Coercion for a Good Cause? Consent in Everyday Life, Canvassing

September 27, 2011 § 1 Comment

Coercion for a good cause?  Somehow that does’t compute for me.  I imagine everyone has their unique negative feelings regarding interactions with canvassers.  Guilt, shame, irritation, sympathy — perhaps some of those with really excellent boundaries or a sturdy non-engagement habits brush off what my friend calls “live spam” same as us city-dwellers do close encounters with pigeons.  But for myself and a lot of my friends, it can be a small, unsolicited moral dilemma, a sort of special breed of street harassment that is supposed to be in line with our values.  Probably being twenty-something, working with not-for-profits, and generally attempting to be open and engaged sets us up for high intensity canvasser interactions.  Canvassers tend to be our peers and likely find us most approachable and sympathetic.  And since most of us are broke or giving money elsewhere, we often have to stick to saying no rather than breaking free with a small donation.

I am amazed by how much canvasser tactics are simply coercive tactics and how often being accosted by a canvasser feels uncannily like being approached by someone in a bar or on the street trying to pick you up (in a very non-feminist way).  They often literally use the same lines, jumping in front of you and saying things like,  “Hey, what’s your name?”  And my favorite, which I have only gotten from male canvassers, in response to a, “No, thank you,” which is my current status quo, the ego-bruised counter-rejection.  Things like, “You don’t have a name — okay, fine.”  Or how about, “You don’t like polar bears?  Pssh, man.”  Or, “You don’t care about women’s rights?”  I had one of those freakishly personable attractive and charming people you instantly like hop in front of me and say, “Where have you been all my life?”  I blushed, I admit.  But I didn’t stop, since I knew I was being asked for $25 rather than a date, and instead was like, “Geeze!  Use your superpowers only for good!” and thought about the moral complexities of the interaction all day.   I once told a Red Cross door-to-door guy I was unemployed.  He was training someone and hadn’t been able to get any answers that day, so I asked if he wanted to go through his material with me anyways.  He said that would be helpful and seemed relieved to have some sort of training scenario.  I could not believe the number of times I had to say “no” and the degree to which I had to escalate my no to get through his scenario, even though he was just showing a new person what a typical interaction was supposed to look like.  It left me with a similar feeling to having to get rough in rejecting someone’s advances, kind of strangely rattled with an edge of feeling bad and guilty but more so angry and a bit disturbed.

Much like being approached unexpectedly with street flirtation, I have had a few really good encounters with canvassers.  It’s a pretty terrible job.  I had a roommate who had worked for the Obama campaign who told me about her own moral dilemmas regarding canvassing and how incredibly grueling the work was.  She was almost never home and had been moved from city to city so many times it was ridiculous.  I gave hot chocolate to a guy about my age having a meltdown in a snowstorm, because no one was even looking at him.  I got some good information about how Oxfam’s donation system works and why it is helpful to them to do a scheduled donation rather that frequent one time donations, even if they add up to the same sum.  I gave a girl some blueberries from the farmer’s market on my way back and thanked her for being a non-coercive canvasser, and she seemed really moved by the acknowlegement.

I am not a marketing genius, and I can see how hard and frustrating it can be to incite people to contribute to a cause in world deadened by excessive marketing.  But somehow, I can’t shake the feeling that street canvassing is not our best option.  I feel like with the degree of passion and talent available to not-for-profits even just with young, entry-level employees, creative alternatives could be found.  Do some crazy stunts.  Learn some guerilla advertising.  Or at the very least, take the coercive edge off of canvassing rather than training people how to be better at it.  I don’t see how a better world is supposed to be born that way when it mirrors so much the ethics of the status quo.

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§ One Response to Coercion for a Good Cause? Consent in Everyday Life, Canvassing

  • V. Bright says:

    I have had similarly mixed feelings to nonprofit/canvassing interactions.

    I had an experience last year in which I saw a play that took place in the Democratic Republic of Congo and was deeply moved. I went home and looked up a nonprofit that did aid work with women in the DRC and made a donation. It felt like a great example of something art could do—make real for you the suffering of others, and prompt you to try to do something about it.

    I was really disheartened that after making this donation, I immediately began receiving weekly e-blasts soliciting more donations, which are apparently the organization’s standard practice. The first one I received came on the same day I received my “thank you for your donation” e-mail. And then I started receiving reams of paper mail soliciting donations from other nonprofits, because the nonprofit I donated to shared my contact information, which I believe many of them do.

    I was really turned off by the frequency of asks I was receiving, and by the tone of the e-mails, which quickly began to feel like watching 24-hour news networks, which often make me feel like they are selling fear to fill up broadcast time. I had a hard time thinking that anyone enjoyed receiving this many e-mail asks—it seemed more like a “wearing down” approach to consent, that would work best on people vulnerable to guilt.

    It bummed me out to go from feeling good about supporting a cause, to feeling icky every time I saw the name of the nonprofit in question.

    In short: I agree with your analysis that “coercion for a good cause” does not a real revolution make.

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