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The Risk of Pity and Paternalism

The potential for humanitarian action to degrade into unethical authoritarian structures, insulting discourse and unfeeling managerialism is a constant challenge. We have all seen (or been) the humanitarian worker who gradually loses respect for the mass of people we are trying to help, or been infuriated by the staunch group of complainers who always want more. For some humanitarians, the feeling is a temporary frustration. In others it is a lasting turn that renders them angry and embittered and signals that it is time for them to quit. As Harrell-Bond and many before her have understood, the source of this moral risk lies in our attitudes to others as we try to help them. In many helping relationships there is potential for a dangerous asymmetry between a powerful helper and a powerless victim. Left unchecked, this asymmetry can erode the proper humane bonds of equality and respect that form the basis of humanitarian ethics. It is often a dysfunctional pity that spreads this creeping disrespect. Such pity can then grow into paternalism, to flourish finally in various gradations of disdain towards those who suffer.

The virtue of humanity that we discussed in Chapter 2 is grounded in compassion that is distinct from pity. A sense of pity forms part of this compassion, but it is only an initial emotional prompt that causes us to reflect on a person’s suffering and extend our compassion. An ill-formed pity that persists without compassion can be profoundly patronizing, self-interested and even sadistic. Paul Ricoeur reminds us of the egotistical element in pity "in which the self is secretly pleased to know it has been spared” and begins to feel superior to those it pities.47 This superiority is the beginning of paternalism, which infantilizes people’s suffering and advocates a right of control. We have all seen instances of people becoming aggressive, interfering or strangely unsympathetic when they "help”. We have also seen people become profoundly patronizing as they assist people. Both attitudes are misguided and a dangerous insult to people’s dignity.

There is increasing evidence from neuroscience that our empathy can take two forms: one functional, and the other dysfunctional. Empathy can take the path of genuine compassion, which focuses on the person suffering and encourages positively connected and pro-social motivations; or it can turn inwards to become what Polish neuroscientist Olga Klimecki calls "empathic distress”.48 This is a self-obsessed emotion that internalizes the suffering of others. It takes their pain upon oneself to create negative feelings within the carer or observer. Empathic distress is then not surprisingly associated with burn-out, withdrawal and a feeling of being personally overwhelmed by the suffering of others. As Mark Walkup observed in a seminal paper on coping strategies in humanitar?ian organizations, this sense of being overwhelmed or disappointed that humanitarian work has not given us the good feeling we expected (and needed) starts a cycle of emotional decline in aid workers. Overwork with hints of martyrdom soon resorts to detachment and transference and reality-distortion. In the last two stages in particular, some aid workers spread blame for the dissonance between their personal expectations and the professional failure they feel. Some of this blame is imposed upon affected people themselves, who come to be regarded as the opposition rather than the goal of humanitarian work.49

The moral challenge in humanitarian relationships is to stay focused on the person, not one’s pity and self-pity, and to resist all feelings of superiority. Even in extremis, compassion should seek to act with people, not on them. This is the proper solicitude of which Ricoeur speaks, and the love to which every religion calls its followers. Such love and solicitude do not subject people to our power, but respect others as subjects in their own right and with their own rights. It is an attitude of accompaniment started in equality, which respects a person’s autonomy just as humanitarians are asked to do in the Code of Conduct. Moses Maimo- nedes, one of the greatest of all Jewish scholars, was unwavering in his suspicion of paternalism and championed autonomy as the most important way in which we can help others. Writing in the twelfth century and himself a victim of violence, dispossession and forced displacement, Maimonedes identified eight levels of charity, with the highest being one of respect and genuine "strengthening” of the other person:

 
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