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Cruel Humanitarians

This post is part of a history of a human rights class reading list. See more reviews under the human rights tag.

In Polemical Pain: Slavery, Cruelty, and the Rise of Humanitarianism, Margaret Abruzzo examines the contested origins of the idea of humanitarianism by investigating the proslavery and antislavery debates over the meaning of pain. This is an excellent work for understanding not only the intellectual development of the pro and antislavery positions, but also for breaking apart the concept of humanitarianism, to understand it as a contested and not static term.

She begins with a discussion of the role of the Quakers in developing the idea of sinfulness of slaveholders. For them slaveholding was not wrong because it inflicted pain, but because it created a desire for luxury, therefore bringing shame to the community. Over time this morphs into a broader understanding of the sufferer and the role of the community to alleviate suffering. Next, she examines the merging of Scottish moral philosophy with American religion, where indifference to the misery of others is sign of a moral and social breakdown. Both of these cases tend to focus on distant cruelty as the problem and not the immediate issue of slavery. Because of this it becomes much easier to fight “distant cruelties” such as the slave trade than to tackle the slavery issue at home. Finally she presents the proslavery view that argues that slavery was a moral responsibility of the slave owner to the slave, and that life outside of slavery would be harsh and cruel.

This last point is especially critical because proslavery advocates were framing slavery as benevolent (if free, the slaves would suffer, etc), which then nudged the antislavery activists toward using cruelty rhetoric too. Many antislavery activists found this rhetoric problematic because they were wanting to frame slavery in terms of human rights and equality and not in terms of pain and suffering. Because society was not ready or willing to answer those harder questions of equality, cruelty became the dominant discourse. Unfortunately the proslavery rhetoric of slavery as benevolent returns after the Civil War to shape race relations through the “myth of the happy slave” (236).

This is a critical book because it breaks apart the notion of humanitarianism and examines the debate over its meaning. This is significant because “Humanitarianism relies on a facade of self-evidence, the sense that both cruelty and humanness should be instantly recognizable to all people of goodwill” (239). The problem though is that “cruelty allowed whites to criticize slavery without asking tough questions about human rights, racial equality, or African Americans’ place in society” (239). And this problem still exists. We are better able to identify issues of suffering and pain than to deal with the larger questions about justice.

While not a book for everyone, it illuminates issues surrounding the idea of humanitarianism, both in the origin of the idea and in its future application.