Giving Back, Again

This question appears on the website of an alumni organization to which I belong:

If the __________ were to ask all current members to give back to their community as part of their [membership] requirements, how would you like to see that play out? For example, what kind of service or citizenship activities and programs would have been useful or enriching for you, as an __________ member?

I will play the devil’s advocate by asking why a person should “give back” to his or her community. To “give back” suggests, to me, that the “giver” hasn’t been giving all along. For example, a person who earns $1 million a year (unless it’s obtained through theft, fraud, or the use of state power) hasn’t stolen anything from anyone else. Rather, that person has given $1 million worth of value to others, for which those others have paid voluntarily.

I don’t mean to disparage acts of voluntarism and charity; such acts are laudable. But they are laudable because they are voluntary, not because they signify a debt that must be repaid by “giving back.” And they are laudable only if they are undertaken in a way that doesn’t draw attention to the “giver.”

But “giving back” — in this instance, as in most others — smacks of bragging and condescension. A mind reader would find something like this among the “giver’s” thoughts:

Oh, how fortunate I am or you/we are to be blessed with brains/looks/money. It is therefore incumbent on me to make a point of my superiority by doing something gracious for less fortunate persons in whose company I otherwise wouldn’t be caught dead.

I would like not to read about a rich alumnus who has given his alma mater millions of dollars, with the understanding or in the expectation that an endowment fund or campus building will bear his name in perpetuity. I would like not to read about a movie star who has scoured third world for orphans worthy of adoption. I would like not to see TV coverage of star athletes who prance about on a field with children of many hues for the few minutes that it takes to film said coverage.

Were I not to read and see such things, I would know that voluntarism and charity don’t warrant special attention because they are unexceptional acts.

Related post: Giving Back