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The hazards of do-gooding

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted December 1, 2008

If there's one Americanism that can be pegged as something a Canadian has trouble understanding, it would be "do-gooder." To Canadian ears, it sounds like a description of someone who would rather help others, sometimes maladroitly: at best, a committed activist; at worst, a meddler. North of the undefended border, it doesn't connote much disgust or loathing; a typical Canadian is more prone to get alarmed over someone described as "working too hard" or as headed down "the road to nowhere." This difference could be ascribed to the Canadian government itself being somewhat of a do-gooder government, or it could be ascribed to differences in culture and traditions. It's an unusual Canadian who sees a do-gooder as nothing more than a pest, or as a big problem in the making. Perhaps this relative blandness is due to Canadians not having that much experience with organized, or large-scale spontaneous, do-goodism as yet.

The path of the do-gooder, though, does have pitfalls. Like Heinlein's "Glory Road," the road taken by the do-gooder is strewn with rocks. Since there's much to be said about the live-and-let-live attitude that permits everyone to pursue his/her private path through a hell, the discussion below on the pitfalls of do-gooding is confined to "externalities," or means of sharing the ‘hellth':

It's Not So ‘Backward' To Them

Everyone who believes in the myth of the benighted small town, dominated by the local "tyrant," is a real sucker for this kind of do-gooding. Meeting a group of otherwise nice people who rather like being in a circle headed up by a character who seems less than reputable is enough to get many urbanites' rescue fantasies a'blazin'. Yes, it's true that there are charismatic leaders who seem a little nutty. It's also true that a charismatic leader who really is nutty pops up from time to time. The crowd being what it is, every now and then a Charlie Manson or a Jim Jones gets a following and even outside respect for a time. We really don't know why. The dynamic is so puzzling, some people have to seek refuge in a "Madness of Crowds" philosophy and remain perpetually outside the social mainstream. Others, of course, pick and choose using their own standards and feel comfortable calling it as they see it.

Unfortunately for the would-be rescuer, what is also true is that a local ‘bully' or ‘tyrant' got there through performing services that are invisible to the outsider. Many beliefs and rituals that seem odd, or weird, to the outsider are protective in nature; they often spring from prior disasters and the need to avoid a recurrence of them. Others protect the group's members from being taken advantage of in a way that has been done to them (or their predecessors) in the past. Others could have no protective function at all, but are simply there to add to life's meaningfulness.

We can't shuck off our own beliefs to quickly get the measure of others': if we could do so that easily, we'd be fingered quickly as people who can never be trusted. People who went to prayer as children because their parents thought it was "for their own good" will have a difficult time figuring out people who go to worship because they see it as the highlight of the week. Someone who reads the Bible because of a case of the shoulda's, won't really get the number of someone who reads the Bible because it's engrossing. Someone who's not in the know will not realize that a hell-fire preacher isn't necessarily scourging the audience.

"But Can't They Change?"

When it comes down to it, a people changer is like a missionary seeking to convert. There are convertible people, and there are agreeable people. Anyone who sets him- or herself up as a people changer had better be very sure that (s)he can spot the difference between the two.

A person who can't tell the difference typically finds out through being run out on a rail. Unfair or no, it's the standard and oft-confirmed response to that kind of stimulus.

It's easy to fall into this trap through assuming that one has no influence on others. Ostensibly a humble pose, it allows one to omit assessing one's own contribution to the resultant uproar.

Potentials and Waste

In an achievement-oriented society, the notion that a certain group has "wasted potential" is one of the most seductive ones. Even if the above-broached covert-ought trap is avoided, the potentials trap usually befalls the person who's inclined to use attributing-by-association. Not everyone with a 180 I.Q. has the potentiality to become an Einstein; many in that range are happy just living an ordinary life and remembering the bittersweet days when schooling was easy and school life wasn't. Not every male who's 6'7" or more in height has the potential for, or even interest in, becoming a basketball star. Not every muscular fellow has the desire to show his stuff. Not every striking female has an interest in going into a glamour-centered calling.

The notion that everyone with a requisite potential will leap on the opportunity to realize it is one of the most pervasive, hence invisible, prejudices of an ostensibly prejudice-free merit-based society. One way of spotting its influence is seeing excuse-making when the facilitators get the rah-rahs out. The dark side of achievement-oriented society is tolerance of a kind of impulsiveness, often hidden through the kind of ‘planning' that entails roping in others who haven't consented in advance. The salesperson who assumes that the sale is ‘bagged' before the sales call's made is a well-known annoyance in everyday life. This homely fact should provide enough of a hint for confining the uplifts to assuring that the path isn't blocked for those who genuinely want to walk in. 

Yer Blues

Everyone's heard of the fellow who's very achievement-oriented yet never seems to make much of himself. This type of person, often male, is more interested in accomplishing something than in getting paid (or getting due credit) for it. Sometimes he's liked, sometimes he isn't, but he's typically not respected. Very few of this type of fellow become real heroes. The only ones that do so are ones who've had to endure hells that are beyond most people's imaginations without losing it, except sporadically and contra-habitually – usually once and no more when faced with a specific goad, if at all. They tend to show it by being very self-controlled.

Killing the achievement ball may or may not be associated with a very high I.Q., but it has this attribute in common with that trait: they're both way outside of the norm, and are often outside ordinary norms. Anyone that's read and understood George Gilder's Wealth and Poverty knows that there is such a thing as being too greedy to succeed. The life path of the hyper-kinetic also-ran demonstrates that there's also such a thing as being too achievement-oriented to succeed. Securing payment, and/or due credit, are customs: like the custom of acting appropriately to place, they restrain but also add to predictability. Predictability drains away not only anxiety but also potential suspicion or even hostility.

Typically, the person with no patience for the former two customs is sized up as an ordinary sucker. To be candid about it, this outcome is far less bad than some others, although there are some better outcomes for this kind of lifestyle. The reward of being honored, though, is typically reserved for people who know how to do good, and who clean up any resultant messes that could reasonably be attributed to them. "No-excuses activism," to put it one way.

A more reachable level is becoming liked, or becoming lovable. There's nothing wrong with the activist path for those who have settled upon it as the most satisfactory way of life for them. The competent ones do end up doing a lot of good. Unfortunately, when the achievement-oriented society moves from encouragement to ballyhoo, a lot of otherwise sensible people end up being "optimal also-rans" without knowing why. "Wasted potential" indeed, except perhaps for potential bothersomeness. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is a regular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.

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