Defining humanitarianism / by KirstenStudio

triage456I know the last several entries have been focused on the same subject, but I believe mulling over humanitarianism is worth considerable thought. Earlier this year, I went to see Dr. James Orbinski M.D. speak.  The former President of Doctors Without Borders was at an Upper West Side theatre to promote his book An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action for the Twenty-First Century. At the time I was deep into reading about Afghanistan since I was editing a piece that focused on Afghan women and children.  Recently though I went to see the Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders documentary (as previously blogged) and it reminded me I had purchased Mr. Orbinski's book. I opened it up a few nights ago and found myself rereading the following section about humanitarianism, "In our choice to be with those who suffer, compassion leads not simply to pity but to solidarity.  Through pity we respond to the other as a kind of object, and can assume a kind of apolitical stance on the causes of and the conditions that create such suffering, as though these lie somehow outside the responsibility of politics, and as though charity and philanthropy are adequate responses. In being with the victim, one refuses to accept what is an unacceptable assault on the dignity of the other, and thus on the self. Humanitarianism involves an insistence that international humanitarian law be applied and a call to others to act as citizens to demand that government respect basic human dignity, and to demand a minimum respect for human life. Solidarity also means recognizing the dignity and autonomy of others, and asserting the right of others to make choices about their own destiny. Humanitarianism is about the struggle to create the space to be fully human.

That passage definitely gave me something to think about the projects I work on as an editor and how to shape stories and give dignity and a respectful voice to the people in them.  Watching Living in Emergency gave me perspective in a similar way too.  At any given moment life and death happen on these doctor's missions and they have to accept these circumstances and have to be able to move on.  Often, it seems, there is no time for a doctor to make a human connection with their patients and maybe even sometimes its to painful to not to see a dying patient as an object, just in order to get through the day in one piece. Of course I would have no idea never having been close to that kind of environment,  however, somehow Dr. Orbinski seems to find a way there despite the profound suffering and cruelty he has witnessed.  It makes me wonder if in order to gain such insight into humanitarianism, a person has to experiences horrors as the Rwandan genocide or the Afghanistan war, otherwise those of us who aren't directly exposed will turn off the television or close our browser when it gets too difficult to ingest.

One thing I do recommend though is to read An Imperfect Offering.  Although I'm only a few chapters in, I can tell you it's worth it's admission price. Though I admit it's hard to read about the horrors of his experiences, I decided not to put the book down.  I so often turn the channel when something is uncomfortable to watch, but this time I've made a conscious effort not to avoid the tough sections because I think it's important to consider that solidarity Dr. Orbinski refers to and much of the importance of solidarity is being aware of the need for it.