Richard Wilson has presented me with the beautiful, hardcover edition of his recent Cambridge University Press book, Humanitariaism and Suffering: The Mobilization of Empathy, co-edited with our Storrs colleague, Richard Brown, a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of History at UCONN and Director of the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute. I have appended the Table of Contents, which should make clear what an ambitious undertaking this was. Authors come from England, France, Canada, Argentina and the United States.
In their thorough and elegant introduction, our two Richards, set forth fascinating themes developed in a variety of historical contexts within the chapters. First, the introduction identifies two distinct historical approaches that champions of the human spirit have adopted in seeking to provide assistance to those in need. One, which the authors call "Humanitariasm" is sparked by overall empathy for those who are suffering. Its emphasis is the obligation of those in power to act to alleviate suffering. In recent history this theme has been most evident in the question of when powerful states should intervene to protect those suffering under repressive regimes or within internal conflicts. Of course, as the authors skillfully detail, such feelings may be manipulated by those in power in one state to justify intervention in the affairs of another. Yet this danger cannot reduce the moral imperative often felt by those outside a conflict to rescue those within.
The second approach, more familiar in our contemporary context, is what the authors label the "human rights" movement. In this more modern way of thinking, the agency of the suffering individuals moves to the foreground, and the rights of those suffering replaces the sympathy of those less affected as the dominant motif. Of course, the editors are entirely aware of the overlap between the two approaches they identify, the somewhat artificial nature of the distinction, and the impossiblity of ever fully separating "humanitarian" from "human rights" concerns. Nonetheless, they offer the two approaches as a lens through which the reader might better understand the many different sorts of concerns that motivate people to act on behalf of others.
As the book's title suggests, our editors are particularly interested in what they have identified as the "humanitarian" approach. In particular, the introduction next turns profitably to the question of what sorts of appeals might best motivate communities outside the locus of suffering to act on behalf of victims. In simpler terms, how can people be rallied to care about far away strangers? The editors highlight the ways the book's chapters consider this theme in different contexts, with particular emphasis placed on the contrast between the "sentimental narrative" and the marshalling of evidence. Unsurprisingly, the sentimental approach focusing on harm to a particular person has time and again proven more effective at mobilizing concern. Yet the authors are wary of abandoning the need to document the historical context that produced the suffering. They provide support both for the effectiveness of the victim's plea and the attractiveness of more universal demands for justice. It would be hard to imagine a more compelling entree into what is no doubt a series of compelling chapters. Congratulations to Professors Wilson and Brown. Bravo! Jeremy