06 September 2010

Rethinking 'Humanitarian' Action

"Surely what is needed . . . is an end to the evasion of politics, and the attempt to substitute humanitarian action for it. . . . Humanitarianism is . . . an often noble enterprise . . . but it was never meant to topple tyrants, end wars, redistribute wealth or solve political conflicts. Humanitarianism has been burdened with tasks it cannot accomplish, which is part of what makes the present moment both unutterably sad and terrifying."
That is among the provocative points Susie Linfield makes in this typically provocative essay. The dichotomy that traps us as we think about how best to respond to systematic social-political-economic dislocation of various sorts consists on the one hand in the aspiration to a neutral, moralistic brand of liberal humanitarianism that, at best, treats the symptoms of man-made mayhem and, on the other hand, the use of military force, brute and blunt as it is.

Among the problematic aspects of the essay is Linfield's near wholesale misunderstanding of Hannah Arendt's analysis of compassion and its limits. That is not merely a quibble on the part of a political theorist. As rightly points out: "It is a sign of the great distance between Arendt's time and ours that compassion – whose objective form is humanitarian action – has become not only politically relevant but politically central." Actually, what institutionalized compassion does is precisely what Arendt thinks it does; it subverts the space of politics, introducing moralism for political action animated by political impulses like solidarity. It does this not just because it is an emotion, but because it undermines our ability to think in terms of large numbers. While Arendt makes a conceptual argument to this effect, her views are - as I've noted here - sustained by recent research by cognitive psychologists.

Linfield directs us to the important task of imagining new forms of politics, forms that might be effective in protecting the vulnerable and holding perpetrators, individual and collective, to account. That is a huge task one that demands not just that we cease evading politics, but work at re-configuring it by re-conceptualizing the terms on which we approach others. It seems to me that jettisoning the politics of compassion and its institutional forms is an important first step. The picture of humanitarianism and its failings that Linfield paints seems to leave us no alternative.

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