January 8, 2020

Should People Be More Ashamed by Online Begging?

ashamed cat

When I was a kid, begging, panhandling, or whatever else one might prefer to call it was something most people were ashamed to do. I'm not claiming that it should have been a source of shame; I'm merely stating that I remember it as something of which people were generally ashamed. It was something one did only because one had to, and there was a widespread assumption that if you saw someone begging that it was because they had no other option.

Of course, this assumption was not always accurate. I recall going to Seattle during my first year in college with a few friends. One did not have enough money to buy something trivial he wanted, and he panhandled on the corner of a busy street to make up the difference. I was so disgusted with this that I tore into him about how wrong this was when there were people out there who genuinely needed help. His retort caught me off guard.

You know that guy we saw begging on that last block? Do you really think he's doing that to pay his kid's medical bills? He's probably doing it for booze! And if people are going to be stupid enough to give him money for that, why shouldn't I get in on it?

I wasn't happy with the response, but he did have a point. It was likely that at least some of those begging on the streets were not using the money for things I'd be eager to support. And really, once I coughed up the money, it was theirs to do with as they pleased.

Today, I am not at all convinced that begging is something of which most are ashamed. There seems to be little shame associated with public begging, especially among younger people who do it online. I see this almost every day on Twitter alone, and it isn't like I follow thousands of people there. I know I guy who paid for his elective surgery with online begging (mostly through Facebook). He's not famous, and he doesn't create content of any sort. He simply set up an account for himself on one of those fundraising services and watched the money roll in. I detected no shame on his part at all. He even joked about how it was "Millennial health insurance."

Whatever shame might have once been associated with begging seems to have faded away, at least when it comes to online begging. The new sensibility seems to be that if I can persuade others to give me money, wouldn't I have to be stupid not to do so? Again, I'm not here to decide whether this is a positive development, a negative development, or neither. I'm really not sure.

Online begging may be popular, but it is not without controversy. A few years ago, a popular atheist blogger raised money online for medical expenses. I don't remember all the details, but her fundraising efforts were very successful. Many people who admired her work chipped in. For some reason, she decided to inform everyone that she had spent some of the money on a pair of expensive shoes. Some of her supporters defended this, pointing out that it was her money now and she could do whatever she wanted with it. Others were upset because they felt like they had been misled. The controversy centered on whether someone soliciting funds for a specific purpose was behaving ethically if they spent some of them on items many perceived as trivial, excessive, and unrelated to what donors had been told. The online begging itself was not controversial.

It seems that there is little shame associated with online begging today. It is so widespread that it seems normal. Something happens in your life that leaves you feeling financially stressed, and you use whatever online platform you might have to ask others for money. I saw an atheist blogger doing this a couple weeks ago when I wrote an early draft of this post, and I saw another atheist doing it on Twitter yesterday as I finished the post. I suppose there are far worse forms of begging that also seem much more common today than I recall. What do you think: Is shameless online begging a good thing, a bad thing, or just the new normal?