Fake altruism? Thanks, but no thanks

Emma Teitel on the Feed the Deed phenomena



In season six of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, famously grouchy Seinfeld creator Larry David commits a rare act of kindness when he donates a brand new wing to his local museum. Larry’s name is soon engraved at the entrance of the wing, which suits him just fine, until he realizes that his friend, the actor Ted Danson, has donated a wing in the same museum, anonymously. (Where Larry’s wing says “Donated by Larry David,” Danson’s says “Donated by Anonymous.”) What’s more, it appears as though Danson has discreetly told everyone he knows that his is the name behind the anonymous donation making him appear both enormously philanthropic and humble at the same time. Danson gets the best of both worlds: his ego is stroked continuously by people who think he is far too modest to enjoy a good ego stroking. And Larry David, being Larry David, charges his friend with “faux anonymity.” “Nobody told me that I could be anonymous and tell people,” he complains to his wife. “Next time I give money to anybody, I’ll be anonymous—and I’m gonna tell everybody.”

It’s a good thing Larry David doesn’t have Facebook. If he did he would very quickly come to whine about Feed the Deed, a new Canadian social media “kindness challenge” predicated on random and “faux anonymous” acts of kindness captured on video and uploaded online. Participants of Feed the Deed film themselves doing something nice for someone else before they challenge specific friends to pay it forward and “feed the deed” on camera, too. The original challenge began this year with Josh Stern, a University of Ottawa medical student who filmed himself handing out sandwiches to homeless people on a city street. (After some light convincing, Stern’s beneficiaries agreed to be in the video on the grounds that it would spread kindness to others when posted online.) Stern’s inspiration for Feed the Deed came from a South African student’s virtuous turn on a social media drinking ritual. When college student Brent Lindeque was given a “neknomination”—a challenge to film and post oneself drinking an ungodly amount of booze before calling on a friend to do the same—he decided to film himself doing a good deed instead. His video, and his call to public, real-time charity have since taken off tremendously.

“Neknomination is all about peer pressure,” Stern told the media recently. “You don’t want to look like a loser and end the chain. Here it’s still peer pressure, but it’s in a positive way. It pushes people to do good deeds.” Correction: it pushes people to do good deeds for an audience.

Like Ted Danson on Curb Your Enthusiasm, many Feed the Deed participants declare their anonymity in plain sight. A typical challenge video features a young-ish person talking into a cellphone camera explaining the good deed he or she has just committed or is about to commit, often in great detail. “I’ve just anonymously shovelled my neighbour’s driveway,” someone might say, into the camera, on a video that is about to be shared online with hundreds of people or more. “I’ve baked cookies and I’m about to place them anonymously at my co-worker’s desk,” another do-gooder would say, into a cellphone camera whose footage will be shared with everyone in its owner’s social circle. Every Feed the Deed challenge is undeniably good, but it is also undeniably exploitative, and, Immanuel Kant might argue, inferior—in that it likely would not occur were the promise of publicity and praise absent. From a theoretical standpoint Feed the Deed and projects like it appear morally suspect.

But from a real-life standpoint, they are brilliant. The moral of Larry David’s “faux anonymity” philanthropy parable isn’t that people like Ted Danson and Feed the Deed’s Josh Stern are secretly selfish phonies, but that pure selflessness is a human impossibility. Whatever happened to kindness for kindness sake? It never existed to begin with. If spreading good deeds at a rapid pace is only possible through the “faux anonymity” of a self-absorbed, social media age, then so be it. More power to us. Narcissism and generosity are not mutually exclusive. The world would be a much more honest, efficient, and yes—kinder—place without the myth of altruism.

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