Tainted Altruism

I don’t like The Gap or Starbucks.

This is because they presented themselves with a hippy-dippy, tree-hugging image of niceness that was violently at odds with the sweat-shop-employing, tax-dodging truth we discovered later.

Until this past weekend I didn’t know that this feeling was both widespread and the subject of many a study. The concept of ‘tainted altruism’, whereby people seem to be out for themselves while attempting to appear wholly good and kind on behalf of others, is one that gets right up our noses.  As the article says:

This won’t be news to Dan Pallotta, an American fundraiser whose story the Yale researchers tell. In the 90s, Pallotta raised $0.5bn for Aids and other causes with sponsored walks and bike rides. But when it emerged that his salary was pushing $400,000 (£240,000), the outcry led to his downfall. These days, he gives slightly bitter talks, arguing that we’re doing altruism all wrong. “You want to make $50m selling violent videogames to kids? Go for it,” he said. “But you want to make half a million dollars trying to cure kids of malaria? You’re a parasite.”

I think the public annoyance comes from the feeling that the wool has been pulled over our eyes. When Goldman Sachs is evil we get pissed off, but that negative feeling is confined to the crime, whereas a transgression by a supposedly ‘good’ organisation carries the double wrong of the bad deed and the attempt to cover it up (along with the implicit suggestion that we are stupid enough to buy the trick). We feel like we’ve been had, and by someone we trusted; our feelings were toyed with by a charlatan, and that is harder to forgive.

The ‘irrationality’ of that is fascinating, and makes me wonder to what extent we punish people or things for other reasons that are hard to justify:

When credible stars take the money and exposure of a dumb blockbuster we feel somewhat betrayed. Of course, there are good reasons why they decide to accept $5m for a superhero movie instead of the usual few hundred grand for another Coen Bros. flick, but we bought into the career of the actor, whereby we could champion them in pub chats to establish our own good taste, then they punctured the whole thing, making us look like dicks for investing ourselves in liking them in the first place.

And football players. Would you move jobs for more money and the chance to win more awards? Of course. But when your favourite player leaves to do the same there is a sense of betrayal and rejection. They played for ‘us’; we loved them for it. The fact they they were only into their team for as long as it paid them a ‘fair’ wage passed our rational minds by, leaving us hurt and pissed off. They (kind of) lied to us, so fuck them.

And maybe we have a favourite restaurant that expands all over town. Now everyone can appreciate its good food, but to many of us that’s not a benefit. Instead it means their quality is spread more thinly and the great thing we helped build has used our patronage to become worse. Can you believe it? All that money they took from us and what do we get? A worse experience. How is that fair? Up yours, expanding pizza joint.

A loved car might be discontinued, or improved in a way we don’t like.

A band might go ‘commercial’, casting aside what made us love them.

A clothing brand might court exposure from a famous twat, rending it unwearable for any of us who patronised it in the early days.

So there are many facets to the ‘relationship’ we have with a brand or product. Who knows what will offend someone to the point of rejection? Just as deep personal relationships can be ruined by a misplaced opinion, love for companies can be destroyed by the unpredicted effects of an unintended slight.

Massive paranoia is surely the way forward (unless that makes one appear desperate and needy).