In Defence of the Do-gooders



It’s easy to go through life as a cynic. It’s convenient and comfortable to accept everything, never fight, isolate ourselves, keep our heads down, protect ourselves and lay down our arms before the oppressor, the all-powerful. That’s why we hate do-gooders – they call our inertia into question. It’s much easier to simply ridicule everything and mock the futile longings of dreamers and utopians. By Ilija Trojanow

Portrait of the writer Ilija Trojanow
Ilija Trojanow; Photo: Harald Krichel

I have heard it said that Heinrich Böll was a do-gooder, and I've occasionally been called one myself. So I think it's time to consider what being a do-gooder actually means. In German, we call it Gutmenschentum. It manages to sum everything up in a single word. It's a typical German composite noun made up of three parts: Gut-menschen-tum, and four syllables: Gut-mensch-en-tum.

Let's start with the first syllable, gut. Good was originally the opposite of bad and generally had a positive connotation. We use it all the time. How was dinner? Good! How was your day? Good! How's your marriage going? Good! What do you want to be in life? Here, people don't tend to respond with 'Good!' Instead, successful people want to be in a good position and making good money.

In the German-speaking world, Gutmensch is also a surname, which causes a problem for some families. Interestingly, this name often originates from what is now the Czech Republic. For example, on 22 August 1896 Mr Josef Gutmensch from Mährisch-Neustadt came 6th at the royal shooting tournament in Littau. In 1897 the hairdresser August Gutmensch patented a kind of hair curler. Rosin & Gutmensch's general store at Favoritenstraße 68 in Vienna's 4th district had to file for bankruptcy in 1915. And in May 1916 Karl Gutmensch, a captain in the Austro-Hungarian army, was awarded the Military Cross of Merit for bravery in the face of the enemy. Officer Gutmensch received the very highest military medal two years later, shortly before dying a hero's death. To loosely quote the good soldier Švejk, the patron saint of all subversives: 'They killed Gutmensch!' 'Which Gutmensch? I know two. I'm not sorry about either of them.'

Some surname researchers believe 'Gutmensch' is derived from Saint Homobonus, the patron saint of tailors. Others claim that it comes from the French word bonhommes, the name once given to followers of the Cathar or Albigensian heretical movements in the Middle Ages. They called themselves 'true Christians' and 'God-lovers', a literal translation of the South Slavic bogomil. These 'servants of the devil' originated in today's Bulgaria and were called 'cat-kissers', zoophiles, which is why the colloquial English verb 'to bugger', derived from the French bougrir, etymologically means 'to make love like a Bulgarian'.

Now we have found the roots of the do-gooder. The Bogomils were the first religious social revolutionary movement in Europe.

In the words of a contemporary Orthodox priest: 'They teach their own people not to obey their lords, they revile the wealthy, hate the Tsar, ridicule the elders, condemn the boyars (the military aristocracy), regard as vile in the sight of God those who serve the Tsar, and forbid every servant to work for his master.' For God's sake. People who not only imagined a free and dignified life on earth, but actually wanted to put it into practice? Do-gooders. Ugh!

Bosnia espoused Bogomilism from 1199 onwards and it continued for two centuries, which must be enough to prove that my colleague the Bosnian writer Dzevad Karahasan is also a covert do-gooder.

And for the sake of completeness: the term bonhomme generally means a 'gentleman', so you might think it isn't used in mockery and you can relax in an irony-free zone – until you discover that it is also used as a synonym for fool. Things that seem blackand-white can be deceptive. In the case of Gutmenschen, semantics has been upended so now it means the opposite. That's why it's not possible to talk of a Schlechtmensch (do-badder) but only a Nichtgutmensch (non-do-gooder). I know, it's confusing. But the confusion is quite deliberate in this context, and not only in German. In Bosnian, the highest expression of enthusiasm is mrak, which translates literally as 'darkness'. And in the Krio language of West Africa, the affix bad bad wan serves to emphasise qualification. So Di man fayn bad bad wan wan – for those who don't speak Krio – means 'The man good bad bad', while Di polis korupt bad bad wan means 'the police corrupt bad bad'.

A semantic battlefield

The English equivalent is 'do-gooder', someone who likes to do good things. But the meaning has changed within an astonishingly short period of time to mean someone who is naïve. Balzac alluded to this 'In Paris, when they want to disparage a man, they say: "He has a good heart." The phrase means: "The poor fellow is as stupid as a rhinoceros."'

Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher believed: 'A good person only believes something bad when he sees it with his own eyes.' The semantic battlefield has changed little since then. Non-do-gooders know a priori that evil not only exists but dominates everything, so they harbour no illusions and trust only in their sword and shield. 

Logically, non-do-gooders are friends of power. They believe that improving the world inevitably leads to the decline of what already exists, so they defend the status quo and fight for the continuity of prevailing circumstances, even if they are a direct route to the apocalypse. No problem. The apocalypse is a massage chair for non-do-gooders. This is where they can release all the tensions created by conflict, crisis and catastrophe. Nowadays, for physiotherapeutic reasons, every publishing house has at least one apocalypse or dystopia in its programme – just as everyone once gave their Tamagotchi a daily walk. This is justified by the discovery that we can now explain the destruction of the Earth with scientific precision.

In the Anthropocene we no longer need prophecies. We have physics. While do-gooders are scared, non-do-gooders rub their hands in glee, because the Olympic achievement of their cynicism lies in not even fearing the apocalypse. Particularly as non-do-gooders are richly rewarded for their pragmatism – the apocalypse is a generous employer – while the do-gooder earns little for his efforts but mockery.

Disparaging the good is not necessarily part of the German cultural tradition. A man named Goethe, the nation's supreme bearer of wisdom, once wrote: 'Noble be man, helpful and good. For that alone sets him apart from every other creature on earth.' The only characteristic that separates Homo sapiens from Theropithecus or Rhinopithecus would, therefore, be human goodness.

We have now arrived at the middle section of our composite noun, menschen, the human being – a creature that is inherently bad, or at least this is the assumption that is always (with respect) directed at anyone who is keen to bring about fundamental and lasting change. If this assumption is correct and humans have been created this way and only this way, then why is it so readily accepted that power (and/or enormous wealth) should be concentrated in the hands of the few?

After all, we would take a gun away from a violent offender or rip a giant pack of gummy bears from the claws of a wolverine. Misanthropes should be fighting to prevent the concentration of power. But the opposite is the case. I have spent years searching for an explanation for this contradiction, but without success. I suppose the answer is that humans are not inherently bad but inherently stupid.

Those who contemptuously mouth the word 'do-gooder' believe they are themselves 'good', but within a framework that they describe as 'realistic'. Exaggerated goodness, on the other hand, is the devil's work. Norbert Bolz, a German media expert, wrote: 'The existence of the devil allows the pious to believe in the existence of Christ. It's just that the devil is harder to spot today. He masquerades as a moralist and seduces us with his cult of do-gooding. But that is precisely why Christian morality is a dangerous path. For the devil himself is a moralist, and a good conscience is his most diabolical invention.'

To turn it into a food analogy: sweet-and-sour food is bitter. Anyone who thinks in terms of these patterns of good and evil must find the extension of goodness to all human beings metaphysically ridiculous and firmly believe that their cynical perspicacity has greater moral adequacy than emphatic public spiritedness. The question arises whether today's do-gooders couldn't leave God and the devil and all the other lightning conductors of moral confusion far behind them and postulate the idea of solidarity and the ideal of justice as commandments of reason.

It's easy to see the dark side, you just have to close your eyes. The much-cited new confusion should be called the 'new invisibility'. The victims of the global crises are seldom seen in this country. Massive walls of perception were erected long ago. I moved to Mumbai in 1998, and my (many) visitors always asked me at some point: 'How can you bear the sight of all this misery?' I would reply: 'Is the misery any less if I look away?'

It's easy to go through life as a cynic. It's convenient and comfortable to accept everything, never fight, isolate ourselves, keep our heads down, protect ourselves and lay down our arms before the oppressor, the all-powerful. That's why we hate do-gooders – they call our inertia into question. It's much easier to simply ridicule everything and mock the futile longings of dreamers and utopians.

Discredited ideology

And finally, in our German noun, we come to the crowning glory, the addition of the seemingly harmless -tum.  The dictionary tells us that this suffix was previously a noun and is derived from the Middle High German tuom, meaning power, dignity and possession. According to the Duden German dictionary: 1. In noun forms, it denotes a state, a condition, a quality or a behaviour of a person: Chaotentum, Erpressertum, Profitum. 2. In noun forms, it denotes a group of people: Bürgertum. 3. In noun forms it denotes a person's territory: Herzogtum, Scheichtum.

Therefore, a grammatically and semantically correct sentence could be: Gutmenschentum ist kein adäquater Ausdruck des Deutschtums – being a do-gooder is not an appropriate expression of Germanhood. Through the suffix -tum, personal attitudes are equated with a territory or a class and thus exposed as dogma. Empathy – a natural human quality – is discredited as ideology, with fatal consequences because those whose suffering is not ours have to be essentially different, ergo we owe them nothing, ergo they deserve nothing better, ergo they can stay the hell away, ergo if we take a clear view and call a spade a spade (which is what do-gooders stop us doing), they are beasts or barbarians. We know where the story goes from here.

The reality is exactly the opposite, because, in the words of F.C. Delius, 'the cynic' is 'the stepbrother of the ideologue, no matter how unideological he may be.' Here in Germany, these kinds of debates are conducted without a hint of humour. In that sense, we could define Gutmenschentum as the criticism of humourless know-it-all attitudes by humourless know-it-alls.

Unfair motives are also attributed to literary do-gooders. They abuse literature for perfidious or profane purposes (such as inciting people to change the world). Once their intentions are revealed, their works are flawed per se. The crows caw from the rooftops, the political writer takes sides and harms literature, which should be open to all sides. This is the typical position of apolitical people who do not understand the essence of the political. It is not a question of dogma, but of attitude, and a political attitude can be excellently brought to the fore through the plural forms of literature, through diversity, multi-perspective narratives and complexity. Literary ambivalence and political convictions are not mutually exclusive.

A writer's world view says little about the quality of his artistic methods. James Joyce is highly esteemed by even the most pernickety of artistic critics, yet he was a thoroughly political writer. This is clear for all to see, without needing to know that his library was packed with hundreds of anarchistic books, which he studied in great detail. Ulysses is a literary attack on hypocrisy, morality, the state and the Catholic Church. It was banned and Joyce had to spend decades in exile. Its importance is undisputed, despite its clear, radical political stance. A contradiction? No. The belief in the value of literature can combine with political passion to create an entity of the highest standard. In The Political Unconscious, the American literary critic Fredric Jameson even speaks of a 'utopian impulse' that constitutes the political unconscious in important literary works.

Apolitical and über-political attitudes are both narrow-minded. Literature is the vastness of the imagination, and thus a corrective to politics. Literature is the full variety of language, and thus a corrective to politics. Literature is the development of its own discourse against the omnipresent special offers of its time. In this context, it is immaterial whether writers are seeking to improve the world or to hold up a distorting mirror to this unworthy evolutionary joke called humankind.

The white noise of our age

Apolitical cynics can fall victim to tonal poverty, just like the former subjects of communist regimes. But authors who write from the standpoint of freedom and refuse to be dictated to when it comes to themes and forms, hear voices that they have never heard before. This freedom is hard-fought and difficult to defend, because each one of us is mercilessly exposed to the white noise of our age. Those who, out of such freedom, decide to write not only about love and death (supposedly the two most important themes in literature), but also about power and muscle, about betrayal and transformation, will surprise themselves when they write. This is the only thing that matters, the litmus test of real writing – the ability to amaze yourself. Anyone who experiences this while writing is immune to the use of language for a particular end. However, both logically and empirically, it does not follow that everyone whose work is apolitical, so the inveterate non-do-gooders, are aesthetically superior to the veganised do-gooders.  In fact, the opposite is true. Avoiding anything and everything political requires the same kind of rigid and stubborn energy that is needed to turn all the realities of life into political issues.


About Ilija Trojanow

Ilija Trojanow is a writer, translator and publisher. Born in Sofia in 1965, he and his family escaped in 1971 and fled across Yugoslavia and Italy to Germany, where they were granted political asylum. In 1972 the family moved to Kenya. Apart from a four-year stay in Germany, Ilija Trojanow lived in Nairobi until 1984. He then moved to Paris before studying law and ethnology in Munich from 1984 to 1989. He went on to set up two publishing houses: Kyrill & Method Verlag and Marino Verlag. Trojanow moved to Mumbai in 1998, then to Cape Town in 2003. Today, when he is not on his travels, he is based in Vienna. Trojanow is the author of many books of fiction and non-fiction, including The Collector of Worlds (2008), Along the Ganges (2005), and Mumbai to Mecca (2007). His autobiographical debut novel was adapted into the award-winning film The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Just Around the Corner (2008). He was awarded the Heinrich Böll Prize in 2017.

About the Cultural Report

In May the Cultural Report 2020 'Reset Europe' by ifa was published with the following topics:

1: Democracy on the Backfoot – In Defense of Freedom
2: Reset Europe – Crisis as Opportunity

3: Social Fragmentation – The Fight to Control the Narrative

The image that Europe is currently presenting could hardly be more contradictory: isolationism, populism, scepticism about integration and post-Brexit pragmatism all mixed with a newly blossoming euphoria about the European idea. Does Europe need a new start? Above all, it needs orientation. In the face of democratic crises, climate change, structural change and the hate that exists in society, the people of Europe need new ways of solving pressing problems. Can culture help to win back the trust of Europe's citizens and rekindle critical, intellectual debate? Can it create more tolerance? And can it defend Europe's existential values of human rights, multilateralism and international solidarity? The contributors to this Culture Report look for the answers to these questions.

All issues of the Culture Report can be downloaded for free on ifa Publikationen.