Visiting Professor Discusses Paradoxes of Humanitarianism

by Sidney Davis, WGST intern

Dr. Hesford begins her critique of media perceptions of Omran        Flyer for the event

On Wednesday March 20, Dr. Wendy S. Hesford, a visiting professor from Ohio State University, gave a lecture titled “Cries from Syria” Children, War & Humanitarian Recognition”.

Students and faculty from the Center for the Study of Gender & Conflict, Women and Gender Studies, Interdisciplinary Studies, Global Affairs, Cultural Studies, Sociology & Anthropology, Department of Philosophy, and Integrative Studies Programs co-sponsored this event.

Dr. Hesford projected an image of Omran Daqneesh, a Syrian child who made headlines in August 2016. His picture awakened cross-cultural consciousness as he became a symbol of Aleppo’s suffering.

To Hesford, this photograph and its public reception demonstrated a pitfall and major paradox of humanitarianism and humanitarian intervention that needs to be discussed.

“This photo [of Omran] demonstrates the transference of trauma from the child, to the very distant observer” she said. “Yet this is just one narrative of the unending suffering in Syria; what are we not acknowledging when we view a situation like this as non-normative?” she added.

In the same way, Hesford sees this image as a political statement about individual identity and how it fuels public perceptions, especially in times of crisis, war, and other modes of conflict.

“For many, limitation is a perpetual state of identity. Limitation can be an undocumented child, or a child caught in the crossfire of war,” said Hesford

According to Hesford’s research, this in turn projects youth as political activists, and vital witnesses in times of struggle and violence. Yet there are limitations over whom and which children fit these narratives.

Dr. Hesford asks the audience for how they convey empathy through these photographs

“There has been a consistent racialization of childhood and a selective view of childhood innocence overall: which children’s lives are deemed grievable, and which are not.”

This topic led Hesford to discuss how empathy is often selective to the US-consciousness in regards to history, and current events surrounding state-sponsored violence and brutality.

“Why some lives and not others? Who has access to the construct of childhood innocence, and in what ways is it limited by geopolitical thought? These are the questions we need to be asking” she said.

In the same way, this led Hesford to another critique of selective humanitarian empathy, and how it views women of the Global South, particularly communities in Southeast and South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

“[Humanitarianism can often fuel] a seemingly permanent state of emergency, and a mandatory need for U.S. recognition and intervention to help women of the Global south, which builds on the notion of a nation as a victim. In reality, our involvement can lead to more violence” she added.

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All photographs courtesy of Christina Chantharavongsa