Emotions and the Precarious History of International Humanitarianism

By Emma Hutchison, The University of Queensland

Today, 19 August 2017, marks World Humanitarian Day, a day that celebrates the compassionate achievements of countless individuals and humanitarian movements throughout history and around the world. Sponsored by the United Nations (UN), World Humanitarian Day pays tribute to aid workers who risk their safety to assist those in dire need.

For this year’s campaign, the UN reaffirms that all civilians – local populations and humanitarian workers – are #NotATarget. Specifically, this year’s theme focuses on ‘a path to protection’: how to enhance efforts to protect civilians and relief workers who are innocently caught in crises. Civilians and aid workers are being increasingly targeted during conflicts, despite unanimously ratified laws of war that were created to safeguard their right to protection.

But it is not new for humanitarian aid workers to be caught in the crossfire when it comes to conflict and violence. Nor for aid workers to be openly targeted for seeking to change what are often longstanding historical social trends that perpetuate heinous human wrongs.

The very first humanitarians were scorned, and treated as outcasts. The term ‘humanitarian’ emerged in 1844; at this time, to identify or to be labelled as such was to chance a potentially precarious fate.[1] The first humanitarians fought for the abolition of slavery, to recognise colonial violence, and for rights for women.[2] But, if found out, humanitarians were often persecuted alongside those whose rights they were fighting for.

Consider one of the first humanitarian campaigns, beginning in the eighteenth century: the abolitionist movement to de-legalise the slave trade. The first abolitionists campaigned subversively, only recognising their fellow anti-slavery proponents by the wearing of the now well-known Josiah Wedgwood medallion.[3]

Figure 1. ‘Am I Not A Man And A Brother? Medallion crafted as part of anti-slavery campaign by Josiah Wedgwood, 1787. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Figure 1. ‘Am I Not A Man And A Brother? Medallion crafted as part of anti-slavery campaign by Josiah Wedgwood, 1787. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

More than half a century later, Wedgwood’s image and its appeal to a common humanity prompted it to resonate widely, in turn mobilising a key form of humanitarian sympathy and compassion. Instated as the official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society in 1795, this image was central to the abolitionist movement well into the 1800s.

 

Figure 2. An adaption of Wedgwood’s original medallion which was published on the cover of the Annual Report of the Edinburgh Ladies Emancipation Society, 1866. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Figure 2. An adaption of Wedgwood’s original medallion which was published on the cover of the Annual Report of the Edinburgh Ladies Emancipation Society, 1866. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Representations such as the Wedgewood image are a manifestation of the rising humanitarian tide throughout history. Since then, the plight of sufferers and the efforts of aid workers who campaign and provide relief have been represented in a multitude of ways.[4] And humanitarianism as a moral ideal has indeed come a long, long way: not only has humanitarianism become socially accepted, but also, over time, it has become expected.

But how did the emergence and eventual rise of humanitarianism come about? How did social ideals and norms transform to the extent that the spirit of compassion is now celebrated on its own designated ‘World Humanitarian Day’?

 

As significant as humanitarian principles and actions have become, the course and factors that have influenced – and continue to influence – the conception and rise of international humanitarianism are yet to be fully understood. One pervasive and crucial, yet so far not thoroughly appreciated, aspect of humanitarianism stands out in particular: emotions.

Emotions have been considered fundamental to humanitarian narratives and practices since their inception. Historians, for instance, speak of the guilt and shame,[5] the ‘arousing sympathy’,[6] and the ‘irresistible compassion’[7] that moved people in modern times to rethink ideas of cruelty and seek to eradicate human hardship. In this sense, scholars hint that the history of humanitarianism can be conceived of through an increasingly organised ethic of ‘compassion across boundaries’.[8]

Ultimately, emotions and humanitarianism go hand-in-hand. How audiences feel for sufferers in times of crisis and hardship influences how they reach out and mobilise help.[9] Think of the devastation and death detailed in media reports of natural disasters. Or victims of sustained human rights abuses. Or the homeless person you pass every day on the street. Feelings inform our perceptions and thoughts about these tragedies.

 

 

Figure 3. Head Surgeon of the Combined Support Group-Indonesia, US Navy Lieutenant Commander Loring Issaac Perry, takes a moment to comfort an Indonesian women and her child who lost everything they had during the Tsunami in the city of Meulaboh on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. Photograph attributed to Pfc. Nicholas T. Howes, USMC / 1 January 2005.
Figure 3. Head Surgeon of the Combined Support Group-Indonesia, US Navy Lieutenant Commander Loring Issaac Perry, takes a moment to comfort an Indonesian women and her child who lost everything they had during the Tsunami in the city of Meulaboh on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. Photograph attributed to Pfc. Nicholas T. Howes, USMC / 1 January 2005.

Humanitarianism can in this sense be conceived of as the enactment of historically changing emotional meanings – that is, the gradual transformation in the meaning of suffering and how we should respond when witnessing extreme hardship and pain.

Historically, western Christian societies conceived of pain as an inescapable and thus redemptive human experience. As Elizabeth Clark puts it, the ‘bleeding body… was both a confirmation and a link to divinity’.[10] If encountered, pain and suffering were to be stoically, even if unpleasantly, endured: ‘suffer in this life,’ people believed, ‘and you would not be suffering in the next’.

Yet, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the understanding of pain as a pathway to spiritual enlightenment was questioned.[11] The advent of modern medical practices gave rise to a heightened capacity to alleviate pain. This fundamentally changed understandings of what it meant to suffer: pain was transformed from a constructive life experience leading to spiritual growth into an abhorrent one.

The affective dynamics associated with encountering bodies in pain are in this way crucial: emotional transformations underlie the development of humanitarian sensibilities, narratives and mobilisations.

The expanded awareness of pain’s effects and the heightened ability to prevent suffering functioned to promote a newfound sympathy for suffering. Sympathy at the sight of suffering gradually became a ‘feeling rule’,[12] overturning previous indifference or even apathy for the suffering other. Put differently, to feel compassionate when faced with the suffering of another gradually came to define what it meant to be human and ‘humane’.[13] To have sympathy for suffering strangers was to have humanity; to be ‘coldly indifferent to suffering’ was to be seen as ‘less than human’.[14]

But, of course, humanitarianism’s story does not end there. Much of the current humanitarian protection regime has grown from such compassionate emotions: in the twentieth century, human rights issues such as refugee law and policy, and a broad humanitarian agenda – from a ‘right of relief’ after disaster to a ‘right of protection’ – have expanded such that humanitarian ethics are now important to domestic and international governance, legitimacy and order.

Yet, this does not mean that sympathy for suffering, as well as ensuing humanitarian actions, are unconditional.[15] How audiences are emotionally attached, and consequently feel for others, has always been (and always will be) bound by culture and context, time and space.[16] This is important on today’s global stage, where commentators suggest that the resurgence of populist and nationalistic politics cast a shadow over humanitarianism’s future. But this is also why an appreciation of the linkages between emotions and humanitarianism is necessary and invaluable. Understanding how emotions can abet or preclude humanitarian mobilisations during times of human need better equips local and global communities to tackle humanitarian dilemmas in the future.

And, after all, humanitarianism and the types of emotional dynamics that support compassionate politics have fended off arguably far more precarious periods in history before.

Emma Hutchison is a Research Fellow in the School of Political Science and International Studies at The University of Queensland. Her work focuses on emotions and trauma in world politics, particularly in relation to security, humanitarianism and international aid. She has published on these and related topics in numerous academic journals and scholarly books. Her book Affective Communities in World Politics: Collective Emotions After Trauma was published by Cambridge University Press in 2016.

[1] Margaret Abruzzo, Polemical Pain: Slavery, Cruelty, and the Rise of Humanitarianism (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2011), pp. 1–15; Michael Barnett, Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011), p. 50.

[2] See Abruzzo, Polemical Pain; Alan Lester and Fae Dussart, Colonization and the Origins of Humanitarian Governance: Protecting Aborigines Across Nineteenth Century British Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Abagail Green, ‘Humanitarianism in Nineteenth Century Context: Religious, Gendered, National’, The Historical Journal 57.4 (2012): 1157–175.

[3] Mary Guyatt, ‘The Wedgwood Slave Medallion’, Journal of Design History 13.2 (2000), 93–94.

[4] Thomas W. Laquer, ‘Bodies, Details, and the Humanitarian Narrative’, in The New Cultural History, ed. by Lynn Hunt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

[5] Ruth Leys, From Guilt to Shame: Auschwitz and After (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[6] Richard Ashby Wilson and Richard D. Brown, ‘Introduction’, in Humanitarianism and Suffering: The Mobilization of Empathy, ed. by Richard Ashby Wilson and Richard D. Brown (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 10.

[7] Norman S. Fiering, ‘Irresistable Compassion: An Aspect of Eighteenth-Century Sympathy and Compassion’, Journal of the History of Ideas 37.2 (1976): 195-218.

[8] Barnett, Empire of Humanity, p. 19; Rebecca Gill, ‘Networks of Concern, Boundaries of Compassion: British Relief in the South African War’, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 40.5 (2010): 827–44.

[9] Luc Boltanski, Distant Suffering: Politics, Morality and the Media, trans. Graham Burchell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[10] Elizabeth B Clark, ‘“The Sacred Rights of the Weak”: Pain, Sympathy, and the Culture of Individual Rights in Antebellum America’, Journal of American History 82.2 (1995), 471.

[11] Joanna Bourke, The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[12] Arlie Russel Hochschild, The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), pp. 56–63.

[13] Abruzzo, Polemical Pain, pp. 10–14; Fiering, ‘Irresistable Compassion’, p. 196.

[14] Fiering, ‘Irresistable Compassion’, pp. 196, 212.

[15] See Robert G. Boddice, ‘Introduction: Hurt Feelings?’, in Pain and Emotion in Modern History, ed. by Robert G. Boddice (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

[16] Jo Labanyi, ‘Doing Things: Emotions, Affect, and Materiality’, Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies 11.3–4 (2010): 223–33; Monique Scheer, ‘Are Emotions a Kind of Practice (and is That What Makes Them Have a History)?’, History and Theory 51.2 (2012): 193–220.

 

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