Friday, October 17, 2014

The Fix-It Culture

"Give a man to fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." This quote, paraphrased from the works of a British author from the 1800s named Anne Isabella Ritchie (and not, in fact, from Chinese philosophers), is a terribly difficult lesson to learn, especially for Americans. We are largely a take-action sort of people, determined to fix any problems we see. Sometimes this is a good thing, but there is such as thing as too much of a good thing, despite what fans of excess may tell you.

So, today I want to talk about America's fix-it culture.

It's easy to quote the "give a man a fish" quote. It's much harder to put its lesson into practice. I know, at least, that if I know how to do something--pack a package correctly, use a graphic design program, navigate a mobile device, etc--it's easy for me to get frustrated watching other people do these things in a less efficient manner. I'm pretty good at restraining myself from taking over when someone's doing something "wrong," but I have a bad habit of trying to just do everything myself.

This is just a minor thing, though. This problem can get bigger, and the bigger it is, the tougher it gets to relegate yourself to teacher rather than the doer.

I recently watched a pretty good episode of Clone Wars about this. There's a village of farmers who have hired some bounty hunters to protect their village from bandits. When the Jedi arrive, they know they can't just stay there and help protect the village from bandits. So, instead they try to teach the farmers to defend themselves. The farmers are skeptical, but the Jedi are persuasive.

When the bandits attack, the Jedi assist in the battle, but they make certain that the villagers are fighting as well. Some of the villagers die in the fighting--villagers who might have lived if the Jedi had simply defended the town on their behalf and allowed the villagers to hide. When the Jedi leave the village, though, they leave it in the hands of farmers who have the basic training they need to start defending themselves.

If this sounds like a fantasy situation, it isn't. Take Haiti, for example.

Haiti has been receiving foreign aid for decades. Some people fear that it's to the point where when something goes wrong, many Haitians look to the nearest white person for guidance and assistance. In particular, I heard a story from a medical worker in Haiti who used to run an efficient hospital there. However, now he's scaled back his role, trying to give less advice and give the Haitian medical workers the run of things.

The hospitals are not run efficiently, and the infrastructure isn't there yet. Haitian medical services have a lot of catching up to do, but this white medical worker is trying his best to both be helpful while also standing aside and letting the Haitians figure things out on their own. It's tough, especially when people's lives hang in the balance. But if the white guy jumps in every time there's a crisis, then things won't get better. Sometimes this means people die. Sometimes this means children die.

There has to be a balance. "Teaching a man to fish" is easier said than done, and sometimes you have to stand back and watch as that main fails to catch any fish for a few days. Is it even right to put people in such a sink-or-swim situation? How hard is it to find that balance?

Personally, I'd rather err on the side of helping too much than not enough, but this is a stereotypically American compulsion. Sometimes our eagerness to help actually hurts people, which is a difficult concept to accept. Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules for when to teach a man to fish and when to catch a man a fish. I'm pretty sure, though, that there's a time for both.

1 comment:

  1. I think playing video games and card games for so long makes it easy for me to get into an "optimization" mind set. Philosophy just allowed me to turn that tendency society-wide.

    It's pretty easy to make optimizers into bad guys, too. That's pretty much what the bad guys were in Firefly.