Selfie-Righteousness

Maimonides was a famous 12th century scholar. His contributions to Talmudic scholarship, law and philosophy have helped define Jewish and legal scholarship for almost a thousand years.

One of his most notable contributions is the "Eight Levels of Giving", a ladder of tzedakah ('righteousness', but generally read as 'charity'- we'll get back to that). According to Maimonides, the first level is the most preferable, and the eighth the least:

  1. Giving an interest-free loan to a person in need; forming a partnership with a person in need; giving a grant to a person in need; finding a job for a person in need; so long as that loan, grant, partnership, or job results in the person no longer living by relying upon others.

  2. Giving tzedakah anonymously to an unknown recipient via a person (or public fund) which is trustworthy, wise, and can perform acts of tzedakah with your money in a most impeccable fashion.

  3. Giving tzedakah anonymously to a known recipient.

  4. Giving tzedakah publicly to an unknown recipient.

  5. Giving tzedakah before being asked.

  6. Giving adequately after being asked.

  7. Giving willingly, but inadequately.

  8. Giving "in sadness" (giving out of pity): It is thought that Maimonides was referring to giving because of the sad feelings one might have in seeing people in need (as opposed to giving because it is a religious obligation). Other translations say "Giving unwillingly."

Various translations and interpretations abound. The non-scholar I am, I've simply nicked the above from Wikipedia.

I've always been particularly fascinated by levels 2-4. The others are somewhat self-explanatory, but these can be alternatively read as: 

2. Giving tzedakah where neither the giver nor the recipient are known
3. Giving tzedakah where the recipient is known, but the giver stays anonymous
4. Giving tzedakah where the recipient is anonymous, but the giver is known

In 4, the giver receives the reward of public accolades. In 3, the giver has a choice of where the money goes. In 2, the giver has neither.  It is worth noting that across all the levels, with the notable exception of '1', what is given is never in question. Maimonides' tzedakah is not about the quantity of the gift but the quality of the giving - about the relationship between the giver and the recipient.

Sasha Dichter, musing on the topic, hits the nail on the head: 

We, people in a position to give and people who encourage other people to give, need to think about the power dynamics that we create, and about ways to make the dignity of the recipient paramount in everything we do

Given all this, 'righteousness' feels, in many ways, more accurate. This seems particularly apt when the prefix 'self-' gets involved. In any public act of giving, the giver benefits - giving a righteous act, no matter how worthy, the taint of self-righteousness. To truly achieve righteousness, the 'self-' should not benefit.

But marketing is the business of maximising benefits. So what does this mean to us? 

"Brand purpose" is one way of talking about a company's quest for righteousness - "a sense of shared ambitions and beliefs that explains why we do what we do, what we stand for in the world" (Market Leader). But, as Maimonides would point out (brand architecture was a big thing under the Umayyad Caliphate), "brand purpose" is skating on thin ice (skating was also huge back then). Knowing what your brand stands for is important, but as soon as you start boasting about it, your brand becomes self-righteousness. Sometimes with disastrous results.

Nor is this solely a point of Talmudic lore. According to a study in the Journal of Advertising Research, four of the five most effective communications channels for CSR topics are external to the company itself. Consumers are more likely to trust a third party saying a brand is 'good' rather than the company touting its own worthy credentials. Thinking like a Slytherin, the solution is easy - use PR and influencers. Or, more sensibly, behave like a Hufflepuff: work harder on doing good in the first place. Respect the power dynamic, treat the recipient with dignity; behave less like a patron, and more like a peer. 

But - there's always a 'but' - what about social norming?

If everyone gave quietly, especially those people with the most influence, the rest of us would never see the giving. We need visible moral compasses to guide us. Sarah Smith, University of Bristol, writes about the role of 'public philanthropy':

[B]eing perceived as generous is important. There is a lot of evidence to support this. People give more when they are being observed. They also give more in order for their giving to be publicly acknowledged.

Doing good visibly is therefore a type of "peer pressure", as "not only is the fundraiser projecting to their network of friends and acquaintances that they care about a cause, but those friends come under pressure to be seen to be supporting the do-gooder." Or, to reverse that: public tzedekah is important not only because we hope others will do the same, but also because it shows the world where we stand. Public giving is a matter of personal brand purpose.

To close the circle: is it therefore most righteous for brands to act like individuals, and individuals like brands?Probably not. There's no tidy solution here. Sunday School says one thing, brand planning says another. There are moments when visibility is essential - where the 'oxygen of publicity' makes an act of good carry more weight, go further, and do more. There are also occasions where an act of good is clearly more about publicity than intent, and its impact is less for it. 

As our industry's madly rushes toward 'brand purpose', Maimonides' scale reminds us to be cautious when we tread in this space. It serves as a thousand-year-old warning, not only that true righteousness is hard to achieve, but also that consumers can sense, and judge, hypocrisy. 

Get: Companies
To: Walk the walk
By: Warning that simply talking the talk hasn't worked since the 12th century


Last week I wanged on about middling in the kitchen:

Jamie pointed out the W+K campaign for Sainsbury's, which showcases 'food dancing' and hitting the 'rhythm' of cooking.

Stark shared a quote from Monsieur Edouard de Pomaine: "If you're not convinced, do as you like. After all, that's the best way to enjoy what you're eating". There's more here, but I love de Pomaine's thesis about how cooking can be speedy, but should be enjoyable, for "Modern life spoils so much that is pleasant. Let us see that it does not make us spoil our steak or our omelette."

And this Guardian piece on Nigella Lawson simply nails it (thanks, Mom!). Bee Wilson contrasts Nigella's "original voice, which worked its way into your head and made you feel braver in the kitchen" to, say:

...the daft assumptions that so many cookbooks used to make. Ramsay’s book is full of “trickles” of this and “drizzles” of “lightly infused” that, along with boastful declarations of how excited people will be when you present the great man’s masterpieces to them, in a spirit of triumph. The assumption is that we, the readers, should feel blessed that Gordon has chosen to grace us with his “secret pepper mix” 

Plus a Twitter thread of non-recipe-based cookbook recommendations!