My wife told me the following incident from her college days. One day, after classes got over, she bought a packet of biscuits and fed street dogs, a warm smile spread across her face upon seeing the dogs happy. One gentleman came and told her rudely “There are so many children who go hungry in our country – instead of feeding them, why are you feeding dogs?”. The smile left her face rather quickly, and she went home sullen. When I listened to this story, I sympathized with my wife – I told her that I felt what that gentleman said was not alright.

Recently, I had occasion to reflect – why was it that I felt the gentleman’s words were not okay? Was it the rudeness? If he was polite, and said “Beta, while it is admirable that you are feeding dogs, don’t you think your efforts will be better served by feeding the millions of starving children in our country”, would that be better? My answer is a surprising No. While the rudeness probably contributed to my wife’s feeling sullen, and also left this incident etched in her memory, the polite alternative in my opinion is more pernicious. Because the real problem, in my opinion, is that the gentleman engaged in cause snobbery

I came across this term when I was re-reading Tim Ferriss’ The Four Hour Workweek recently. Ferriss says:

Do not become a cause snob. How can you help starving children in Africa when there are starving children in Los Angeles? How can you save the whales when homeless people are freezing to death? How does doing volunteer research on coral destruction help those people who need help now? 

Children, please. Everything out there needs help, so don’t get baited into “my cause can beat up your cause” arguments with no right answer. There are no qualitative of quantitative comparisons that make sense. Do your best and hope for the best. If you’re improving the world – however you define that – consider your job well done.

I couldn’t agree more. Ferriss continues, talking about what he thinks service is:

Service isn’t limited to saving lives or the environment either. It can also improve life. If you are a musician and put a smile on the faces of thousands or millions, I view that as service. If you are a mentor and change the life of one child for the better, the world has been improved. Improving the quality of life in the world is in no fashion inferior to adding more lives. Service is an attitude. Find the cause or vehicle that interests you most and make no apologies.

When a person makes two statements that are “wrong”, it is easy to disregard the statements. For example, when a person makes clearly bigoted statements such as “I believe people of color are inferior to white people. I therefore believe in segregation”, it is easy (today) to see the flaws in these statements – most people will not dream of being influenced by this statement. When a person makes two statements, where one is “right” and the other is “wrong”, psychologically it becomes difficult to analyze the statement objectively. The fact that the person has made a right statement makes it difficult to believe that the other statement he has made could be wrong. In the statements the gentleman made – the fact that there are lots of children starving and this is concerning is right. The corollary that dogs should not be fed by citizens at large because they should instead feed children is wrong. However, because the gentleman showed humanitarian concern about starving children, it somehow becomes difficult to pinpoint how he was wrong that dogs should not be fed.

What is the best way to deal with people who display cause snobbery? My guess is that they are oblivious to the fact that they are engaging in cause snobbery – providing an explanation about our position in a calm way seems best: “Thank you sir, for your concern about the children who are starving in our country – your concern is well-founded, and I find your compassion heart-warming. My feeding this dog does not preclude feeding children. Also, this dog is right in front of me – this is an act of kindness I could do now – helping children would take efforts which would need me to find out what the best way to do so. Also, there are several good causes that can be performed in this world – I believe each person should do their part to serve the cause that appeals most to their heart. Once again, your thinking about the children of this country is heart warming, I thank you again for your kindness.”

Photo Credit: Steve Johnson from Unsplash