Burden or Benefit?: Imperial Benevolence and Its Legacies

Burden or Benefit?: Imperial Benevolence and Its Legacies

by Helen Gilbert, Chris Tiffin

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In the name of benevolence, philanthropy, and humanitarian aid, individuals, groups, and nations have sought to assist others and to redress forms of suffering and deprivation. Yet the inherent imbalances of power between the giver and the recipient of this benevolence have called into question the motives and rationale for such assistance. This volume examines the evolution of the ideas and practices of benevolence, chiefly in the context of British imperialism, from the late 18th century to the present. The authors consider more than a dozen examples of practical and theoretical benevolence from the anti-slavery movement of the late 18th century to such modern activities as refugee asylum in Europe, opposition to female genital mutilation in Africa, fundraising for charities, and restoring the wetlands in southern, post-Saddam Iraq.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253027825
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 03/12/2008
Series: Philanthropic and Nonprofit Studies
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 617 KB

About the Author

Helen Gilbert is Professor of Theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is author of Sightlines: Race, Gender, and Nation in Contemporary Australian Theatre and Post-Colonial Drama: Theory, Practice, Politics.

Chris Tiffin teaches in the School of English, Media Studies, and Art History at the University of Queensland and is editor of De-Scribing Empire, South Pacific Images, and South Pacific Stories.

Read an Excerpt

Burden or Benefit?

Imperial Benevolence and Its Legacies

By Helen Gilbert, Chris Tiffin

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2008 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02782-5


Introduction: What's Wrong with Benevolence?

Chris Tiffin and Helen Gilbert

A cartoon in the New Yorker shows an executive on his way to work trying to avoid a panhandler who asks, "Spare a little eye contact?" This cartoon wittily presents some of the ambivalence and awkwardness associated with that relationship variously called "benevolence," "philanthropy," "charity," or "humanitarianism." It bespeaks goodwill, but it also speaks inequality; it involves the willingness and power to give, but it also involves demands and obligations that are sometimes complicated and unwelcome. "Benevolence," like "peace" or "freedom," is a quality that seems axiomatically positive and unexceptionable. To wish for the well-being of others, to desire their happiness, is manifestly preferable to its antithesis. Yet in 1978 William Gaylin noted that it was "fashionable these days to view ... benevolence as obscene." Why should something so palpably positive for human life engender not only suspicion but even outright rejection? What's wrong with benevolence? This book proposes no glib answer, but rather raises a set of philosophical and historical questions that are as fascinating as they are complex.

Optimistic philosophers see benevolence as innate to humans. They propose that we are naturally attracted to other human beings and are disposed to wish for their happiness and betterment. Moralists such as the third Earl of Shaftesbury (and after him Francis Hutcheson) even made benevolence the definitional test for virtue, while Percy Shelley believed that two human beings had only to come together for the "social sympathies" to be aroused between them, and that love was "the great secret of morals." For others, however, humans were either not naturally benevolent (Thomas Hobbes) or benevolent only within a specific range of contexts (David Hume). Such limitations, of course, raise the question of the relationship between benevolence and self-interest. Shaftesbury was able to argue that self-interest was compatible with benevolence so long as the interest of the species or the whole order of creation was not compromised, but a suspicion about self-interest has lingered, and genuine benevolence has been thought to exclude donor gain, to overlap with, if not be identical to, altruism.

Benevolence thus has some inherent ambivalence as a concept, but the real problems emerge only when we look at its practical implementation. The practice of benevolence is all-important, for we know benevolence not directly but by its consequences. Benevolence is essentially a disposition or attitude, but it manifests itself in practical relationships and actions, and it is only through those actions that the "good" of the benevolent attitude can be assessed. Often when we speak of "benevolence" we are actually discussing "beneficence" — not willing well, but doing well. The major complexity comes with the consideration of the recipient of the benevolent action. It is useful, as David H. Smith has done, to consider benevolence within the economy of the gift. Smith notes three levels of exchange, one a clear market transaction in which a good or service is offered in exchange for another (or a pecuniary sum), a second in which a gift is offered in expectation of a reciprocal offering within the social structure at some time in the future, and a third in which a gift is offered with no expectation that any reciprocal offering of any sort will be made. Smith's example of the last category is someone being suddenly given concert tickets by a complete stranger, and he notes that an element of "surprise" is often associated with this form of giving.

The first category needs little explication because it is an overt exchange that makes no claim that any spirit of "willing well" is involved. Two parties simply "give" each other some good that furthers their individual self-interest without any motive apart from the satisfaction of that self-interest. We should note, however, that there is a long tradition of associating commercial trade with the mutual goodwill (and by extension, ethical positiveness) of the participants. Back in the eighteenth century, Joseph Addison ebulliently praised the Royal Exchange as a site that evoked general benevolence: "As I am a great lover of Mankind, my heart naturally overflows with Pleasure at the sight of a prosperous and happy Multitude. ... I am wonderfully delighted to see such a Body of Men thriving in their own private Fortunes, and at the same time promoting the Public Stock."

Smith's second category is clearly exemplified to different extents in a range of societies. In Western societies one is invited to a wedding banquet and expected to offer a gift to the newly wed couple. Not to do so would be to violate an unstated but clearly understood protocol. In Melanesian or Pacific American Native societies, however, the exchange conventions of kula or potlatch respectively can be far more complicated, with much more stringent rules about the circulation of wealth. These latter exchange networks remind us that while there is an element of reciprocity in all such gift exchanges, the exchanged gifts might not be equal. In fact, creating a deliberate imbalance by extravagant giving is a way of claiming or demonstrating one's higher status. Moreover, in a gift-exchange culture, exchanges may be, and often are, nonsimultaneous. One may offer a gift now in expectation of a reciprocal benefit sometime in the future. Religiously motivated giving can be seen as an extension of the exchange system. Formal religious gifting such as Christians tithing or Muslims paying zakat can be understood as involving an exchange in which a proportion of material wealth is sacrificed regularly for the promise of postmortem rewards.

In Western societies, public appeals and benefactions constitute a variation of this exchange system. The fact that only a very small percentage of donations are made anonymously suggests that public acknowledgment of donations (and hence enhanced social prestige) is a good that the benefactor receives in return for the donation. (Another interpretation of the desire to gift publicly, however, is that the public acknowledgment itself constitutes a further "donation" because it encourages others to contribute also.) Just as public giving enhances prestige in some groups, so failure to give can incur censure and loss of prestige (being branded as miserly). Thus another type of return in a gift exchange is simply that of avoiding a negative result — that is, not being stigmatized as an ungenerous member of the group.

Smith's third category is the most interesting because it makes the greatest claims to complexity of attitude in the donor. In his example of the concert tickets, the apparent altruism is accentuated by narrating the story from the point of view of the recipient, thus preserving the opacity of the donor's motives. However, even purely "altruistic" donations demonstrate forms of reciprocity in that the donor requires (or at least expects) certain behaviors of the recipient. The aunt whose ongoing generosity is dependent upon appropriate expressions of gratitude is an obvious reminder that donors construct a gift situation as one in which they have certain prerogatives, and if these are not respected, they feel their position undermined. William M. Sullivan gives the example of U.S. donors to the 9/11 Appeal in 2001 feeling cheated on learning that their donations had been applied to purposes other than immediate relief to the New York and Washington victims, and being quite hostile toward the Red Cross as a result. Donors were not satisfied to provide assistance that could be applied where it was most needed. Rather, they expected to control precisely how the money would be allocated, and felt betrayed to learn than it had been spent on other purposes. Although the instance is complicated by the Red Cross acting as agent in the process, it is still possible to deduce that such donors do not see their gift as conferring an unencumbered benefit on the recipient, but rather as establishing a relationship in which the recipient has ongoing obligations to the donor.

Givers can have expectations of others in a gift dynamic, but they can also have expectations of themselves, and receive in exchange for their gift the pleasure of matching that positive self-image. Even if the donation is anonymous, the gift is performed to the audience of self. Thus, virtually all forms of personal benevolence, even the most apparently altruistic, involve a structural relationship that situates the donor as a dominant, self-approving figure. Benevolence, then, is never simple, and its complications multiply exponentially when the case is not that of the individual within a contained culture, but rather that of an organization or nation acting across cultures.

Personal benevolence continues to enjoy its religious warrant even up to the present, but from the 1830s the idea of public benevolence, particularly within Britain, came under attack from the new science of political economy. Rather than accept the municipal responsibility of alleviating distress, the Malthusian view was that charity only increased dependence, and that people should be left to extricate themselves from their problems. Such thinking was implemented in the stringent workhouse system deliberately designed to make the experience of receiving public relief as physically and psychologically undesirable as possible. As Patrick Brantlinger shows, such thinking also underlined government (in)action during the Irish Famine of the late 1840s. In fact, he goes on to argue, the success of benevolent projects in the middle of the nineteenth century largely depended on the degree to which they overlapped with new ideas of political economy. Where a humanitarian project coincided with an economic tendency, as happened with the push to abolish slavery, it was able to succeed, but where an attempted project was either counter or irrelevant to the economic direction of the time, it sputtered for a time and then failed.

An act of benevolence can be the provision of mutually valued goods or services, as in giving money to a beggar, but it can also involve the communication of beliefs and practices that are valued by one party but not by the other. Such was the history of European colonialism, in which various colonizing powers found a justification for their expropriation of land and other resources in the assumption that their values and practices in language, beliefs, hygiene, medicine, and social organization were superior to those of the peoples they encountered, and that to instill those values in the natives was not only justifiable but truly benevolent. With this justification, imperialism could draw into its economic system "lazy" native societies whose constituents would be improved by their transformation into industrious, productive, and consuming units in the colonial economy. For this to happen, the colonizer had to reduce sectarian and tribal strife and ensure social stability, which could be done either by direct rule, using Western principles of equalitarian law, or by harnessing and manipulating the hierarchical, customary power structures already existing in the society at hand. At best, this sense of civilizing mission smoothed the hard edge off colonial greed; at worst it provided a justification for unconscionable and expedient practices. The Liberal view of colonialism positioned it as a process that, despite its temporarily destructive local effects, was ultimately grounded in good principles of liberty and progress, which would advance colonized societies. Confident of the superior utility of individualism, and equally sure of individualism's central role in human destiny, Liberal thought disparaged any theory or practice of benevolence that conflicted with utilitarian ideologies. As J. C. Furnivall succinctly puts it, "Humanitarian ideals may point the goal for political reforms, but human nature travels faster with self-interest for its guide."

This book explores some of the paradigmatic ways in which benevolence — which might be seen as a particular crystallization of humanitarian thought — has been imagined, planned, implemented, modified, and even challenged in colonial and postcolonial contexts. We focus primarily, though not exclusively, on the British Empire as a major instance of imperialism that demonstrates the complexities and contradictions inherent in benevolent ideas and practices. For all its aggressive program of expansion and domination, there is ample evidence that Britain often saw its imperial and colonial projects as essentially benevolent, as suggested by the semi-official credo that colonial actions were (or should be) altruistic, and self-abnegating. Thus Sir Charles Dilke, writing in 1892, called for a colonial regime that validated itself by self-sacrifice:

We are accustomed to regard as the type of moral perfection the character which prefers death to the abandonment of an ideal of duty. ... If we are right in approving in the case of the individual man or woman the maxim "death before dishonour," it can hardly be right in the conduct of national affairs to adopt a mere calculation of commercial or material interests. The condition of moral strength that "Whosever will save his life shall lose it," applies not to the individual alone, but to the nation.

This high-minded call for a colonial policy based on self-sacrifice is consistent with Dilke's estimation of British activities in India as both disinterested and anti-utilitarian: "The two principles upon which our administration of this country might be based have long since been weighed against each other by the English people, who, rejecting the principle of a holding of India for the acquisition of prestige and trade, have decided that we are to govern India in the interests of the people of Hindostan." How, after the hysteria surrounding the reporting of the Indian Mutiny, the British public came to this conclusion remains unclear, but Dilke's investment in the ideals of benevolent rule is striking. His denial of British self-interest can be compared with Anthony Trollope's more tempered comment: "It should be our greatest boast respecting India that we hold that populous country to the advantage of the millions by whom it is inhabited; but we do not hold it for the direct welfare of our own race, although greatly to the benefit of our own country." Trollope agrees that imperial relations should not be based simply on commercial interests, and is keen to claim a basic benevolent intention in Britain's dealings with India, although admitting that there is a significant material benefit to Britain. In theory at least, the benevolent intention comes first.

There is a degree of moral triumphalism about this self-assessment that did not die with the nineteenth century. After India finally achieved independence in 1947, Ernest Baker described the British Empire as fundamentally differing from Roman or German ones by promoting the Liberal goal of freedom without coercion and without the attendant mercenary self-interest: "[T]he century which has elapsed since the publication of Lord Durham's report of 1839 ... has turned an empire which was a mixture of a Völkerwanderung and a business proposition into a subtle and intricate structure for the development of human freedom. It is, in effect, an empire without imperium: an empire which has preferred the opposite principle of libertas. It is a contradiction in terms, and a living paradox."


Excerpted from Burden or Benefit? by Helen Gilbert, Chris Tiffin. Copyright © 2008 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

1. Introduction: What's Wrong with Benevolence?, Chris Tiffin and Helen Gilbert
2. A Short History of Benevolence, Patrick Brantlinger
I. Colonial Burdens?
3. Thomas Fowell Buxton and the Networks of British Humanitarianism, Alan Lester
4. Settler Colonialism, Utility, Romance: E. G. Wakefield's Letter from Sydney, Lisa O'Connell
5. Benevolence, Slavery, and the Periodicals, Chris Tiffin
6. "This Nineteenth Century of Progress and Humanity": The Life and Times of Frederick Weld, Leigh Dale
7. Women, Philanthropy and Imperialism in Nineteenth-century Britain, Sarah Richardson
8. Blixen's Africa: Wonderland of the Self, Kirsten Holst Petersen
II. Contemporary Benefits?
9. From Benevolence to Partnership: The Persistence of Colonial Legacies in Aotearoa-New Zealand, Chris Prentice
10. Refusing Benevolence: Gandhi, Nehru, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Relations, Rajeswari Sunder Rajan
11. Rescuing African Women and Girls: Benevolence and the Civilizing Mission in Anti-FGM Discourse, Wairimu Njambi
12. Benevolence and Humiliation: Thinking Migrants, Integration, and Security in Europe, Prem Kumar Rajaram
13. Hearts, Minds, and Wetlands: Stakeholders and Ecosystem Restoration from Florida's Everglades to the Mesopotamian Marshlands, William E. O'Brien
Notes on Contributors

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Georgetown University - Steven Heydemann

A strong volume. . . . The book is accessible and will meet the needs of faculty who teach on empire, colonialism, philanthropy, charity, and related subjects.

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