thoughts on the hand-up vs hand-out dichotomy

I was reading Guerrilla Mama Medicine and saw this beautiful peice of writing.

I wanted to make a new blog post instead of comment because my train of thought inspired by this is off topic.

First, I agree that womyn are more likely to share with their children, or share knowledge with a community. And I think it is wonderful that womyn do this. I also think this dichotomy is set up by patriarchal structures. Womyn are expected to care for their children and be nurturing, helpful, to cook, to clean, to take care of you when you’re are sick. Men do manly things like shoot stuff and work and come home for a nice meal prepared by their (implied ownership) wife. Here is an instance where womyn needn’t try to act or become “equal” to men in action, but where we should find a way to create community where everyone cares for each other. A situation where men should “condescend” to the female level.

The other, more off topic, thing I wanted to discuss is the whole idea behind the original phrase. ” give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” The use of this phrase is problematic. People refuse to give hand-outs because it doesn’t solve the problem. But then they never follow up and teach people how to take care of themselves. (patronizing I know, I’ll get to that.)

This is because people have internalized the dichotomy. The view the statement as an exclusive OR. You can only get a hand out, or only a hand up, not both. Only one of these actions is good, so the other must be bad.

The “good” one is steeped in the idea that people can pick themselves up by their bootstraps and have a great life if only they knew this one piece of knowledge. If they can’t live “successfully” (as defined by current societal standards) after that then we can blame them for their own situation! This doesn’t really work well. knowing a piece of knowledge may remove one obstacle but there may be many others which may not be overcome with any amount of pulling yourself up. Structural inequality is a real thing in the real world.

I think the original intent of the phrase was intended to get people to do MORE to help build productive communities. You should take time to teach this man to fish so he can have a better life, give people real tools to help themselves. Yes, this is condescending. What we should do is, when someone is interested in learning something, help them gain that information because education should be freely given to everyone, not just the privileged.

The thing is, people are lazy. People are busy. People need to rush off to do that important thing. People need to get to a ball game, or catch their favorite show on TV. People don’t want to spend that time. And they KNOW that hand-outs are bad. That is the only option when “hand-ups” are good. So they rationalize doing nothing.

Some people work 2 jobs just to get by, some people work 16 hours and and are exhausted and need to sleep. All of their money goes to rent and food for themselves and their families. These people may not have the resources to help out. But we need to be honest with ourselves about which category we are in.

I am a student. I am trying to complete a PhD. I’m dealing with trying to control my Bi-polar II disorder. I do not have the time or emotional resources to make a lasting difference in people’s lives by teaching them the knowledge that they want to learn. I don’t even think I have the knowledge myself. But I do have the time once a week to help cook food, and possibly even provide a little money to help toward the purchase of ingredients. I can give people a meal. maybe only once a week. but I can give people food and nourishment.

If you do not have the financial, time, and/or emotional resources to teach people, you can make one day easier. If people do not have access to overcome structural inequalities, you can still make one day easier.

If there is a need you can fill, fill it. Short term solutions are not a reason to stop fighting for true freedom from oppression. Fighting for freedom from oppression is not a reason to deride all short term solutions.

But teaching people to pick themselves up by their bootstraps is not a real solution. It doesn’t come near to addressing the problem. The problem is a power structure that creates situations where people must go without, where people are left hungry and forgotten. No amount of bootstrapping will solve this. We must not let these short term solutions stop us fighting for true freedom from oppression for all.

Published in: on December 18, 2009 at 11:22 am  Leave a Comment  

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