Monday, October 10, 2011

On Love and Humanism

Che Guevara: With his family, holding his baby (left and/or right?)

I want to explore a fundamental question about the way we treat other human beings.  It is a simple question, but one that ultimately, I think is critical for anyone with humanitarian pretensions, with a desire to ‘save the world’.  It is this: is loving someone compatible with loving humanity?  That is, can you love a single person while also loving people at large? 

French philosopher Jacques Derrida, examining Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics, once wrote:
It is not possible to love while one is simultaneously, at the same time (áma), the friend of numerous others (to de pollois áma einai phílon kai to phileîn kōlúei); the numerous ones, the numerous others – this means neither number nor multiplicity in general but too great a number, a certain determined excess of units.  It is possible to love more than one person, Aristotle seems to concede; to love in number, but not too much so – not too many.  It is not the number that is forbidden, nor the more than one, but the numerous, if not the crowd.
Depending on your interpretation, it is either impossible to love while one is in love with the crowd, or it is merely impossible to love the crowd – that is, humanity. 

Let’s step back down from the heights of philosophy to some practical historical and contemporary examples.  In the 1960s and 1970s in America, and arguably even today in many parts of the world, Che Guevara powerfully symbolized a love for humanity.  A doctor and revolutionary who sacrificed his life for the cause of justice, he once famously said, “Let me say, at the cost of seeming ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by sentiments of love.”  For the moment, let’s ignore the problem of Guevara killing his enemies in guerrilla warfare (a problem common to any military struggle that either takes the enemy to lie outside of humanity, or envisions violence as part of the constitution of its own humanity).  Let’s instead focus (perhaps ‘speculate’ is a better word) on the relationship between Guevara’s love for humanity and his love for his family – his father, mother, wife, and children.  Of course, Guevara was quite often separated from his family while attempting to spark Marxist revolution across Latin America and Africa.  His love was distant, as his personal letters reveal:

[To his parents] I have loved you very much, only I have not known how to express my affection.  I am extremely rigid in my actions, and I think that sometimes you did not understand me.

[To his children, from Bolivia in 1966] Right now I want to tell you that I love you all very much and I remember you always, along with mama, although the younger ones I almost only know through photos, as they were very tiny when I left.

[To Dr. Aleida Coto Martínez of the Cuban Ministry of Education] Sometimes we revolutionaries are lonely.  Even our children look on us as strangers.  They see less of us than of the soldier on sentry duty, whom they call ‘uncle.’ 

[To a Spanish woman with the surname Guevara] I don’t think you and I are very closely related, but if you are capable of trembling with indignation each time that an injustice is committed in the world, we are comrades, and that is more important (my emphasis). 

We see in Che’s personal letters the tensions between a revolutionary love for humanity and a love for his family.  He spent so much time away that he and his children became something like strangers to each other.  As much as he sent his love to them through his letters, his fatherly love was absent in everyday life.  And, as he suggests to a Spanish Ms. Guevara, being a comrade was more important to him than being family.  Guevara is not alone in history for dealing with this tension.  Karl Marx, born middle class, became so dedicated to his philosophical work that his family fell into poverty, reliant on the earnings from his colleague Friedrich Engels’ father, a mill owner in Manchester. 

I’m not interested in condemning these historical figures for neglecting their families, nor in attempting to argue that their relative neglect of their families somehow undermines the quality of their philosophy and work.  But the contradiction between a love of one’s family and a love of Man asks serious questions about the meanings of ‘love’ and ‘humanism’.  When we implicitly claim a ‘love of Man’ (literally: ‘philanthropy’), do we mean the same kind of ‘love’ that we would have for a parent, a child, or a partner?  Is a humanist as obligated to a stranger on the street as she is to her mother?  We could argue that she is merely asked to show a certain level of civic respect and responsibility to the stranger.  But, as physician-anthropologist Didier Fassin has shown in his anthropology of humanitarian reason, even this common-sense logic can be torn apart in times of crisis or emergency.  In what he calls the ‘inequality of life’, Fassin points out the underlying inequalities that separate not only aid workers from their beneficiaries, but Western aid workers from local aid workers.  When, for example, imminent danger appears locally, international aid agencies usually evacuate their foreign personnel, leaving (in some cases) local staff to be killed.  This kind of ‘lifeboat’ ethics – in which international aid workers are saved over local ones, or mothers are saved over strangers – contradicts the theory of humanism.  Despite our liberal claims that human beings are born equal and have equal rights, we always privilege those closer to us in some way. 

For those of you with interest or experience in international humanitarian work, this dilemma sounds familiar.  I’ve spoken with many doctors who find it difficult to commit to global health as anything but an idealistic pursuit of young physicians.  Love keeps them tied to friends and family in the United States, making a permanent and wholehearted commitment to global medical work (i.e. a globe of unmet medical need) nearly impossible.  Programs like the Global Health Equity residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital allow medical residents to train both in Boston and abroad.  But even if their employers are supportive, it can no doubt be hard to convince partners and even young children to move abroad for many months at a time.  This no doubt in part explains the popularity of programs like Operation Smile, which – like military missions –swiftly jet in and out of areas where people do not have access to modern biomedical care.  It’s little surprise that many of these types of organizations (Partners in Health excluded) emphasize intermittent specialized care over the establishment of national and regional primary care networks. 

It’s tempting to expose humanism as a farcical or at least idealistic ideology, similar to human rights, the United Nations, and so forth.  Great in theory, but doesn’t work in practice.  But why doesn’t it work?  Beyond the geopolitical decisions that undermine these institutions, there is a sense that these concepts require a sacrifice –a self-sacrifice* – that asks too much, that asks us to be superhuman or even nonhuman.  It asks us to place our child’s needs equally next to that of a stranger’s, to forsake a family’s love for a love of humanity.  Certain institutions – the US armed forces, for example – ask their recruits to adopt this philosophy of sacrifice, although usually only temporarily.  Charismatic figures like Guevara sacrificed their love for and desire to be with their families for a love of humanity.  Otherwise we can perhaps only think of machines as capable of responding equally to different individuals. 

I am convinced that it is impossible to love a single person while also loving humanity.  But perhaps more useful than this is to understand that such a contradiction is an eminently modern problem, in part created by webs of responsibility and dependence through the spindle of a globalized capitalist mode of production.  Simply, we would find it difficult to think of ourselves as somehow responsible for the well being of distant others prior to establishing ourselves in relation to them, and in particular, in modes of domination characterized by colonialism, imperialism, class, and so forth.  They are, as I frame them, also problems of a Western intellectual tradition that insists on the equality of Man (contrasting, for example, Indian caste or African networks of patronage).  Even if we were to establish ourselves as dominant to others, it is primarily through the liberal concept of the rights of man born in liberal Enlightenment that we establish the basis for our practice of domination to contradict our ethics of care for others.  Essentially, the idea that we should even be bothered by dominating others is a socially constructed idea. 

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on whether you think one can be truly ‘humanitarian’ while being in love - if we are able to simultaneously love one and love all.  Or does loving one merely expose the farce of ‘humanity’ and the impossibility of being humanitarian? 
*We should be careful to recognize the culturally specific Judeo-Christian roots of the ideas of ‘sacrifice’ and ‘humanity’.  For ‘sacrifice’, recall the Abraham and Isaac parable, in which Abraham’s faith in God is tested when he is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac for God.  For ‘humanity’, we can turn to Auguste Comte’s ‘Religion of Humanity’.  This notion of ‘humanity’ arose as secular rejection of Christianity, put Man in the place of God and calling for his worship.  Despite rejecting the idea of God, ‘humanity’ as a concept is still molded within Christian philosophy. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Starving African Child: What do you see? How do you feel? What are you going to do?

I apologize.  The picture above is difficult to look at.  It was taken by Kevin Carter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, in 1993 in Sudan, as a starving child attempted to reach a famine relief center.  A vulture lies ominously in the background, waiting for what seems to be a certain death. 

What do you see? 
We’re confronted by images of absolute suffering like these all the time, particularly through charity appeals.  As anthropologist Liisa Malkki has noted, these images often depict the pain of innocent children.  They cannot be child soldiers or espouse any political stance, since this would betray their innocence by implying that they chose to die or suffer for a greater cause.  They can only rarely be replaced by adults, and if so, they are almost guaranteed to be the ‘fairer sex’ that is supposedly naturally nonviolent and loving.  If I sound like the director of a product commercial, making sure that I ‘sell’ the product as best I can, then perhaps there’s more in common between a Christian charity relief appeal and the commercial that follows it on an average cable network.

In 1967, French philosopher Guy Debord wrote an important work called ‘Society of the Spectacle’.  He suggested that, in this age of mass media and consumerism, our senses have been so numbed that reality itself has become mediated through images.  His work is a variation on Karl Marx’s idea of the fetish.  By this, I’m not talking about sexual fetishes (the analysis of which I’ll leave to Freud); rather, I mean that what are social relations between people are replaced by social relations between things.  We may not realize it, but (in Marx’s eyes) we fetishize these human relations everyday.  How many times do we see a fancy car on the street, admiring the car itself without thinking of the people who built it, those who collected rubber to produce its tires, those who dug the oil wells to provide the petrol to make it run?  When we come to relate to things, and not the people behind those things, we become fetishizers and in Marx’s eyes, further away from our humanity. 

What do YOU see in this picture?  I see a starving African baby, so malnourished and so disfigured as to be hardly human at all.  But what I don’t see are the conditions that created this situation, this thing that shocks us.  As Alex de Waal, a prominent scholar of Africa, has argued, famines are rarely if ever the product of natural causes like droughts, and if they are, they can often be predicted well in advance and addressed via preventive action.  Starvation is a result of human causes, of human actions and relations like politics and violence that turn people into things both in reality and in images.  As I examine below, looking at images in this way forces us to think about our own action or inaction in the creation and perpetuation of suffering.

How do you feel? 
Pictures like these meant to shock, to act on the emotions in a particular way.  Luc Boltanski, an eminent French sociologist, has talked about two emotions generated by this type of image – pity and compassion.  Pity, he argues, is a strictly emotional response that is generated by distant suffering.  It is sentimental, distinguishing only between who suffers and who doesn’t.  It doesn’t stop to ask if the misery is justified or not, but urgently rushes to action against suffering.  Compassion, on the other hand, is less emotional and less distant.  To have compassion requires a face-to-face meeting between the sufferer and the compassionate person, to have a real presence. 

Pictures like the one above are used in a variety of ways, as Susan Sontag reminds us.  They can be employed as propaganda, both by pacifists and war hawks, to end or go to war.  They can shock us into action, usually by donating money to a famine relief fund.  They can become part of an art gallery and turn into what has been called ‘disaster pornography’, in which the image of the suffering of another is exploited for financial or other gain.  Although we all have different reactions to images like these, a common response is that such images can tug on our emotions rather than our reason – they can urge us to feel and to act, not to stop to think and ask questions.  Such was the case during the blockade of Biafra, a secessionist region of Nigeria, in 1968.  The Biafran government, keen to attract Western goodwill to its cause, hired an American public relations firm that exploited images of suffering to aid the Biafran cause.  Rather than helping us understand the conflict, these images merely created for us divisions of good Biafrans against evil Nigerians.  But in such a complex world, should uninformed understandings of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ determine our morals and ethics? 

What are you going to do? 
This is where we come to the real ethical moment – the moment when our sense of right and wrong is challenged.  My own ethics when it comes to suffering is largely dependent on the history of that suffering.  Let me give you an example.  You may have seen a popular appeal from a Christian charity on television that profiles the suffering of a very young Guatemalan girl and asks us to sponsor her school fees. As an American citizen, I find this difficult.  I know that in 1954, the CIA, with the support of Chiquita, orchestrated a coup against the democratically elected socialist president of Guatemala who was trying to institute land reform to help bridge the gap between poor peasants and rich landowners.  I know that the famous revolutionary Che Guevara was in Guatemala at this time, and inspired by the injustice he felt was being committed, later helped overthrow Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, establishing a socialist state that spends more of its money on education than the US and whose current literacy rate is higher than that of the US.  So when I am asked to donate, I am more than a little cynical.  I wonder what might have been if the CIA had not overthrown a democratically elected government.  And I wonder if my own money is being asked to counteract the consequences of that spent by the US government more than fifty years ago.  I take the child to be a fetish – the perfectly innocent thing that demands my action while hiding history and politics outside the picture. 

Another problem with acting on this type of suffering is the form in which I am asked to act – that is, to give money.  Marx, and more recently, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, have been critical of these efforts of the middle class to help the exploited poor. 

In the Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx provided a stinging critique of charity:
A part of the bourgeoisie [the middle classes] is desirous of redressing social grievances in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society.  To this section belong economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organisers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole-and-corner reformers of every imaginable kind…The Socialistic bourgeois want all the advantages of modern social conditions without the struggles and dangers necessarily resulting therefrom [that is, the revolt of the working class and poor]. They desire the existing state of society, minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. They wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat [the working class].

Marx is referring to the fact that the upper classes who give charity rarely understand how their own actions contribute to the suffering of the working class.  Žižek states this case well, calling this the ‘liberal trap of “humanitarian help” ‘.  This trap is a type of ethic that permits a ruthless pursuit of profit as long as it is counteracted with charity – avoiding the issue of complicity and co-responsibility for the misery of the poor.  Žižek points us to the case of George Soros, who made his billions through hedge funds (an exemplary form of capitalist exploitation) and yet is strongly dedicated to philanthropy.  According to Žižek, Soros gives away with one hand what he stole with the other.  This type of hypocritical charity is not limited to the megarich.  At Berkeley, I am constantly reminded how we are asked to consume in order to solve problems of poverty through campaigns like the anti-HIV ‘(Red)’ or the anti-domestic violence movement ‘Shop till it Stops!’.  In promoting consumption as a solution to poverty, we forget that consumption (as part of the capitalist mode of production) is also a cause of poverty.  Not only that, but we end up coming to the aid of another by engaging with things, fetishes.  Buying a t-shirt substitutes for self-sacrifice, political change, or face-to-face help for another human being. 

I am, no doubt, cynical about charity.  But I have trouble with the idea of rationally explaining away the suffering before me.  Can I really dismiss it as a hypocritical appeal, turning away a child just like that?  As with my patient, I’m confronted by the immediate suffering before me and the structural inequalities that create it, and which are perpetuated by a ready acceptance to act in ethically questionable ways.  By consuming to save this child, I implicitly underwrite the system of production that produces this suffering, agreeing to wipe away the historical and political inequalities that have created such misery.  But what do you do when a suffering child asks you for money to go to school?  Or a mentally ill homeless man asks for spare change to buy a meal?  Is it unethical to give them money, thereby letting the government off the hook of providing free public education, healthcare, and low-cost housing for all?  Is it unethical to point to structures, politics, and histories to divest myself of personal responsibility for the child or homeless man? 

I don’t have an answer.  I’d like to hear from you to understand how you react to images of suffering, and what you do.  This is indeed a serious ethical dilemma of individual bourgeois responsibility for suffering in the world.  For some, like Kevin Carter, it is a matter of life or death.  The photographer was so haunted by, among other problems, the images of suffering he encountered that he committed suicide in 1994, a little over a year after taking this iconic picture.