Yet while I share Giridharadas’ outlook, his presentation of it has conspicuous shortcomings. Giridharadas overstates the importance of the philanthropy he criticizes, which is really a quite small part of the field, while overlooking hundreds of funders and thousands of NGOs doing valuable and important work even by his standards. He offers no evidence for the improbable claim that these market-oriented philanthropic interventions have blunted the prospects for more radical reform—a failure better attributed to opposition from a rather large and effective conservative political movement. And he ignores both the difficulty of articulating a suitable alternative to neoliberalism—which is considerable—and a substantial literature critical of the more conventionally liberal solutions he periodically offers in asides.
But these failings are not the reason I find the book’s uncritical approval by people in philanthropy so disheartening. The chief problem—and the reason I mention the book here—is that at no point does Giridharadas make a serious effort to understand the arguments or reasoning of the people he is criticizing. Instead, he has written a 263-page putdown that could serve as a textbook for the avoidance techniques described above. In Giridharadas’s telling, the inhabitants of MarketWorld believe as they do for flimsy, straw-man reasons; or because they are privileged (mostly) white elites; or because they are intellectual cowards, conning themselves into believing they are doing good when really they are just self-interested.
Would that it were so simple. In truth, much can be said for the neoliberal system that Giridharadas dismisses, which has undeniably played a crucial role in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. And while that system may have run its course, understanding why—and, more important, figuring out what should replace it—is a complex matter that requires more than a contemptuous backhand. Sharing Giridharadas’ position, I might be able to make the arguments for him. But I should not have to—and neither should those he is attacking or those who support them. Asking people to listen with empathy means asking them to view opposing arguments in their best light, not to generate the arguments themselves or imagine what they might be.
If you already agree with Giridharadas’ thesis, you may find the book fun to read. He is a talented writer—skilled at ingenuously mocking his targets and using rhetoric to drum up a very pleasurable sense of indignation. But you won’t actually learn anything. If you disagree with him, you will find a caricature of yourself, a funhouse mirror version that never attends in a serious way to the underlying beliefs that animate you. But you won’t learn anything either. And if you are new to these debates, you will learn that the author is really angry about a world view he thinks self-evidently wrong, but you won’t learn anything about why he is right, why the people he criticizes are mistaken, why they might nevertheless believe as they do, or what the substantive arguments are on either side.
It’s easy to preach to the choir, and even easier to be part of it. It’s easy to surround ourselves with people who think as we do and to dismiss everyone who disagrees as stupid or corrupt. It’s especially easy to act this way when our political leaders—led or goaded by the president, with his outsized megaphone—relentlessly fan the flames of discord and contempt. Adopting a tribal mindset when everyone else seems to be doing so is more than just easy. It’s satisfying.
Which makes it all the more important not to fall prey to this way of thinking. We must instead discipline ourselves to argue with opponents empathetically, and not only because this could make our efforts to overcome them more effective. We must do it because, unless we can hear our opponents and make them feel heard (and they us), we stand little chance of maintaining our democracy—not in a society as complex and diverse as this one, comprised of people with so many different, intensely-held interests and passions and beliefs.