not giving their children proper lunches or enough milk. And as far as I know, scouts are supposed to help people in need not exploit others by putting children out to beg.

My policy with any charity is that you can send me things in my mailbox to make me aware of your existence, but if I want to donate I will come to you. The moment somebody accosts me, I feel that my privacy is invaded and turn them down on principle, regardless if what the cause is.

If a charity uses school children (during school hours), then in my view they are using class time to teach them how to beg. The key of the art involved is the use of the innocent looking and the obedient (in uniform) and the objective is to make the public feel guilty or ashamed and so entice them to donate.

This appeal to shame or guilt – if you don’t give your neighbours may see you – I consider totally unethical. Besides it being emotional blackmail, they are teaching children that it is okay to beg and that peer pressure is an acceptable tactic to force people into compliance.

Even more unethical I consider the begging we start seeing more and more on “reality TV”, where some so-called charity is offering to change somebody’s home (usually with a sob story as an excuse) but without the budget (from the TV producer or network) to actually pull it off, so they invade a local store (usually a small business trying to make ends meet) and literally ask them for free donations of material. The store owner has no choice but to say yes – after all there is a guy with a camera standing behind them, while the presenter of these programmes is no doubt getting a fat salary out of the deal, as is the producer.

This attitude, in which school children and viewers are made to believe that begging is a moral good, equates the sad truth that some people do not have enough to eat with the moral choice of asking for favours using guilt and shame induction.

To me, begging is a desperate last resort for people who have nothing and it should not be made into a moral obligation.

 

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Astrid Gonlag
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 05:08:18

    Helemaal mee eens! Uit m’n hart gegrepen. Ik heb ook al m’n hele leven moeite met dat soort gebedel.

    P.s. hoe gaat het met het huis?

    Liefs, Astrid

    Op 27 jan 2013, om 08:56 heeft nonentiti het volgende geschreven:

    >

    Reply

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