Money, Shoes, Donations and Charity …

… the four horsemen of my posting apocalypse.

The story so far: Greta Christina (who has a blog here) recently had a medical problem, and at least mused that she might need some financial help getting through it and a number of other issues that came up in the past year. People donated. Everything seemingly went well — or at least okay — and so it would seem that everything was settled.

And then she bought some shoes. And some people got mad that she was asking for help from others and bought them, which are more expensive than other pairs but, in her opinion, provide more functionality.

This post is not really about that incident, but is instead about Stephanie Zvan’s reaction to it, which tries to take this on as a set of broad issues in an attempt to defend one person in one case, which ends up with her opposing things that shouldn’t be considered unreasonable and makes generalizations that don’t really — or necessarily — apply.

So, how does she start?

There’s a weird little tendency that many of us have, when we have given money (directly, through charity, or as a tax) to someone, to think we have some right to dictate how that money is spent. It once belonged to us, so it still has some homeopathic memory of our will or something. Or maybe it’s just that belief we have that anyone who doesn’t have more money than they need is in that position because they’ve bundled life in general and their finances in particular.

It’s an appalling little habit of thought, but this sort of thing happens over and over.

Well, here’s the problem: if I give someone money for a specific purpose, I expect it to be used for that purpose. If, then, someone says that they are having money trouble and I, solicited or not, give them some money clearly intended to help them out of that jam, I expect them to use it for that reason. And if they don’t, I can certainly feel upset and possibly used, and wonder if they really needed that money in the first place, or are in their situation not because of fickle fortune but because of their own inability to actually ensure that they have the money to stay out of it, and that they are in that situation because they spend unnecessarily. The worst possible situation would be giving someone money for food, the mortgage, medical bills or something similar and then finding them spending the money on something that the giver themselves wouldn’t buy, because their money has to be used for other, more important things.

So, the reaction is perfectly natural, and sometimes is right and sometimes is wrong. Zvan says later:

We don’t get this stupid over safety equipment. We don’t get this silly over uniforms. We certainly don’t get this ridiculous over a good pair of men’s leather shoes that will last several years. Those are expenses.

And those are the cases where the reaction, though natural, is wrong. There are times when someone will have to buy something that seems somewhat frivolous but which is required for them to get themselves back into things. So, for example, the person who needs a pair of shoes or a nice outfit in order to go to job interviews. But even in those cases, if they are spending money that has been given to them to help them out we rightly expect them to respect that that is the case and be as cost effective as possible. It smacks of at least ingratitude to spend more than you’d really need in those cases, and to not try to make the donated funds stretch as long as they possibly can. There’s the feeling that the money is being treated as essentially a bonus, as something that they are using in the same vein as an income tax refund as opposed to something that people gave to help them out for as long as possible out of a real desire to help.

And I guess that that’s the real crux here: people donated the money to try to help you out, and want to feel that it really did help you out. Thus, they want to know how it did help you. Everyone can see how, say, using it to buy groceries or pay the mortgage payment or the gas to get to work helps you out, but it doesn’t really look like that new game or that trip or that new pair of shoes really did help you out. So they want an explanation, and if you can’t say how it helps you out then it either looks like you didn’t really need the help or that you squandered away what people gave you to help you out without getting the help you actually needed. Neither is good.

A big part of this is how you treat other peoples’ money. I know far too many people who are more free with other peoples’ money than with their own, and so will buy things when someone else is paying that they wouldn’t buy if they were paying. For me, I try to at least not buy more if someone else is paying — even if that’s the company at the company lunch — and often buy less. To the person paying, it looks like they are being taken advantage of … and sometimes that’s okay, if they are trying to treat people to things that they couldn’t otherwise afford. This, of course, doesn’t work out so well when you are trying to help them out of the hole and it looks like the hole they’re in is just to not have enough luxuries, luxuries that you yourself might not be able to afford.

Now, again, I’m not talking specifically about Greta Christina’s case here. I’m talking in general, as hers is a rather special case that I might have given a mental “Huh” at and moved on. There’s a lot there to unpack, and I’m not interested in unpacking it. My purpose here is to point out that Zvan’s ideas about this reaction aren’t as obviously as she thinks they are; it is a reasonable reaction, not an “authoritarian” one.

Now, Zvan also ties it into sexism:

When you add the dash of misogyny (of course it’s more shameful if your illness is a woman problem and of course it’s more frivolous if you’re buying a purse or shoes–if they’re women’s shoes), though, it’s even worse.

Well, see, the problem is that fashion, for women, falls a bit into the luxury category, and thus so do shoes. While it’s changing, men don’t usually buy shoes or clothing for luxuries, but instead buy things like tools or golf clubs or all of the other things that men stereotypically buy that they don’t really need but which are at least moderately useful. And I think the key for all of these things is that usually they have a use, but aren’t really required; you don’t really need the new thing because the old things would do just fine, although the new things might be moderately better. For me, the sort of luxury items would probably be board games and video games (and board games the worst of the two). I have enough of both that I don’t play that much that I don’t really need to buy something new, but the new thing will be fun and useful … or, at least, it might be. So, since these things are considered luxuries, they’re things that I buy when or because I can afford it, and if I couldn’t afford it I would be expected to, well, not buy them. Yes, there’s a bit of sexism in assuming that for women shoes are more of a luxury than a necessity a lot of the time, but it’s not an inaccurate description of reality either, and there’s some reason to posit that in this case. So it isn’t really sexism of a sort that makes it that much worse; if a man had bought, say, a new power tool the question might be asked in the same way, because it seems more likely that it is a luxury purchase than a real necessity, while one assumes that a women who did that wouldn’t be buying it unless she needed to. So, is it a sexist presumption, or an accurate assessment of our current society?

And there’s nothing in the quotes she gives to indicate that it’s more shameful because it’s a “woman problem”, and in fact it’s far more reasonable that it’s being considered more shameful because she said she had cancer, which is a serious medical condition that garners a lot of sympathy and so would generate a lot of donations. If they really expected people to not consider what she had important, then it would be played up as being less shameful, not more so.

Again, I’m not saying that Greta Christina did anything wrong. Or nothing wrong. I really don’t have any opinion on the matter. But her situation is very, very public and hits a number of conditions that trigger a “Huh. Did she really need the help?” reaction from people, and this reaction is not authoritarian, and is not always wrong. And it seems to me that Zvan builds her case on the basis that it is authoritarian and wrong, and that people are unreasonable for feeling that if they give money to someone and they don’t use it to help themselves that they were, in some way, taken.


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