03 April 2011 ~ 4 Comments

To Hell with Good Intentions (my imaginary conversation with Ivan Illich)

Oh how I wish that I had heard Ivan Illich give this speech in 1968.

I imagine myself as one of the students about to be sent off to Mexico to “volunteer”, eager to “help the poor people”, smiling proudly as I shine in my own self-worth. And then I imagine hearing him start out by proclaiming his increasing opposition to the presence of any and all North American “dogooders” in Latin America” and wondering why this guy was raining on my parade. I might start to wonder why he was invited to speak, and then he says “you might have invited me here hoping that you would be able to agree with most of what I say, and then go ahead in good faith and work this summer in Mexican villages. This last possibility is only open to those who do not listen, or who cannot understand me.”

I’d start to get angry!  BUT I WANT TO HELP, my brain would yell, and he would respond back in his speech, “I did not come here to argue. I am here to tell you, if possible to convince you, and hopefully, to stop you, from pretentiously imposing yourselves on Mexicans.”

But I’m DIFFERENT, I would think. I WILL be able to help…. yet his speech would respond saying “All you will do in a Mexican village is create disorder.”

He’d go on to say “You start on your task without any training. Even the Peace Corps spends around $10,000 on each corps member to help him adapt to his new environment and to guard him against culture shock. How odd that nobody ever thought about spending money to educate poor Mexicans in order to prevent them from the culture shock of meeting you?

But I will LEARN from this experience, I would want to tell him. And his speech would respond “The damage which volunteers do willy-nilly is too high a price for the belated insight that they shouldn’t have been volunteers in the first place.”

But… but…I’m so PRIVILEGED, I’d say. I want to give back!  And he would respond with “I am here to suggest that you voluntarily renounce exercising the power which being an American gives you. I am here to entreat you to freely, consciously and humbly give up the legal right you have to impose your benevolence on Mexico. I am here to challenge you to recognize your inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the “good” which you intended to do.”

My heart would break a little.

And then he would conclude with, I am here to entreat you to use your money, your status and your education to travel in Latin America. Come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help.

And maybe then, just then, after I had heard this Illich speech in person, and listened to his passion for these words, would I have been able to walk away, having learned these lessons without living them.

And I’d re-hear a part of his speech: “Perhaps there is also something to the argument that young men should be promiscuous for awhile in order to find out that sexual love is most beautiful in a monogamous relationship. Or that the best way to leave LSD alone is to try it for awhile -or even that the best way of understanding that your help in the ghetto is neither needed nor wanted is to try, and fail. I do not agree with this argument.”

And I’d realized that someone should have told me this earlier, but I couldn’t have absorbed it unless I lived it myself, OR heard someone as knowledgeable on this subject speak so directly – so honestly – without caring about hurting my feelings or sugar coating his words to avoid making me feel bad because he knew my intentions were good. I would have maybe then realized I should walk away, because he told me directly, and I realized that he was right: “The damage which volunteers do willy-nilly is too high a price for the belated insight that they shouldn’t have been volunteers in the first place.”

Read the full Illich speech here: http://bit.ly/hkJN17

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  • Anna

    Doesn’t mince words, does he? nnNo one really seems to be weighing in here, so I’ll have a go – I think this is a REALLY important conversation to have (in my head with Ivan Illich), but I disagree with him. He raises some excellent points that should probably make his speech required reading/consideration before participating in any service project, but I disagree with his unequivocal position that the only responsible conclusion is to stay home. nnHere’s a question: What is service? nAt its simplest, I’d have to say it’s seeing someone who’s doing good work and saying “what can I do to help?” According to Illich, even that does more harm than if you do nothing. The harm comes when that turns into “this is what you should do” or “this is what you need”. nnThough I do like Illich’s suggestion to go into politics so that you can have an influence on domestic and foreign policies. Maybe instead of “learning to serve” trips, we need some “learning to stay home” programs. Imagine all those gap year students engaging in politics instead…

  • Trying not to lose HOPE

    “At its simplest, I’d have to say it’s seeing someone who’s doing good work and saying “what can I do to help?”

    I don’t necessarily have a problem with this definition and I’m not necessarily saying people from North America can’t travel to the Global South without screwing everything up BUT…

    How often is that really the case in these travel experience? “What can I do to help?” becomes a loaded statement and the good intentions of the individual asking it seem to preclude whether or not they are desired in the situation or whether ultimately THEIR help is needed as opposed to that of  local person. You  did admit “at its simplest” I just still see it as a loaded definition.

    I completely agree with your “learning to stay home” program idea. There is a travel program I particpated which included coursework (part of which was reading and discussing Ivan Illich) many of the participants came back with a deeper desire to address local social issues. But it wasn’t a gap year thing (we don’t really have that) so maybe it was just different altogether.