The Banality of Goodness: Humanitarianism between the Ethics of Showing and the Ethics of Seeing

The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism
Lilie Chouliaraki
Cambridge: Polity, 2013. ix + 238 pp.

The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence
Susie Linfield
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. xiii + 321 pp.

Contemporary forms of humanitarianism began to emerge in Europe and the Americas in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, originating from a mixture of religious and Enlightenment ideas.1 In a context marked by the rapid rise of industrialization, urbanization, and market expansion, and the development of modern nation-states, various intellectuals, politicians, jurists, and members of the clergy adopted the language of humanitarianism to advocate social and political reforms and to push for public intervention to alleviate suffering and restore society’s moral basis.2 At the time, charity for the poor, regulations regarding child labor, the end of the slave trade, and mass education were the main ideas championed by humanitarian activists.

Today, in the twenty-first century, in the words of Michael Barnett and Thomas Weiss, “the terrain on which humanitarians walk is nourished by the forces of destruction, production, and salvation.”3 What the authors call the “forces of destruction” include the media imagery that has increased public awareness, which, in turn, has created a demand that something be done in the face of suffering that shocks the conscience. In response to them, the last several decades have seen the configuration of the “forces of salvation,” which concern moral discourses, religious beliefs, ethical commitments, and international norms that generate an obligation to help distant strangers. Finally, the “forces of production” include capitalism and the global economy, neoliberal ideology with respect to the state’s role in society, and the funding environment.4

The link between these modern forces and the emergence of humanitarian consciousness is what distinguishes the two books under review here. Focusing on the communication techniques used to represent distant suffering and especially to generate solidarity between the spectator and the suffering subject—what we may call with Richard Wilson and Richard Brown “the mobilization of empathy”—Lilie Chouliaraki’s The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism and Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence represent significant advances in our understanding of contemporary humanitarianism, and they provide order to a dizzying array of case studies and several theoretical approaches.5

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About Pierluigi Musarò

is associate professor of sociology at the University of Bologna as well as a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and the Institute for Public Knowledge, New York University. He has recently co-edited, with Paola Parmiggiani, “Beyond Humanitarian Narratives,” Sociologia della comunicazione(2013), and Media e migrazioni: Etica, estetica e politica del discorso umanitario (Franco-Angeli, 2014), exploring how humanitarian narratives are discursively dislocated from the context of humanitarian action and philanthropy in the management of migration and border control.