Can Beggars be Choosers?

This post reflects on several of our early experiences and discussions around hunger and raises some of the emerging questions about the culture(s) of hunger that we’re thinking about. It’s speculative and far from any kind of settled thinking.

For example, in our previous post, we chose “guests” to refer to the individuals sheltering on the street who received meals and services from Kalinga.  What other terms might we use?  clients?  recipients? the homeless? the hungry? the needy? 

According to Architectural Digest, the Associated Press updated its stylebook in 2020 to focus on “person-first” language, rejecting the term  “the homeless” as dehumanizing and instead recommending the use of “homeless people” or ”people without housing.” (We’re conscious that many disability activists are critical of facile “person-first” language). Here, we most often hear “unsheltered” or “sheltering on the streets” used by service organizations. “Street people” is usually seen as a degrading term, but it has a certain accuracy from the point of view of those with privilege, since “those people” are almost by definition encountered on the street (see our earlier observation about libraries as extensions of public space). Provisionally, we think it’s more interesting to choose the term guests for the individuals who are served, defining the relation as one of hospitality rather than residency (and by the way it’s not a requirement to be homeless to be welcomed at Kalinga).

We’ve been interested in the notion of “radical hospitality.” Laurie Beth first came across the phrase when she was a visiting artist at St. Norbert College. This Catholic institution invokes biblical injunctions to welcome strangers as a basic tenet of campus life, as do other churches and religious groups that are Benectine, Benildian, Methodist, and more. Most progressive christian individuals and organizations seek to emulate Christ’s model of radical hospitality.

More recently for us, “radical hospitality” was invoked by Richard Gough in his keynote address to the Performance Studies international conference on hunger, where he used it in reference to projects by chefs like Massimo Bottura and José Andrés that provide extraordinary dining opportunities to people who are not in a position to pay for meals. These chefs directly challenge the more common association of hunger with austerity.  

Why is hunger action so often tied up in austerity?  During the financial crisis in the European Union, austerity measures were imposed on countries like Greece and Italy because it was felt these nations should “pay” for their neediness. Is there a comparable “punitive” ethic at work in hunger action? There are also values that we would call “protestant” in the Weberian sense (“puritan” might be a more precise term) that are tied up with not being excessive or ostentatious or wasteful.

At Kalinga, servings of rice are unlimited, but servings of meat and vegetables were modest and could even be described as meager. It’s not uncommon in the Philippines for meat and vegetables to be treated more like a condiment that accompanies rice, but it was also clear that at least a few recipients wished for more meat.  “There is always rice” is a kind of statement of unconditionality, an effort to set a basic ground of unconditional generosity. Yet while Kalinga serves its guests one at a time, it must of necessity structure its giving collectively.

A person in an apron serving from a platter of food onto a plate of rice
At the start of our shift, we were instructed about the proper amount to serve and were periodically corrected if we strayed from this guidance. 

We understood this to be caused by concern that the food needed to last throughout the day. We don’t know whether Kalinga is functioning at the limit of their resources or whether other value systems such as concern for food waste shape the portion control. The operation is so finely-tuned and efficient that we would tend to assume that the overall scale and portioning have been worked out over time. 

Our questions here are not a critique of how Kalinga specifically operates but rather an opportunity to meditate on what it would take decisively to move hunger hospitality from perfunctory (or puritanical) to radical. Some of the answer to this question lies in issues of agency.  Can hunger action be devised in such a way that guests are “agential”?  In other words, can “beggars” be choosers?

The phrase “beggars can’t be choosers,” which is commonly repeated in all kinds of English speaking contexts, originates in the 16th century or earlier, with the the first record in print being in John Heywood’s collection of proverbs in 1562:

Beggers should be no choosers, but yet they will: Who can bryng a begger from choyse to begge still?”

Interestingly, as commonly used to suggest that recipients should take what they are given without question, the rejoinder “but yet they will” is usually dropped. And what should we make of the enigmatic: “Who can bryng a begger from choyse to begge still?”? We might return to this language at another time (Heywood is known for playfully revealing the subconscious truths behind such commonplaces). For now, yet they will reminds us that human agency is not ours to grant or even acknowledge in others. Rather we must struggle to recognize and welcome it.

When we served meals with Kalinga on the street, a chicken alternative was provided for Muslim eaters on request, complicating an extremely streamlined operation to be inclusive; in the more values-centered context of the feeding in the center, there was not such an option (nor were any meals without pork requested of us).

When and how can hosts offer choice? Perhaps more importantly, in what ways do guests exercise limited agency within existing contexts? One of these ways is to ask for more food (and specifically to ask for more of the foods that are being limited) or to ask for less food, or different food, or to specify how they would like the foods to be organized on their plates (gravy over or alongside rice).  These interactions were our favorite parts of the Kalinga experience. 

Meals are provided at Kalinga as an opportunity for the inculcation of values. In explicit and implicit ways, it was suggested that guests did not have these values already. For example, the idea that “bonding” would take place at the short interval when meals were served, rather than in the hours-long interval where guests waited in line, suggests a lack of faith in the ways that social bonds are created and maintained within street culture. 

To take another example, a report on homelessness in the Philippines from the US antipoverty group The Borgen Project lists poverty, domestic violence, human trafficking, and natural disasters as causes of homelessness, yet its concluding section on “addressing” homelessness lists a single government cash assistance program and goes on to discuss two groups that “teach children about hard work while providing them with an income” and “teach kids on the basics of hygiene”–as though lack of knowledge rather than lack of access to sanitation facilities and economic opportunity were the issue.

We heard some similar value judgments expressed by staff on our first visit to Kalinga, where it was suggested that people needed to be willing to give up their “street values” and subject themselves to “formation” if they were to be allowed to join a program that offered housing, education, and job training. 

None of the values that Kalinga espouses (sociality, education, cleanliness) are particularly troubling to us, nor are they delivered in a heavy-handed way. Every interaction we witnessed was gentle and attentive rather than preachy or coercive.

Still, if the arts and humanities have a contribution to make to hunger action, the extent to which something is expected of the guests in return bears examination. As progressives, we also wonder: If something defined is expected in return for the meal, does it make the hospitality less radical?  On the other hand, might some of those in line hunger for more than food?

We will want to think further about Jacques Derrida’s distinction between conditional and unconditional hospitality in this context. Conditional hospitality, grounded in the law, “recognizes and tolerates the guest, but also reminds the guest that she is not in her own house” while unconditional hospitality “signifies a radical openness to an absolute, indistinguishable other” who is regarded as a liberatory force. As one reviewer of Derrida’s text summarizes it, “the guest is viewed as a liberator that brings the keys to the prison of the nation or the family. In this sense the host is the deficient being who views himself as a parasite – and eagerly encourages the awaited guest to step inside as the host of the host.”  

At Kalinga we perhaps just glimpsed how those we served offered us something to address our deficiency; this certainly aligns with the sense of gratitude we’ve often felt when feeding others. From certain religious perspectives (and we don’t presume to speak for anyone at Kalinga), it is the doers of good works who are indebted to the recipients.

We left contemplating where we could insert ourselves into this operation without disrupting either its mechanisms or its value systems, and what we can take forward from our experiences here to think about other events we can devise that engage hunger in other contexts. We are wondering if we might return to Kalinga and introduce some playful and creative stations into their lineup. As a thought experiment, we liked imagining a further redesign of their space; once we’re home we might look for an interior designer to work with us on imaging inviting and inclusive architectures for hunger action. We can also imagine in the future playing with the re-performance of some of the structures of hunger action (such as Kalinga’s “stations” which mix ideas with activities) in other theatrical and artistic contexts.

We think feeding people is both a beautifully simple act and an incredibly difficult thing to do; thise are some of our thoughts about it at the moment.

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