Sunday, January 31, 2021

This Is Your Brain on Altruism

 In service to a discussion of charitable giving with a friend, I have been reading her book suggestion, The Life You Can Save, by Peter Singer. The premise of the book is simply that basic decency requires pretty much anyone in the middle class (or up) in a developed country to give a decent amount, probably more than they're already giving, to the poor in the third world.

So I entirely agree with that premise, and I think a decent amount about my charitable giving and try to give a lot, and don't necessarily think I give enough. And still, reading through an explicit argument about it somehow engages, if not my actual hackles, then at least my argumentative streak. I want to quibble with him SO MUCH.

Some of my quibbles are pretty reasonable, I think. He comes from a philosophy background, but he uses arguments from both philosophy and social psychology to back his premise. He includes a lot more evolutionary psychology than I generally like to see in a good argument (as my son would say, evolutionary psych is suss), and even standard social psych studies always have me picturing how the undergrads who participated in the study do not in any way represent me. 

I'm sure part of it is that I just feel attacked; "you should give more" = "you aren't giving enough" = "you are doing it wrong," which will always coax a knee jerk out of me. Again, I went in agreeing that I should give more, and he has even convinced me of the point my friend was making when she suggested the book, which is that charitable giving to prevent people dying of poverty in other parts of the world is separate from the more feel-good charitable giving to more local, subtle, and/or optional improvements, like Planned Parenthood, ACLU, and local theater.

I think the key thing I want to argue about, though, are things that I think are missing from his list of "why people don't give." His reasons include things like the diffusion of responsibility, the sense that the problem is too big to solve, and the parochialism of caring about your neighbors more than people you've never seen. These are all real reasons that affect people, but they don't really resonate with me.

The problems I see with giving money to help people who are thousands of miles away are problems of trust and efficacy. When I give my money to a local organization, I have access to some amount of information about what it's doing, who is using it. I don't always look deeply into that information, and of course there can be corruption or mismanagement. But I know where my local food bank sets up shop, and I've sorted food at the regional hub. I attend shows at local theaters and listen to public radio; I follow the news enough to know what the ACLU is doing and I know plenty of people who have utilized the services of Planned Parenthood. 

So first, I have to trust that I am giving my money to an organization that is going to use it appropriately. Second, I have to believe that giving money to them will actually help the people at the other end of the transaction. Is the difference I hope to make going to be made? Does my money actually go toward food or medical care or clean water? I keep picturing the Sally Struthers commercials from years ago and feeling manipulated, not hopeful.

Marketing is what has ruined this. The only way to communicate how my help is needed is through marketing--junk mail, Save the Children commercials, etc. And I have learned enough of the world to know that marketing is mostly lies--or at least, enough lies that it's not worth paying much attention to. 

So when I'm offered to add a dollar to my purchase for a random charity, I say no, pretty much always. Because are they really going to get that money? And if they do, is that really going to help anyone?

That's why his arguments that are based on social psychology, where they ask test subjects to donate to a cause and look at what variables influence their decisions, don't resonate with me. I would say no, always.

And then I'd go home and give the money to the causes I've chosen. In case you're interested, I give to MercyCorps (because my friend who works with refugees identified them as people who have been on the ground helping her clients), Doctors Without Borders (famous and well-regarded enough that I have some idea of what they do), and Give Directly (endorsed by Peter Singer, the author of the book I'm reading, so presumably super well-researched).

And this book is convincing me that I should donate more. And that instead of totaling my giving to these places in the same category as my donations to local radio and theater, the PTA and my local library, political candidates and advocacy groups, that I should count those as two separate categories. Call them causes I support for the latter and basic obligations to my fellow humans for the former.

I am not religious at all, but I know how lucky I am in this world, and that a tithe is the least I can do.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Space Virus Cult

I've mentioned that I'm terrible about advance copies. In an effort to be less terrible, I'm reading books that came out last year that were given to me for early review. Retroactive responsibility for the win!

One that I'd been really excited about was Salvation Day, by Kali Wallace. The cover just screamed "space action movie" and the premise--"A lethal virus is awoken on an abandoned spaceship in this incredibly fast-paced, claustrophobic thriller"--promised the same. And it delivered very precisely on that promise.

In addition to "space action movie," we also get a layer of "heist" and "cult" in the plotting--again, all in space. Just catnip. Our two narrators are both on a shuttle that is hijacked in an attempt to board a floating relic--an enormous research ship that has been adrift in the solar system for a decade, since everyone aboard succumbed quickly to a virus believed to have been released by an angry, discredited scientist. One was the lone survivor of the virus as a child; the other is leading the hijacking on behalf of the Family, a group of outsiders searching for a permanent home.

This book would make an amazing movie. The flashbacks to Jas's memories of his childhood trauma; Zahra's determined loyalty to the wrong cause and moral struggles; the dorky tech nerd, the creepy, haunted ship. A lot of the strokes in the story are a little broad, especially the characterization of the other members of the Family, but in my mind, Zahra in many ways makes up for that. So many books about people in cults are about them being full of doubt, but Zahra believes in her mission. She's had a hard life, and the Family has genuinely saved her. But she's also smart, and when things start happening that require her to improvise, she starts thinking faster and faster. 

Jas was raised by his very powerful aunt and lives a life of privilege, but his relationship with his best friend, whose immigrant family suffered a great deal to get him everything he has gives Jas important perspective. He's got a lot of suppressed issues around, you know, his parents dying horribly. Being back on the House of Wisdom is bad news, especially when it looks like the virus didn't die with the crew.

This is all backstory, but I think the richness of all the details as they unfold really makes the story. It's fast paced, with chasing and hacking and fighting and parasites and explosions. The entire backstory unfolds as the plot does, which keeps the pacing from being too breakneck or too info-dumpy. There are some very cool action set pieces, and the virus is super creepy, but I think that the character and history unfolding are really what make this an above-average read.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Hogwarts Was a Dangerous Place

 I read a Tumblr post back when school started up in person that said something like "I used to that people sending kids to a school where they're likely to be eaten by a giant snake was implausible, but now I see it." 

I'm reading Naomi Novik's A Deadly Education, about a school of magic where your job is just to survive while the school spends four years or so trying to kill you. Or rather, the beasties try to kill you while you're stuck in the school; "graduation" is just survival, and the rates are dismal.

This book is making me so happy I can't even tell you. I keep having to put it down because I like the cranky, grouchy, snarky narrator so much and every time she has a warm feeling she grouses about it and my heart explodes. 

It's one of my favorite kinds of books, which is a detailed, systematic look at how to go about living in a difficult situation. A big part of what I love is just the exposition, the ethnographic detail of how 1,000 teenagers do everything from negotiate status to use the bathroom without getting eaten by something out of the drain. There is so much worldbuilding and every bit of it is fascinating in both its creativity and its mundanity.

El, the main character, is a very gifted magician with a natural affinity for enormous acts of death and destruction. But she refuses to be a malificer. Unfortunately, that means working against her own magical affinity, and everything is twice as hard for her, and everyone still looks at her like she just might kill them in their sleep. Her whole life has been this way; she's used to it.

Then she meets Orion Lake, who is Not Harry Potter but is prone to wandering around the school saving random lives. He saves her life at an inopportune moment, and she snarks at him. Thus begins a friendship that is entirely incomprehensible to everyone at school, including El. 

El is an angry, brilliant delight. She is unlikable and knows it and has worked around it all her life, but god she's tired. She's very good at the strategy and tactics that are involved in the elaborate political and survival machinations in the school hierarchy, even though she's near the bottom of the pecking order. And as people start to really see her--for better or worse--she stays determinedly herself.

In the larger sense, the book is about power and privilege, and the parts of the power structure that you can only see from the outside. It's also about what makes a person a good person, or a worthy person, especially when driven to extremes. And it's about deprivation, and human contact, and friendship and strength and my heart is in a puddle on the floor again. I'm going to die because of how much I love this book. Five stars. All the stars. I might have to read it again.