The Ethic of Refusal: (or) the inability to cope with powerlessness in the face of human tragedy
I had to fight back some tears when listening to Jaoa telling me about that dreadful moment when the UN airlifted him and his colleagues from a burning Dili, while leaving thousands of Timorese behind. Standing powerless in the face of the imminent slaughter of others while you’re running off to save your own ass is the living nightmare of many aid workers. Particularly when those others have put their hopes on you. Rob Crilly got a sense of that when an elderly woman suddenly grabbed his arm during a well-prepared tour of an IDP camp in Darfur: “You have heard our problems,” she said, “When will you help us?” And Mia Farrow has been almost possessed by an urge to tell the whole world about Darfur, ever since a woman called Halima grabbed her hand saying, “Tell people what happened here. Tell them we will all be slaughtered; tell them we all need help”.’
These encounters are not only so unbearable because of the humanitarian tragedy unfolding before us, they are just as unbearable because of the humanitarian tragedy unfolding inside us. The scene of the aid worker turning his back on the Timorese to step into the plane that can bring him to safer grounds — but not them, the scene of the journalist uttering apologies about his limited capacity to the Darfuri men and women looking at him in expectation, shakes the foundations of some core beliefs in the human rights and humanitarian worldview: that all human lives are equal in value, and that human suffering is a preventable tragedy, demanding a direct response to “˜save lives first’. The human rights worldview does not offer mechanisms to cope with human powerlessness in the face of human tragedy. Inaction is not part of its vocabulary, and it does not have an Allah or God to refer to.
What make confrontations with mass atrocities so especially unpalatable, is that they also implicitly remind of the mix of “˜good’ and “˜evil’ that resides in every one of us. It is this image of humanity that Crilly captures so well in his book, through the captivating life stories of the men and women he met during his five years in Sudan. Men and women who are no straightforward victims or perpetrators, but who can both suffer and be agents that knowingly and willingly commit crimes. It are these images of humans as potentially “˜evil’ or as powerless bystanders of massacres, that protesters try to resist just as well when marching the streets to shout “˜never again’. The protests are manifestations of what Peter Redfield, calls an “˜ethic of refusal’: “˜a position that (…) consistently rejects “the apparent futility of the way the world is”’ (1).
The twin brother of this “˜ethic of refusal’ is: `Action Now!’. This reflex response, and the damage it can cause, is another important theme in Crilly’s book. Crilly offers a detailed account of how a complex story got translated into a simple narrative of “˜good’ and “˜evil’, catching the imagination of media, celebrities and advocates to create widespread public outrage. This public outrage and simplification pushed leading politicians like Colin Powell and Gordon Brown to take the kind of principled positions that closed doors on workable solutions, rather than opening them. “˜The casualty’, Crilly writes, “˜has been progress towards peace. For all their hyperbole and visibility, the advocates have not succeeded in their ultimate aim. They have merely succeeded in pushing Khartoum into a corner and reducing the possibility that diplomacy can prevail’. Crilly does not shy away from criticizing the role of himself and his colleagues in media herein. But the media are not the only ones to blame for simplifying the story. Many human rights organizations tend to present their reports in a matter-of-fact tone, without providing much analysis on the historical context in which human rights violations occur. And, as Mamdani also pointed out(2) , the more you downplay the context, the greater the tendency to portray the victim as “˜always the victim’, and portray the perpetrator as “˜always the perpetrator’.
Pressure for action and lack of contextual understanding make for bad peace deals. Quick responses to complex, long-term conflicts run a high risk of fueling the conflict because of insufficient knowledge on the type and level of violence, and the power dynamics at play. As Alex de Waal said,(3) we would never deploy a police force of hundreds to safeguard, say, the citizens of The Hague without having detailed and verifiable data on the security situation, yet we send thousands of UN troops to highly violent conflict areas without even having a fraction of that information.
“˜So what’s the alternative, sit on our hands and do nothing?’, is often the exasperated question I get in response. Without claiming to have an alternative to solving the suffering of those living in the midst of violence, I think it could be helpful to discern between that suffering and the anomie(4) many outsiders experience when being confronted with these harsh sides of reality. To address that anomie, it might be helpful to integrate some more nuanced notions of what it means to be “˜human’ in the human rights worldview. It might also be worthwhile to look at other worldviews, which perceive human suffering as at times unpreventable tragedies, demanding resilience instead of action. Discerning between ones’ own needs and that of the people whose suffering one seeks to relieve, may furthermore prevent the damage caused by raising high hopes that cannot be met. For when there is one thing to say against raising high hopes for outside help, it is that it stops people in planning for their own survival.
That the UN plane was not able to take on board all the Timorese in the compound is a harsh but inevitable reality. But by creating the false hope that the UN would be there to help, it delayed people in their flight to safety.
When Jaoa was put into a similar position for the second time, and the UN told him that only one of the twenty local staff members could be evacuated, Jaoa and his colleagues decided to all go and hide in the woods. They survived in the mountains and came down after two months.
(1) See Peter Redfield, “˜A less modest witness: collective advocacy and motivated truth in a medical humanitarian movement’, in American Ethnologist, volume 33, number 1, February 2005, (3-28): p 7.
(2) For example during a lecture to students of CUNY’s Graduate Centre that I attended in November 2009.
(3) For example during a public lecture for Oxfam Novib that I attended on September 21, 2009.
(4) Anomie, is a sociological term meaning “personal feeling of a lack of norms; normlessness”. Anomie in common parlance is thought to mean something like “at loose ends.” (Wikipedia)