Malevolent Benevolence

In the third book of his Confessions, Augustine offers a penetrating observation on the nature of compassion. He writes, "si enim est malivola benivolentia, quod fieri non potest, potest et ille, qui veraciter sinceriterque miseretur, cupere esse miseros, ut misereatur" (it is only if there could be a malevolent benevolence--which is impossible--that a man who truly and sincerely felt compassion would desire that there be wretched men so that he could bemoan them).

With this statement, Augustine acknowledges the unseemly side of compassion; he recognizes that the compassionate can inadvertently find themselves depending on the existence of the wretched for fulfillment. He makes this observation while discussing the moral problems of theatrical tragedy--namely the power of tragic stories to enthrall audiences. But the significance of his insightful comment extends far past theater, illuminating a set of behaviors in society at large and at Harvard in particular.

In the December issue of Perspective, Rebecca Stich '98, the out-going programming chair at the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA), responds to what she sees as a pernicious trend among Harvard's "activists." She claims that several recent e-mails from UNITE and an article in the November issue of Perspective by Shlomtzion M. Shaham '01 suggest a marginalization of community service in the agenda of the left. Stich quotes Shaham's comment that "community service rarely effects social change: it attempts to alleviate existing problems, and does not try to change the underlying structures that caused those problems." From statements such as these, Stich concludes that PBHA volunteers are being maligned because "they are tutoring, not rallying."

Stich's point is well-taken, and she deserves credit for the nuance of her account. She understands that to speak monolithically of "Harvard activists" is to generalize meaninglessly. Like any other cross-section of the student body, "activists" at Harvard come in many shapes and sizes, and they approach their activism in a variety of ways. Likewise, "activism" at Harvard is a heterogeneous idea and cannot either be embraced or dismissed absolutely. And while Stich's critique is not aimed at most Harvard activists, it takes notice of an identifiable trend within the activist community that requires attention.

Although Stich admirably documents the symptoms of this "trend," her diagnosis misses the point. She attributes the activist rejection of service to a "futile search for a bad guy," but sadly, there often seems to be something far more unfortunate at work: the search for victims, not to be helped, but to be "bemoaned." From recent events, it has become clear that Harvard's activists are in danger of arriving at Augustine's "malevolent benevolence." While they should, like Augustine's truly compassionate person, "prefer that that which he grieves over not exist," they sometimes seem actively disappointed when no cause for sorrow can be found.


The recent grape debate is only an extreme example of this persistent pattern. As the Wall Street Journal noted in its December 10 article on the Harvard grape controversy, "The recent ferment at Harvard is odd, if only because the grape boycott had pretty much died on the vine elsewhere." In fact, the grape boycotts (1967-70, 1973-78) succeeded, leading one to wonder why were we still at it only a week ago.

Indeed, if you were an alumnus/ae visiting Harvard two weeks ago and you picked up The Crimson, you would have thought you were looking at the Lampoon spoof issue. After all, Harvard students could not possibly have held candle-light vigils on the steps of Memorial Church in 1997 over grapes! Watching the grape hysteria, I couldn't help but think "what a falling-off was there." Were Harvard's "activists" really reduced to this? More to the point, were they really so unwilling to acknowledge good news?

As troublesome as it was, however, the great grape debate did not surprise me. Harvard's activists have periodically conveyed their confusion as to whether the "protest" or the "cause" should be the engine driving the train. When Stich describes the singular disinterest with which the activists seem to approach community service, perhaps she is noticing this phenomenon. Getting "down and dirty" in the trenches, making a positive difference in the lives of the less fortunate has rarely been the priority of the activists. Rather, many simply seem anxious to talk.

To see evidence of this truly sad phenomenon, look no further than the Undergraduate Council of recent memory. The activists on the council have never failed to supply us with resolutions on subjects ranging from Nigerian oil, to Burmese students, to grape and strawberry pickers. But the council clothing drives or gift drives for the needy have invariably fizzled out with only a few people to staff them. Have you ever even heard of the "Pinch the Grinch Drive?" There is a reason why not.

Stich's article conveys the understandable frustration with which the dedicated volunteers on this campus have responded to their deprecation by the "activist" left. But Harvard's volunteers should not misinterpret the source of the attacks upon them. Only through the lens of Augustine's critique can we understand such behavior correctly: it is the seed of unseemly compassion, and Harvard should not tolerate it. Rather Harvard should embrace a spirit of true compassion, one that finds suffering reluctantly and honestly looks forward to the day when it will be no more.