I actually wrote this back in December but I figured I’d add it here since it’s quite a fun one, or at least I thought so when I was writing it.
I spoke to a man the other day who knocked on my front door and asked for money for Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. Did I give him money? No. Why? He asked me himself and I wound off a story to make myself feel less guilty about not giving to charity. (I could have told him it was none of his business why I chose not to donate but then I would have felt not only bad for not donating, but also mean for being rude to a man who was doing no more than his job [and surely working for a good cause on top of that].) I think he was quite surprised I did not donate, after all I did listen to his entire piece about the new wing they were intending to build, the redevelopment of the hospital environment to better suit the needs of the young and the figures he had about funding requirements and suchlike (I did forget the numbers, so I guess I wasn’t listening that hard…). Why had his argument not convinced me given that it had seemed thoroughly prepared and well informed and I had followed all the way to the end? Assuming I was a hypothetical charitable sort of means then where along the road did he lose me? “How much can I put you down for?” Right there. That last line would have lost me, I would say, no matter what the preceding argument had been.
“How much”. The question makes visible the presiding spectre of business and reduces whatever previous sentimental, ethical, or emotional value the conversation had to a transaction. I must quantify my commitment to the cause through a monetary sum; a sum which is unsettlingly definite and at the same time infinitely transient. Definite in that it values the exact level of compassion I have in me as an intrinsic human being and defines the depth of my charity on a long list of other donators to whom my value can be compared. It calculates the humanity of my character to the penny and puts it on a spreadsheet. Transient in that this money, being money, will be spent. It will stand for my humanity on paper, but on paper my humanity is subject to inflation. Next to every other donator my value is constantly decreasing as they donate more and I stagnate, a flatlining company without a single interested investor. Suddenly I am trapped in a double bind of existing absolutely as one value unit in a system which dictates I cannot maintain that unit without constant contributions. The alternative is to face the shame of being an uncharitable human being. How would I live with myself? Of course, one cannot place an absolute numerical value on a character trait, and I am happy to tell myself this when faced with the problem of doing it. I would much sooner abstain from valuing myself in this way and protect myself from the dangers of other people knowing me. That way I can stay safe and secure in the knowledge that I am a charitable and kind human being, I just can’t define it in numbers. This situation to me is much easier and more comforting than the prospect of confronting myself in the mirror after donating and wondering whether I should say “you agreed to donate twenty pounds a month, what a good man you are!” or “you only agreed to donate twenty pounds this month? What a bad man you are…” In this way the question “How much?” inserts the listener into a moral deficit, one which can never be paid off, and consequently makes it vastly easier for my sense of self as a “good person” to preserve my identity and just not donate.
“Can I put you down for”. The matter here is of agency. I, as listener am permitted no action here except through my speaker’s permission. Though the question reads as him asking me permission, it is really I who must ask his. It is he, after all, who is putting me down, not the other way around. We are reminded that it is he who holds the pen and the clipboard and the little list of everyone who has ever donated and where we stand in relation to them. I am made very aware that I am not representing myself in this situation, but being represented by and through another. I can say I want to make my donation of X or Y pounds, but it will not become real until my man here inks it in on the page. He puts me down. He takes the words from my mouth and turns them into something physical- turns me into something physical other than myself. It is me he is putting down. My identity in its entirety on the tip of his pen. I am put down. And after death I am resurrected as an effigy of myself, all to be taken away and filed neatly with the other donators and all of this fundamentally out of my control. Do I really want to give another man permission to do this? If he had asked instead “what would you like to offer?” I at least have agency as myself. I am the one offering here, it is my whim to give or receive. Even if he has the pen, he only moves on my go; I am performing the main verb in this sentence. When I am put down I am object of the verb in the accusative case and subject to my interrogator’s power. “How much can I put you down for” demands an answer; an answer in numerical form, no less. “What would you like to offer” hopes for an answer but understands that this is what I would like, as opposed to a demand for the figure of my identity, the very value of my life. It is perhaps not surprising that I am reluctant to donate when asked in this way given that “how much can I put you down for” can be read without any major tweaking as “what can I kill you for”.