The culture of humanitarianism is a way in which humanitarian practises and experiences are represented, narrated and performed. Culture in general is produced and shaped by society and people, together with their behaviours and traditions, who are a part of it. Therefore, the culture of humanitarianism is as well a dynamic product of the society and its different dimensions, such as religion, morals, politics, media and other. One of the morality dimensions is compassion, which remains a key value claimed by anthropologists in their representation of other humans that goes across cultural difference. This essay is going to take a closer look at this dimension through anthropological perspective and argue how it influences and shapes the culture of humanitarianism.
Compassion is defined as “an interpersonal process involving noticing, feeling, sense-making, and acting that alleviates the suffering of another person”, or in other words it is a combination of heart and reason creating sympathy felt for other’s misfortune and the moral obligation to remedy it. Compassion is viewed as one of the underlying reasons why people decide to engage in humanitarian and charitable actions. In spite of the fact that we tend to think of compassion and compassionate helping as a virtuous and righteous, as it leads to alleviating others’ suffering, the literature on humanitarianism and compassion draws attention to its both positive and negative aspects, which are interconnected and led by paradoxes associated with power imbalances and inequalities inherent to humanitarian and charitable work. This essay is going to explore and discuss a few paradoxes of compassionate help with some of the examples based on an ethnographical study by Guinea-Martin of two charitable organisations distributing food to the homeless in an Italian city, and referring to other anthropological and ethnographic research on compassion and its paradoxes.
To begin with, it is essential to understand that in humanitarian or charitable organisations the act of help is exercised from above to below, from rich to poor, meaning from those who are in power to those who have little or nothing, which already at the start implies there exist a power imbalance and inequalities between the actors. And although many perceive power in terms of domination and constraints, and power imbalance as something negative and belittling for the beneficiaries, some degree of it, where power is understood as having abilities and resources, such as money, knowledge or technology, that enables to provide aid in the first place, is inevitable and necessary. The literature distinguishes two types of power – power-over someone and power-to, which in turn relates to its empowering, supporting and capacities-creating features. This inseparable combination of an enabling potential and domination and belittling at the same time is one of the paradoxes of power in compassionate giving.
Another paradox which also relates to power imbalances is connected with one of the characteristics of compassionate giving, which is selflessness. Compassionate help is by default considered as not expecting anything in return, as you exercise it out of your morality and purely with a goal of helping others. However, in the circumstances of humanitarian and charitable help there is an additional characteristic to this situation, which is the fact that the beneficiaries of aid, apart from not being expected, are not able to provide anything in return. It has been argued by the researchers as well as confirmed by the subjects of research, some of them being the homeless in the study of Guinea-Martin, that this inability of repaying for a gift creates an inner obligation to feel gratitude and indebtedness, which in turn bears feelings of shame and resentment as well as losing the sense of agency (2014). As a result, in order to oppose these feelings, some of the homeless were deciding to reject the food that was distributed to them as a way of restoring their sense of agency and dignity. It seems that selfless gifts have the potential to invoke too much obligations and not serve their purpose, but bring the opposite results.
What constitutes another paradox of compassionate aid and is also related with its missed, negative results for beneficiaries is creating a “victim mentality”. Although aimed primarily at alleviating suffering, the aid should also draw attention to the interdependencies it creates among the benefactors and the receivers of aid. It has been shown that prolonged aid increases dependence of those who receive it and oftentimes they do not feel the need or motivation to provide for themselves anymore, which again relates to diminished sense of agency and responsibility for own well-being (Elisha, 2008). The question that could be asked here is how much help is too much help and when the aid can be considered to last for too long. What goes along is another question of how to incorporate restoring independence while helping and how to do it effectively.
Relating to the questions mentioned above, it is important to examine the paradoxes from the point of view of those who exercise compassionate help. Although aimed at alleviating others’ suffering, their actions may create resentment, long-lasting dependencies or rejection of aid by beneficiaries. Being exposed to such circumstances may invoke feelings of hopelessness and resentment also on their side and lead to a condition described as “compassion fatigue” which means becoming numb and disconnected from the suffering of others as a result reaching a condition of burnout. A possible solution suggested in the literature to tackle the issue of compassion fatigue is approaching the act of compassionate giving not as selfless but as a mutual exchange involving both parties and there are various ways in which people and humanitarian organisations try to apply this approach. Some of them perceive beneficiaries’ gratitude as a factor complementing mutual exchange, however, as mentioned before, expecting gratitude may invoke negative consequences.” Those who do not demonstrate the proper gratitude or will to improve are morally suspect. Similarly, situations that fail to respond to repeated interventions provoke talk of “compassion fatigue. The literature also address keeping an emotional distance and not having expectations in order to avoid fatigue, but also not to humiliate and shame the recipient. Therefore, other organisations introduce tools for maintaining accountability of the beneficiaries for the aid provided, such as provision of receipts for the money distributed or proof of active search for means to provide for themselves, e.g. looking for a job, and restoring sense of independence and responsibility for their own well-being.
Some philosophers tried to introduce a different notion of help which is deferring from compassionate approach inherent with tensions between power and emotions and moving to an egalitarian approach, as a notion that promotes equality and solidarity between the givers and the receivers, solving issues of power imbalances. In the study on Italian charitable organisations one of the differences between them was the approach to the homeless they served differed. One of the organisations identified themselves as egalitarian and treated exchange with the homeless more casual, trying to engage in personal conversations, whereas the second organisation followed a strict set of rules, e.g. the homeless were not allowed to take food themselves, they had to wait to be served, conversations between them did not touch on personal topics and were very brief. Surprisingly, the homeless persons interviewed stated they preferred distribution events with the latter organisation. They perceived the former’s as both emotionally and mentally demanding, as they had to force disattention from the reality of the situation which involved people of different status and oftentimes felt fake. There exists a theory that tight social occasions give greatest freedom to the participants – because of the strict rules and directives the homeless had to follow, it brought a sense of involvement, participation and mutual exchange, which in turn allowed them to have a better experience in overall. This phenomenon shows how struggling for solidarity and equal treatment may bring about opposite results. The literature suggests for those who organise and participate in this kind of events to remain aware of the context and characteristics of the participants and attempt to balance power relations in a way adjusted to these factors. However, as it is still a very vague solution, it is difficult to give a right or wrong answer as to what the right balance and evaluation of the context is.
Although the literature tries to provide solutions for handling these paradoxes and tensions through means such as changing the way we perceive act of compassionate giving from selfless to one involving mutual exchange between both parties and points out the need for constantly balancing power relations accordingly and adjusted to the context, benefactors and beneficiaries given. Furthermore, Bornstein also makes a distinction between a pure compassionate gift, which requires annulment of any relationships between a giver and a receiver, any interests or obligations, and humanitarianism itself which focuses on rights as well as social and moral obligations of the recipients (2009), therefore distinguishing the idea of selfless compassionate giving from humanitarianism. To add to this point, a further, detailed exploration of motives that contribute and influence people’s decisions to engage in this kind of work and investigation of the concept of compassion, along with exploring how these motivations influence the way help is exercised and the end results.
Compassion is a dimension of society that produces and shapes the culture of humanitarianism in various ways. It brings people to engage and practice charitable and humanitarian actions in order to alleviate others’ suffering, however it also has a potential to negatively impact the participants of those actions, their benefactors as well as beneficiaries. What is more, often these two phenomena occur simultaneously and are interconnected. The relations between compassion, power and emotions are inherently led by tensions, which shape the culture of helping and through that of humanitarianism. It needs to be recognized that compassionate help and giving is full of paradoxes, in its conceptual dimension as well as in the results that it brings, and there is no right answer on how to resolve them. The literature stresses the need for humanitarians and those who exercise charitable help to understand and accept, as well as continuously raise the awareness of its transcending nature in order to provide aid and alleviate suffering in the best, most helpful and least harmful way possible.
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