I hit the mute button on my laptop every single time I start a Youtube video, even before it loads. It’s become such a habit that it’s pretty much body memory now, as instinctive as hitting the space bar between each word I type. I do this because I haven’t bought an advertising-free service on the platform, which means that before any chord, lyric or voice emerges from the video I’ve selected is usually someone’s anguished wail.

            Most often, it is a mother. Sometimes, it is a child. Always, it is a person literally begging for financial support. These videos are exploitative, requiring a humiliating performance of real pain. Those who create them deny the dignity of the person making the request, reducing them to their plea.

These advertisements are created and broadcast by India-based crowdfunding platforms and feature specific cases. Clearly, much is invested in producing and propagating these materials. These are costs that could either go into directly supporting those in need, or at least be utilised for marketing in more sensitive ways. The advertisements alone aren’t the only expenses, as aggressive tactics including cold calling after a donation is made are a part of the larger strategy.

            When I have occasionally contributed through these channels, it has never been because I saw or heard someone lamenting. There has always been a different reason, one I examined before or after making the contribution. This practice of examination is something I do whenever I give financially in significant ways. I am always aware: the choice to give, when it is within my capacity, is based on varied motivations. Videos that exploit the protagonist and manipulate the viewer essentially appeal to a lack of self-awareness in one’s giving choices, tapping into powerful forces like superiority complexes, guilt and fear rather than into subtle forces like empathy.

            Over time, another thought has crept in: surely, these platforms have maintained their strategies because they have seen results through them. In this case, I wonder if these results are indictments of our societal values at large. What does it say about a populace that is moved to make a donation only because people beg desperately? What twisted dynamics and beliefs does this play into?

            A true appeal to conscience would not be an appeal to profoundly condescending and self-serving beliefs, often imparted through religion, about how privileges are earned through past deeds and can be retained and and further rewarded through acts of charity, and the underprivileged are only paying for their own sins. To put it bluntly: the suffering of others is necessary in order to maintain the illusion of the goodness of the self.

But does it matter if the financial goal is fulfilled, the surgery successful, the ailing person saved? It still does. A society that is moved through pity and the notion of redeeming cosmic brownie points, and isn’t angered by the rapaciousness of the medical and pharmaceutical industries, the methods behind medical crowdfunding videos, and the pre-existing hegemonies that create desperate need in the first place, is one that allows all of these to continue. That’s not benevolence. That’s taking comfort in oppression.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in April 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.