Edmund Burke (RIP) was a scared little man. And above all else, Mr. Burke feared sudden change. That is why I call him “Momma’s Boy Eddy”.
We all have a Momma’s Boy Eddy in our respective groups of friends. You know, the guy that doesn’t like to go too fast on the highway; the one who always says “wait, we better not, my parents would definitely not approve of this”; the friend that eases into a cold lake while the rest of you dive in head-first. Yep, that’s Momma’s Boy Eddy. Always quick to startle and afraid of sudden change.
Now, let me ask you this. If you and your friends were offered free VIP tickets to see your favorite band play live, who would you listen to when making your decision? The rebel who says: “Come on guys, I know that this is unexpected, and I know that it is a Sunday night and we have school tomorrow morning, but this is a once in a lifetime opportunity! Plus, Jägerbombs are 4 for $10 – that happens once every, like, 80 years!” or your resident Momma’s Boy Eddy: “Erhhh guyssss, we can’t. We already committed to babysitting my mom’s one-eyed cat tonight and you all know very well that Mittens isn’t able to get to the litter box on his own anymore. Plus, I hear from my grandparents that the band swears a lot. And what about my allergies?”
I sincerely hope that you would all listen to the rebel and leave Momma’s Boy Eddy at home to take care of Mittens on his own.
You see – analogies aside – Momma’s Boy Eddy lived in a really bad time for a guy who feared sudden change. In his tenure as a human on the ‘shiny blue marble, he saw both the American Revolution and most of the French Revolution – “Do you hear the people sing?”. More, the English Revolution (or the “Glorious Revolution”) was still pretty fresh in everyone’s minds. And let me tell you, Momma’s Boy Eddy was not a fan of any of them. He even wrote a book about how scared he was of all these revolutions entitled: “Reflections on the Revolution in France”.
Allow me to save you hundreds of pages of reading, hours of frustration, and a semester of regret that you decided to take yet another political philosophy course. “Reflections on the Revolution in France” argues:
- Revolutionary action ignores the properly attuned “prejudice” that a given society has
- “Prejudice” means: a sensibility that a group or community develops over a long period of time
- Monarchy is the best mode of governance in Europe (especially constitutional monarchy)
- Change must happen gradually
- Revolution, by definition, is not gradual so it is therefore bad
Needless to say, Momma’s Boy Eddy was pretty set in his ways – darn Irishmen. No wonder he is called the ‘Father of Conservatism’. And if Momma’s Boy Eddy is the ‘Father’ of conservative thought, I guess that makes Momma’s Boy Harper the angry adopted step-son.
Now, although most of Momma’s Boy Eddy’s ideas have gone by the wayside, a few have stuck. Among these include the idea that some people are naturally better than others. Momma’s Boy Eddy probably did not have too many friends. He justified his idea of ‘natural inequality’ by creating the doctrine known as “Noblesse oblige”; that is, one’s position of being better obliges one to treat her or his ‘lesser’ in the same way a parent would take care of a child.
In the context of 16th century England, the ‘uppers’ were the Aristocracy and the ‘lowers’ were pretty much everyone else. Naturally, the ‘uppers’ were uniquely endowed with knowledge, prejudice, and reason – and therefore had a duty to save the ‘lowers’. The ‘lowers’, on the other hand, were like children and needed to be cared for. After all, a ‘lower’ could not possible save herself or those around her. A poor person with hopes, dreams, intelligence, and vision? Preposterous! And thus philanthropic paternalism was born.
As the years passed by and Liz’s ancestors started to colonize the world, Momma’s Boy Eddy’s ideas of natural inequality and “Noblesse oblige” were applied to just about anyone who wasn’t a white Englishman. First Nations people in Canada: “they look different than us, must be savages, better save them”; Indigenous Peoples in the Caribbean, “look at how poor and helpless they are, better save them too”; Tribes in East Africa: “wow, they look really different than us, must be primitive, we are going to save the crap out of them”.
And save they did.
Our uniquely intelligent forefathers in Canada built Residential Schools for the ‘lowers’, where people with a rich and highly organized 10 000 year history could be saved from their savage-like ways. In the Caribbean and Central America, the ‘uppers’ saved Indigenous people from living long and fulfilling lives through early forms of bioterrorism. And in Africa, well us ‘uppers’ are still trying to help the helpless for “just the price of a cup of coffee a day” – after all, Africans clearly cannot help themselves! At least that’s what I was taught growing up.
As an upper-middle class white kid raised in the suburbs of the Canadian Prairies, Africa was seldom talked about at all. If Africa was mentioned, it was not portrayed in a positive light. If I didn’t finish my lunch at school my teacher would aptly remind me: “there are starving kids in Africa who would kill to have the crust of your sandwich, Jeremy!” If I didn’t want to go to school, my parents would say, “Jerbear, there are kids in Africa who don’t get to go to school, remember how lucky you are”. Like most white, suburban Canadians, the majority of my knowledge about Africa came from World Vision commercials. In fact, as a young child (4 years old at most) I remember thinking to myself how unfair it was that the “poor Africans” would have to go on living once the cameras went off and the rich white celebrity left their village; why couldn’t the nice, blonde white lady just take all the villagers with her to Canada where they could be happy?
Janice Nathanson (2013) describes one of these commercials quite well:
“She [the president and CEO of Plan Canada] takes us to meet an 11-year-old girl who has been orphaned by HIV/AIDS. She is being raised by her grandmother, who has leprosy. We see her scars and we shudder, afraid that we might ever look like that. The president tells us that she has been wanting to meet this little girl. Yet we do not meet the little girl, for she is voiceless. It is the president who tells her story. Then we are told that this girl should not be the one doing the parenting; she needs to be parented. We must be the parents. And for only a dollar a day, we can be. The president is now teary and her voice quivers. From this moment on, she tells us, this little girl’s life can change through you and through Plan Canada.”
Until university, that was my impression of Africa. Desolate, helpless, poor, and forsaken. No context required: Africa was poor because it was poor and that’s how it was. And why would I question it? Even if I had any doubts about what I was seeing on TV, it was not like I knew anyone who was willing to tell me otherwise. Growing up, all of my friends and family were exclusively white and middle class just like me. The schools I attended were almost entirely white, save for a couple of Aboriginal kids and some East-Asian immigrants, but they lived in the ‘poor’ part of the neighbourhood so I seldom saw them after school; my teachers and principals and coaches: all white. We were all exposed to the same infomercial propaganda and consequently all felt that it was our duty to ‘save’ Africa. “Noblesse oblige” was alive and well while I grew up.
Here’s the thing. It is not like my friends, family, or teachers were regressive or racist people. From the day I was born, I was taught to respect all humans, regardless of age, sex, ‘race’, religion, and culture. I was certainly not raised by my parents to think like an ‘upper’; like I was uniquely endowed with anymore reason, prejudice, or intelligence than the next guy. Yet, there I was, little 4- year old Jeremy from Winnipeg thinking that Africa needed saving – and nobody stopped me.
So why have we – as Canadians and people form the ‘developed’ world – allowed for paternalistic images of the “poor, helpless African” to be perpetuated? Why have we remained blind and ignorant to the sources of poverty and allowed the ideas of natural inequality to thrive? After all, it is not like the entire African continent is devoid of people capable of building schools, running health clinics, or feeding themselves. If you still think otherwise, turn off the infomercial and read a book. Yet we still encourage our high school graduates to go on a 2 week “Me to We” volunteer (or rather ‘voluntour’) trip to build a school or work in an orphanage. We believe that a 17 year-old Canadian girl with no construction experience is better equipped to build a school than a 40 year-old Kenyan carpenter; we think that a 19 year-old boy with no childcare experience should take a job away from a hardworking Ugandan midwife in an orphanage; we allow a 21 year-old boy with no nursing background and who couldn’t get into medical school in Canada to ‘practice’ drawing blood on real people in Zambia.
The answer to the questions I pose above is simple. Canadians (and other Westerns for that matter) have conflated altruism with “Noblesse oblige”. We ignore the facts and decide to create a truth that serves our needs and that satisfies our consciences. While the fact remains that Africans are a distinct people that live in 54 sovereign states – people that have hopes and dreams and vision just like us in the West; people that are capable of building schools and taking care of orphans – the truth is that Canadians still seem Africans as a homogenous people that need saving. We see Africans in this light because it is convenient. Because, just like Momma’s Boy Eddy, we are afraid of sudden change. We are afraid of the idea that people who are different than us might not need our wisdom; our prejudice. While Canadians believe they are selflessly saving Africa by sponsoring a child or volunteering in an orphanage, what they are in fact doing is perpetuating racist and antiquated conservative ideology.
One of my favorite movies as a child was “Matilda”. In one scene Matilda’s father, Harry Wormwood (played by a younger and slightly less bald Danny DeVito), said to Matilda:
“Listen you little wiseacre: I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it”
So far Canadians have thought of Africa much like Mr. Wormwood thought of Matilda. We are superior and, without our help, you will stay inferior – and there’s nothing you can do about it. Luckily, the fact is that there is a lot Canadians can do to change their perceptions of Africa and the ‘developing’ world in general. Step 1: turn off the infomercial. Step 2: subscribe to my blog (ha, see what I did there?). Step 3: stop seeing yourself as an ‘upper’. Step 4: start seeing Africans as self-sufficient and diverse people with agency. Step 5: become a ‘learner’. Remember, the act of helping people in ‘developing’ countries is not inherently bad. What is bad is thinking that those you are helping are incapable of helping themselves. Don’t be a Momma’s Boy Eddy.
p.s. For more information on the ‘do’s and don’ts of voluntourism, I encourage you to check out: http://endhumanitariandouchery.co.nf/