The Oxfam debacle has cruelly exposed modern egalitarian liberalism – and the self-righteous band of professional humanitarians, social justice warriors and human rights activists that espouse it – for what it really is. From a conservative perspective, the only surprise is that anyone should be surprised at the ugly reality behind the mask.
I have long found Oxfam shops horribly fascinating. Smiles, laughter, good-humoured banter and any genuine consideration for others are in short supply among staff who are on a mission to rid the world of injustice, liberate the oppressed and build a new utopia. The last penny must be extracted from customers who, it can safely be assumed, belong overwhelmingly to the privileged class, and are therefore the oppressors and exploiters of the world’s poor. Books must be scientifically priced, catalogued and displayed to maximise profits – woe betide a new assistant who misprices or misplaces a book! Donated books that are not judged marketable are incinerated. Deviation from these principles would only deprive the world’s poor. Bargaining is not permitted, so customers had better not hint at a reduction for a bulk purchase, or for their six-year-old who is counting out his, or her, pocket money. No cheery ‘Oh, call it a pound, dear’ in the Oxfam shop, thank you very much; and, come to think of it, no ‘dear’ or ‘love’ either, for these affectionate forms of address could so easily be misinterpreted as patronising and cause offence; we had better remember that all human beings are radically equal in their right to self-respect. Conversation is stilted and attempts at humour are puerile, for hate speech and offence must be avoided at all costs. The manager is, as often as not, a miniature dictator, who takes pleasure in ordering his, or her, underlings around and laying down the law – all in the interests of the greater cause, you understand; and in more reflective moments holds forth on his or her literary interests. One could almost cut the atmosphere with a knife in the Oxfam shop, for everyone is watchful and suspicious in this brave new world.
The contrast with our local charity shop, run in aid of a local old folks’ home and children’s hospice, could not be more marked. The helpers are not social justice activists but retired people – well-mannered, well-dressed, usually impeccably spoken, and motivated by nothing but the kindness of their hearts. They are, as often as not, embarrassed to charge the marked price (which is not excessive) and suggest something more reasonable – in fact, I usually end up offering more. The children invariably come away with a handful of books for next to nothing. The lady behind the counter loves to chat, share memories, encourage the children to read, and generally pay compliments – or even admonish in a good-natured way. Common sense prevails. Instead of accepting your payment as if it were money robbed from the poor, surplus value extracted from subsistence labour, she is genuinely grateful. ‘Thank you’ means something. You know you are among friends.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise to discover that in their personal relations and interactions, some Oxfam staff have been behaving utterly immorally. For the manners, decencies and social conventions through which moral values are expressed in our everyday lives have their origin in none other than the bourgeois capitalist society which social justice activists reject. Aren’t the individuals with whom Oxfam staff must interact daily, customers and co-workers, these very bourgeois citizens? Have these capitalistic consumers not forfeited their human rights, and any humanitarian concern on our part? The greater struggle is all that counts – the struggle for empowerment of the oppressed, the exploited and the marginalised. And what if those who belong to the poor, the oppressed, the exploited, are occasionally pressed in to service to satisfy the base needs of us social justice warriors? What is the wretched life, the well-being, of one young girl in comparison to the greater cause, to the prize of a new order in which all forms of oppression and inequality will be abolished? Aren’t we all victims of the status quo?
In the case of Oxfam, the end justifies the means. The end is social justice – and the means is the way we treat other people.[pullquote]
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