False Generosity and Billionaire Philanthropists


In his incredibly popular 1968 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Brazilian educator and author Paulo Freire discusses the concept of “false generosity.” Freire writes:

The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both. Any attempt to “soften” the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity; indeed, the attempt never goes beyond this.” (p. 44)

False generosity is charity which targets the symptoms of an unjust society. Examples include donating to shelters for the homeless or creating a foundation to eradicate malaria.

False generosity isn’t false because it doesn’t help people, it can and often does save lives. Rather, it’s “false” because, by addressing symptoms rather than underlying causes, it functions to maintain oppression.       

In contrast, Freire says, “true generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity.” (p. 45)

Further, where “False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the “rejects of life,” to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands—whether of individuals or entire peoples—need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.” (p. 45)

False generosity maintains oppression; it maintains the reliance of the oppressed on the oppressor, it is dehumanizing; true generosity attempts to create the conditions for liberation.

The oppressor ‘feels good’ about their (false) generosity so they’re motivated to sustain the system in which their (false) generosity is necessary. And, their generosity itself functions to do this.

Freire writes, “A psychoanalysis of oppressive action might reveal the “false generosity” of the oppressor as a dimension of the latter’s sense of guilt. With this false generosity, he attempts not only to preserve an unjust and necrophilic order, but to “buy” peace for himself.” (146)

This is why billionaires create non-profit organizations through which to funnel their money, organizations which they fully control. They must be sure that not a single cent is allocated to true generosity. This is why Elon Musk is eager to donate $1 million to the #TeamTrees campaign. This “generosity” does nothing to threaten the systems of oppression from which he profits. In fact, it functions to perpetuate them. Donating to climate causes is a “safe,” but false, generosity for billionaires—they need a healthy climate so they may continue its exploitation and so those which they oppress may survive (and may continue to rely on them).

False generosity, charity to alleviate the symptoms of exploitation, will never be a long-term solution. Only “true generosity” poses a real threat to oppressive systems. And we must understand that the wealthy elite have no interest in truly dismantling the exploitative systems from which they benefit. 

True generosity would seek to eliminate exploitative labor relations, it would seek to eradicate systems of production and distribution that rely on the destruction of the environment, it would seek to liberate and to ensure the survival of all living beings, it would be inherently anti-capitalist.

As just one example, Bill Gates’ stunt at the TED conference in 2009 is now well-known. He released a jar full of mosquitos into the audience and said “there’s no reason only poor people should have to experience this.” While the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation makes undeniable progress towards the eradication of malaria, it does nothing to threaten the perpetuation of a social order in which access to basic healthcare is so drastically unequal. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation saves lives. No one questions that. But it is false generosity. And, as such, it will never be a long-term solution to an unjust global order. Bill’s words themselves are revealing, upon releasing the mosquitos he said, “there’s no reason only poor people should experience this,” and the efforts of his foundation focus on the elimination of the experience rather than the poverty itself.

It’s time that we stopped celebrating billionaire philanthropy in terms of the quantity of wealth they donate and instead scrutinize the quality of their donations.

It doesn’t matter whether they donate $10 billion dollars or $1, what matters, in Freire’s terms, is whether their generosity is true or false.

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