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)
But… you write, “Pressure for action and lack of contextual understanding make for bad peace deals.”… Your piece, if I may say, is completely devoid of context, itself. Actually, you recount an anecdote about East Timor, completely decontextualized, to make your point.
Anyone who knew anything about Sudan in 2003 knew about the famine of 1998 in Bahr al-Ghazal, and the “ethnocide” against the Nuba in the 1990s, and the endless succession of arbitrary war and killing perpetrated by successive northern regimes in the south… There was no context in 2003 that said, “But Omar al-Bashir and the ruling elite are really a misunderstood developmentalist group that just wants everyone to shut up so everyone can get rich together.” Or a context that said, “Omar al Bashir et al are African nationalists deeply embedded in a dirty game against the nasty French! Tous les mains sales.” Or that, “Nobody understands, the Arabs in Darfur are the real victims, forced to indiscriminately kill by the whining and deviousness of endless complaining Fur who refuse to understand their second-class status to just be quiet since Sudan is not their country.”
So what context is it that you think is relevant to *really* changing your evaluation of someone’s exercise of voice (for that is all it was, by Save Darfur and other activists) about the gravity and one-sidedness of the catastrophe that was unfolding? What context made it all a huge pathetic mistake?
I appreciate your response to Annetteâ€™s brilliant (in my opinion) piece, but it saddens me to think that you may have misunderstood her point.
At times, it appears to me that some advocates merely use Darfur as a â€œfootlightâ€ as they strut and fret their hour upon the stage. It is indeed a poor player that gets in the way of problem solving and conflict resolution by reducing complex situations to bumper sticker slogans, thirty second sound bites and dramatic flourishes that mischaracterize the crisis at hand.
No one doubts that there are differences of opinion as to the exact nature of the events that have transpired relative to Darfur and what the motives and intentions were that caused these events. But I do not doubt that most people want the suffering to come to an end.
So, if our first priority is to end the suffering, should we let efforts to damn the villain get in the way of that?
Thank you for your response to my posting. Itâ€™s always good to get some discussion going around these postings, if alone to learn that I need to clarify myself. And thank you Oscar for taking a role in defending my position (again!).
When talking about â€˜lack of contextual understandingâ€™, I do not mean to refer to advocates, but to the prevailing genre or structure of human rights reports, as I write in the paragraph preceding the sentence you quote: â€˜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 occurâ€™. Though there may be people who argue that some advocates also have a â€˜lack of contextual understandingâ€™, I am certainly not in the position, nor willing to argue that. On the contrary, it is my experience – having worked as advocacy officer for amongst others Oxfam – that many advocates are â€˜walking bookshelvesâ€™ where it concerns knowledge about the particular case they are advocating. It is when mobilizing the public for their case, however, that this context often gets lost. And human rights reports are key instruments in this public mobilization.
When I talk about â€˜contextâ€™, I mean to refer to historical context analysis, and to the kind of in-depth conflict analysis you find in reports from the International Crisis Group. Historical context analysis helps to understand the origins of the conflict and power divisions, as well as the underlying grievances or greed that drive groups or individuals to resort to violence. Detailed power analysis of the current actors in conflict – their political stakes, economic interests and social background – helps to understand the dynamics of the power play and conflict, and predict possible responses of actors to external interventions.
Though I am not thinking of any particular human rights report, I think it could reasonably be argued, that most human rights reports are based on a particular structure or genre. The body of most reports consists of a listing of human rights violations occurring over a certain time-span (mostly a year). They also provide some background information, but that information basically serves to help the readers understand the main lines of the narrative, one that basically comes down to identifying violations, perpetrators, and victims (you may also want to have a look at the excellent analysis of the literary genre of human rights reports by Jane Blayton in earlier postings to this blog). As far as I know, they do not provide the kind of thorough context analysis that I describe in above.
Again, this structure and style are totally understandable given the aim of these reports to mobilize public and politicians in order to `make the world a better placeâ€™. As an anthropologist however, I am also interested to find out why this particular narrative is so successful in mobilizing thousands of people around the world. Why do people respond with such outrage to the narratives displayed in these reports? How come they so strongly oppose to being â€˜passive bystanders of massacresâ€™, while their (European) ancestors would happily be bystanders and cheer at public executions only some 200 years ago? How did these profound changes in worldview and sensitivities towards suffering and cruelty come about? And to what extent are these public outrages â€“ besides a genuine wish to help others â€“ also driven by a (psychological or existential) need to defend ones worldview?
Because many of us experience direct feelings of horror and disgust in response to human rights violations, many of us hold these sensitivities to be obvious, universal, and self-evident. History and anthropology teach us they are not. However difficult it may be to take a critical look at the views and feelings we hold to be self-evident, I think it is worth the effort. For one, because it helps us discern between our own need to affirm ourselves through our call for action, and the efficacy of that call in relieving the suffering of others. And besides, because a good understanding of the social-historical background of our particular sensitivities to suffering and cruelty, will better equip us to engage in cross-cultural dialogues on the efficacy and legitimacy of humanitarian interventions.
Thanks to you very much for the nuanced reply. Your argument, if I may summarize, is this:
(1) human rights reports, used to motivate public outrage, often do not present context for their reporting of human rights abuses.
(2) it is an interesting question why a human rights report generates outrage, when in the past many people would not have cared.
(3) thinking about that interesting question helps us understand that it is possible that when we experience outrage we lose our ability to discern efficacy.
(4) And it helps us in channeling our outrage productively.
But your initial posting had a very different, and much more specific, hypothesis: “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. â€˜The casualtyâ€™, Crilly writes, â€˜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 prevailâ€™. ”
So rather than a “it is possible” and “it is interesting”, you went the further step to argue and agree with Crilly that is indeed what happened in Darfur policymaking. The ability to discern was lost (i.e., your presumption is Powell and Brown (though perhaps you meant Bush and Blair?) would have done something else had it not been for the outrage of the discerningless advocacy groups and human rights reports).
To me it is not obvious that outrage “pushed” those two powerful politicians to “close a door”… remember, these same two politicians were quite obviously taking completely shaded or unprincipled positions re. Iraq War. So they may have seen an apparent principled stand on Darfur as an element of a broader strategy. They perhaps hardly needed the push. Maybe they created the push themselves… “God, we need a feel good issue to show the world that we aren’t killers… How about Congo? No, let’s use Darfur.” Moreover, one could just as easily argue that the realists were the ones who pushed Khartoum into the corner, by giving green light to war crimes and then cynically “listening” to their inner outrage and being “shocked” at what happened. Isn’t that, after all, the April Glaspie theory of the Kuwait war? My point is not that it is factual etc., but rather a claim to *know* what causes a handful of powerful politicians to act in certain ways is usually pretty flimsy.
So maybe change the sentence to:
“This public outrage and simplification may have pushed leading politicians like Colin Powell and Gordon Brown to take the kind of principled positions that may have closed doors on workable solutions, rather than opening them. â€˜The casualtyâ€™, Crilly writes, â€˜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 prevailâ€™. Of course, Crilly could also have noted that the realist non-advocacy groups, working hard at Abuja and Sirte, did not succeed either, and may have given the regime in Khartoum more time and space to consolidate its power.”