Friday, October 25, 2013

Generous to a fault

Sellout (2012) by Pants


I've just been introduced to the North American concept of 'paying it forward'. Thank you very much The New York Times.

You really do have a quaint take on being human, USofA. For example, you still can't bring yourselves to believe in universal public health care even after the house your parents built and had completely paid off by 1959 has been hocked to cover their medical bills and rented back to them by a slum landlord who thinks that extortion is best business practice. And then there's the way you deal with the mass slaughter of little children carried out by crazy people with guns by rushing out and buying more and bigger guns yourselves. You really do think that shooting the crazy person or bundling him, (and it's nearly always a him), into a death-row cell for a generation balances the scales of justice. How brilliantly Babylonian. Wake me up when you arrive at the Middle Ages.

Oh, wait, you have! This crude reimagining of the concept of human kindness bears closer examination. I'm going to need some help unpacking this. Happily, The Question Why has just arrived with a large chardonnay. Now that we're all sitting uncomfortably in our clapped-out, twenty-year-old Chevy Luminas, blissfully inhaling exhaust fumes in the long line at our local McDonald's drive-thru and dreaming about being jumped by the dudes from Pimp My Ride, we shall begin. For this is where the grand communitarian love-in starts, apparently. 'Paying it forward' involves stumping up for the bun-in-a-box of the chump in the car behind you. Seems innocent enough on the face of it.

We're informed by The New York Times that the expression has its origins in a 1999 novel called Pay It Forward penned by Catherine Hyde Ryan, although this Wikipedia entry dates the phrase back to the 1916 novel, In the Garden of Delight, by Lily Hardy Hammond and this quote,

'You don't pay love back; you pay it forward.'

The gift of love certainly comes in an odd package these days. We think we would prefer long-stemmed roses. Just to clarify, The Question Why and I are actually sitting at home in luxurious Larrikin's End rather than enjoying a carbon-monoxide entrée and the quivering expectation of a conversation with an intercom device before being presented with a main course of botulism in a theoretically recyclable cardboard box. We are hoping that if we drink enough chardonnay quickly we will be able to project ourselves into our own Chevy Lumina, and drift away on dreams of Mad Mike yo-duding us into a hook-up with a car-wreck-slash-IMAX cross. We're already anticipating our enhanced contribution to road safety.

Chardonnay makes it difficult to focus on faux logic but we will try. Acts of altruism are common in most cultures because there does seem to be a tangible community benefit to both the giver and the receiver. Kindness is considered a virtue in many religions. Love or hate them, ancient religions got value out of their quid pro quo. 'Paying it forward' involves an interesting departure from the usual conventions. You would normally make a gesture of kindness towards a stranger if you could see that person was in need. It's a response mechanism that we higher-order mammals have evolved. We call it empathy. Granted, it could be argued that anyone who is waiting in line for a factory meal could be described as needy in some sense but what if they're a drug baron or a spouse beater or a bulimic that your generosity will just enable? How do you feel about paying for their food? 

Why 'pay it forward' as opposed to, say, joining Rotary or volunteering at a soup kitchen? Why not make a regular contribution to a cause you know is wanted and appreciated rather than do something token and random that may not be? Perhaps the apparent pointlessness is precisely the point. Maybe it's a function of the triumph of your particularly aggressive strain of capitalism which basically dictates that there should be no social benefit whatever to our actions lest we tumble down the slippery slope into the dreaded socialism and the heresy of 'from each according to his/her means to each according to his/her needs'. Civic capital is poison in the corporate world because you can't make any money from it. 

Somewhere buried deep in this confusion is the faint whiff of an instinct,

This is taking place at a time when the nation’s legislators can’t speak a civil word unless reading from Dr. Seuss. “We really don’t know why it’s happening but if I had to guess, I’d say there is just a lot of stuff going on in the country that people find discouraging,” said Mark Moraitakis, director of hospitality at Chick-fil-A, which is based in Atlanta. “Paying it forward is a way to counteract that.”(from the New York Times article).

The Question Why and I admit to bitter disappointment at discovering that the provocatively monikered Chick-fil-A is not an outlet for wickedly indulgent porn food but a bread-line for chicken sandwiches. This may be a class thing since we do have our own in-house gourmet chef (Barney - a plate of your finest Eggs Vladivostok if you please!). However, we feel confident that even we could stuff a baguette in a culinary emergency. It's an interesting observation from the 'director of hospitality', (main function - meat and greet? Or perhaps meet and bleat). And, while we're at it, are there no academics left to interview on social phenomena?

So, please do remind us of exactly why Mr Smith went to Washington. Was it to order a corned beef on rye with a side of coleslaw? Is it really possible to counter corruption, idiocy and the stranglehold of vested interests with a gratis Happy Meal? If you're that unhappy with the state of your union why are you organising small change instead of, well, you know, organising?  Is this really the only option for any kind of control available to the working class in America? And all the benefit goes to fast-food conglomerates. In fact, the concept can't exist without the sad purveyors of muck masquerading as food as its conduit. Why does this all sound so familiar?

The writer of the NYT piece Kate Murphy informs us,

'The anonymity of the drive-through makes it especially easy to pay it forward because it dispenses with any awkwardness and suspicion about motives. The payer pulls away before the next car pulls up and discovers a gift that is impossible to refuse.'

Let's reflect on the idea of a gift that's 'impossible to refuse'. Sounds a bit Dickensian to us, a throwback to the gratuitous courtliness of starched collars and babies starving so that an appropriate silver rattle may be purchased for His Lordship's Christening. Does it occur to you when you 'pay it forward' that you're imposing an obligation on a complete stranger? Does the expression 'kicking the can down the road' ring any bells?

Say you are that stranger, lumbering along on your minimum wage and counting out coins for an economeal after your exhausting call-centre shift. How do you feel about being conscripted in this way? There have been 'pay-it-forward' chains of over two hundred cars reported. How does this happen unless maybe the intercom operator chances to mention it? And why wouldn't he/she? Monitoring people's reactions to something like that has to be the most fun you can have besides squeezing zits - and you don't necessarily want to be doing that in a public place. 

Say you live in a small town and the voice on the intercom belongs to your child's best friend. Say the customers behind you have a people carrier and their bill is likely to be more than your weekly rent payment. Say you don't want to be known as the person who broke the daisy chain of goodwill. Sounds unpleasantly coercive to us. We think we hear a distant silver rattle tinkling away in the subtext.


Years ago when we lived in London, we used to dread stopping at traffic lights because someone would invariably slop filthy water on the car we'd just had professionally 'valeted' and then refuse to smear it off again unless we chucked some coins into a bucket 'for charity'. It wasn't so bad when volunteers from actual charities were doing it. Usually they gave you a nanosecond to object. The real trouble started when opportunists twigged that they could simply pretend to be from charities; all they needed was a wet bucket for suds and a dry bucket for your cash. If you didn't pay up they might rip off your windscreen wiper. Our point is that if you're in your car and it's unavoidably stationary, you can get to feeling quite vulnerable if someone has worked out a way to exploit that.

And now for the really sad part,

“If you paid for someone inside a restaurant, they would see you,” said Jessica Kelishes, a marketing representative for an auto parts distributor, who pays it forward at Del Taco, McDonald’s and Starbucks drive-throughs in Banning, Calif. “I just do it out of kindness rather than for recognition.”(from the same NYT article)

Now even we're getting confused. Far be it from us to blame the chardonnay but we think it may be a factor at this stage. People do not want to be 'recognised' for their kindness? What, is kindness suddenly shameful? Is showing ordinary humanity so gauche that people don't want to be seen doing it? Land of the free, hope of the brave and cradle of modern democracy, what is going on here? What are you thinking, skulking in your cars struggling to work out how to conduct yourselves in civil society? Have you so lost it to capitalism that you can no longer discern on which sides of the karmic ledger good and bad deeds belong?

Memo for your consideration - you can question the motive of the bank that offers you the 110% mortgage but you probably don't need to worry too much about the little old lady who brings a casserole over when your mother dies, (although it's always possible she fancies your dad, I guess). And you should definitely be questioning the motives of your National Security Agency as someone in there has one helluva Stalin complex but you probably don't need to second-guess how your neighbour will perceive you if you suddenly notice that she has broken her leg and you offer to bring her groceries up a couple of flights of stairs. Help out your real neighbour if you want to do good and achieve inner peace and don't be press-ganged into some silly fad that was probably engineered by one of the fast-food chains anyway. You're obviously a wee bit befuddled about who is actually in control in this situation. Please allow us to narrow the options - it isn't you.