The contradictory altruism

Altruism is when we act to promote someone else’s welfare, even at a risk or cost to ourselves. The Greater Good Science Center

I referred to the book Conscience and Courage by Eva Fogelman about 1,5 years ago and I came to think of it again when I wrote about Norwegians and altruism in connection with the Syrian refugees recently. There hasn’t been much debate about the refugees in Norway because debate implies that we give the various aspects and nuances the chance to be heard. Instead it would appear that media has chosen to focus on a few stories they claim are unquestionable. These stories say that all refugees that come here are Syrians and that they are not safe anywhere else. The truth may be a little more nuanced.

I am a little concerned when those few that have pointed to the fact that this debate has been very one-sided are ignored, ridiculed or even browbeaten. I like sticking to the facts, and if the information in this article from Mail Online is correct, that there are poor people from many countries trying to exploit the situation, this should have consequences in terms of where the focus of our most immediate assistance should be. I am not suggesting this should dampen our altruism, because there are still a lot of people that need our help, but something is wrong when media gives the impression that families have walked from Syria to Northern Europe because they were turned away in all other countries or because they were in danger. I still think we should help, but what about those who had no choice but to remain in the refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon? Does it mean that they get farther and farter behind in line?

Eva Fogelman wrote about Non-Jews who saved Jews during World War II, which often meant a dangerous and rootless existence for the whole family. The author is a psychologist and was interested in what motivated these people to such extreme altruism that they were willing to sacrifice themselves and their families. I can understand it in a way because it’s not easy to witness people suffering without doing anything to help. I would want someone to help my family and at the same time I would ask myself if I had the right to make decision that would have my family tortured and killed. It’s almost like a catch 22-situation. This is a paradoxical situation where you have to take contradictory rules or conditions into account.

It’s commonly used in the English language today, but is derived from Joesph Keller’s novel Catch 22 from 1961. In the book a World War II pilot tried to avoid more dangerous missions by falsely claiming he was crazy. The psychiatrist concluded that the pilot was sane because it was perfectly normal to fear for his life if the perceived danger was real. So no pilots are mentally fit to fly, because no one that volunteers for a job that is likely to kill you, could be in his right mind. In other words, if you ask for a psychiatric evaluation you are healthy and must fly. If you don’t ask for this evaluation you won’t get it, and must fly, making this situation quite impossible.

Volunteers assist Hurricane victims at the Houston Astrodome. following Hurricane Katrina.
Volunteers assist Hurricane victims at the Houston Astrodome. following Hurricane Katrina.
FEMA photo/Andrea Booher

The article where I found the definition of altruism claims that altruism comes just as natural to us as selfishness, but the latter seems to win most of the time. There are many variations and degrees of charity and we undoubtedly see the strongest sign of altruism when we face war and natural disasters. We may ignore most opportunities, but we give more when more is required.

There are different ways of offering assistance, and I’m not sure it’s that negative when a country also cares for its own citizens. Japan is probably pretty extreme in their skepticism towards immigration, so they won’t accept Syrian refugees. They have given $ 1,6 bn in assistance for Syrian and Iraqi refugees. They are still criticized for not bringing the Syrians to Japan, and it is perhaps deserved, although they are not alone. Some of the most underpopulated countries in the world (such as Canada, USA and Australia) are also known for strict immigration rules.

The Norwegian government has been criticized by the opposition, and media has been quite condescending when the government has stated what should be obvious enough, Norway can’t accept hundreds of thousands of refugees, but that seems to be what many expect. The altruism many are expressing these days is very commendable, but sometimes a little out of place. There is a lot of uncertainty about the future and if we compare with the other Muslim countries we have tried to force a democracy on, it isn’t exactly more stable today. That raises the question of how long we should put our own lives on hold, because I think this could develop into our catch 22.

We can’t decide not to help, but if we act as extensively as many Norwegians have suggested, this could provide a long-term pressure on our economy in a time when our oil-industry and ship yards are facing a recession. This altruism could have a price we are not going to like, and could almost make us like a Polish family during World War II. They probably felt that they didn’t have much choice, even though this hurt themselves as well.

I hope we are talking about if and not when, but if that day arrives when we are no longer willing to pay the price, I hope we have the sense to place the responsibility where it belongs. There is a danger that we might act out our aggression against immigrants, as we did in the 1980’s. We were just starting to get large numbers of immigrants then,  and when we faced unemployment for the first time in ages, many blamed the immigrants for the benefits the government gave them. This is our own responsibility, however. The majority, the people that have not spoken out against the stupidity, has the greatest responsibility.

The situation is complex and we have to wait for the dust to settle before we can see a clear picture. I am not convinced that when this is over the people lobbying for the “move all Syrian refugees to Europe-camp” will handle the responsibility they have assumed. I would have liked a “help more there than here-strategy”, but not as extreme as Japan.  I think that would have helped a lot more of the people we wanted to help. We need to accept some refugees, but I think we should focus on the Christian Syrians because I don’t see how they could go back to the neighbours that failed them.

I have some thoughts about media’s role in what has happened in recent weeks and I will probably write about that in a later post.

Japan looks after its own
Catch 22

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