Thoughts on witnessing

Posted on: January 20, 2022 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry

“I cannot be an optimist but I am a prisoner of hope”

-Cornel West, American author and activist

Thoughts on witnessing


The act of witnessing
As a first year grad student in 1975 I served as a teaching assistant to a large lecture section of Introduction to Sociology. Mid way through fall semester the professor covered the topics of race and ethnicity. One bright fall day, without much contextualization, he screened for the class the very powerful 1955 documentary “Night and Fog.” I had not seen this film before nor any like it. I was struck by the stark, brutal, raw, and emotionally wrenching depiction of Nazi death camp atrocities and, frankly, did not know how to react, how to process what I had seen or to deal with what I had witnessed. I had no idea this was just the beginning of a lifetime of intense exposures to humanitarian disasters, a lifetime of witnessing. I was too young then to realize that the Holocaust was not the first or even biggest genocide. Belgium’s King Leopold killed approximately 10,000,000 in the Congo decades earlier. Mass killings justified by racism fill human history.

One essential aspect of witnessing is empathy, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. In sociology we are taught about Max Weber’s use of the concept of Verstehen or ‘interpretive understanding.’ Later, deepening this concept, the sociologist George H. Mead argued that to truly understand the world we must ‘take the role of the other.’

All humans have the capacity for empathy, but what we do with that insight is situational. It can lead to the positive and caring emotion of sympathy or, just the opposite, to hatred or “…by counter‐empathic responses, like Schadenfreude and Glückschmerz, which may facilitate hostility.”1

Witnessing, in the manner I describe below, is positive, mindful, and empathetic understanding. But sometimes this can be emotionally and intellectually hard, and empathy overload can become real, numbing, and even debilitating.

Fast forward to the spring of 2021, and I was then watching in real time the slaughter of protesters in Myanmar and the death of yet another black man at the hands of the police here in the United States.

Adama Dieng, Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide

For my entire life I have watched with horror genocide after genocide, pogrom after pogrom. The killing fields in Cambodia (1975), Rwanda (1994), Srebrenica (1995), Kosovo (1999), Darfur (2003), and Myanmar (2017) grabbed headlines, but for each of these examples are dozens of lesser know mass killings of one group or tribe by another.

Though films like Night and Fog were intended to shock the world into confronting racism, the killing keeps happening all over our globe.Though the trope ‘Never Again’ is repeated after each major tragedy, it is, sadly never true.  Perhaps Adama Dieng, Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide got it right when he said “‘Never again’ has become ‘time and again.’

Prisoners of hope
My acts of witnessing over the years have beat me down, and I struggle watching ‘time and again’ a humanity capable of deep and disturbing depravity. But here I am, working always for a more just world. Why? Those wiser than me provide guidance:

“I cannot be an optimist but I am a prisoner of hope” wrote American activist Cornel West. I find myself grateful to him for perfectly capturing my sentiment.

No one can speak for all humanitarians, but in my 2014 survey of over 1,000 practitioners I heard this basic message again and again in their answer my question about how their sense of idealism has been impacted by working in the sector.  One middle aged male expat said,

“The more I see, the more it is clear needs to be done, there is a sense you can’t let the beneficiaries down; also you feel driven by the poor decisions of politicians, to be there to pick up the pieces: provide physical aid, but also provide hope to the donors and the beneficiaries, that no matter how awful it is, someone came forward, when I see other humanitarians doing that it also restores my hope and a sense of even though it is awful the symbol of taking action against it is a powerful force for positive change. This gets me deeper into the job, no turning back.” (emphasis added)

Another, a young female, offered,

“My idealism is more informed than before I became an aid worker, and more aware of the difficulties/realities of being one, but overall I still have the same level of hope that keeps me here even when the going gets tough (which is often).” (emphasis added)

Like Cornel West, after a lifetime of witnessing large scale grotesque atrocities, I find it hard to be optimistic. But, yes, to ward off the terror of chaos, hope allows for one more day of watching, working, and, in my case, teaching about global social issues and the humanitarian imperative as a way of responding. Those working in the humanitarian sector must constantly bear witness to human disasters, many of which are conflicts borne of hate and racism, but they must show up day after day doing their job, easing pain whenever possible, at least for a moment. Though many become realists and pragmatists after months and years on the job most are also prisoners of hope.

Painting by Eleanor Arcaro-Burbridge.

An Angel
In the spring of 2021 as I watched the news coming out of Myanmar I found myself paralyzed by too much information. I remain in contact via WhatsApp, Facebook and other communication platforms with many in -or with intimate knowledge about- Myanmar. I hear and see in real time news of shootings in Rangoon, Sittwe, and other locations, including Mandalay where Angel, a young activist, was killed. I am watching another genocide, this time against the various ethnic groups in Myanmar and now survivors of this horror now refugees are recovering from a devastating fire in their refugee camp homes near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, this at the same time as the Myanmar military fire live ammunition at innocent protesters.

Made famous by a series of photographs capturing her death, the young woman “Angel” gave her life protesting the military coup, fighting for a real democracy in her homeland, hope in her heart.

“Everything Will Be OK” only if we show the same level of courage that she did, fighting to her last breath for democracy in Myanmar. She witnessed injustice and responded with her life. Should any of us do less?

Witnessing by seeing each other
When one bears witness they engage in contact with another. This engagement, if it is truly witnessing in the sense that I’m talking about it here, means that there will be appropriate follow-through regarding what has been witnessed. This witnessing can be face-to-face or, increasingly in this cyber connected globe, it can be virtual. A WhatsApp or FaceTime conversation can bring two people together and serve as a witnessing moment, albeit digitally so. That an exchange of witnessing is done virtually does not or should not diminish the sense of responsibility that is inferred by the act of witnessing.

Over the last couple years I have been doing an incredible amount interviewing with humanitarians from places like Bangladesh, Jordan, Iraq, Ethiopia, and Myanmar etc., and each time I have borne witness to what is happening to them and they in turn have borne witness to what is happening with me here in the United States, most specifically regarding how we are responding to the Covid pandemic. Many of them responded to our discussions by emphasizing that since I am older and immunocompromised I needed to take care of myself and to avoid becoming Covid positive. I am frequently reminded to wear my mask, socially distance, and take other appropriate precautions. We saw each other. But those acts of witnessing have been hard in that all that I have been able to provide in response to that witnessing is verbal support, in my writing, and on rare occasion working on small fundraisers that support this or that cause (most recently in an emergency response to needs generated by fires in the refugee camps).

Inherent in being a witness on the global scale is that you always see much more need than can be addressed. Humanitarians always fall short of their goal. Humanitarians always fail to meet all needs, that is implicitly scripted into virtually every humanitarian response. Perhaps the best that can be done is to make explicit the limitations of humanitarian efforts, but even in that case the feeling of falling short is palpable.

Témoignage, sawubona, and George Floyd
Within the humanitarian sector it is MSF (“Doctors Without Borders”) that is most known for being directed by the call to speak out when atrocities occur. They explain,

“We believe that the principles of impartiality and neutrality are not synonymous with silence.”

And further,

“The word témoignage comes from the French verb temoigner, which literally translates as ‘to witness’. MSF practices témoignage by acting as a witness and speaking out—whether in private or public—about the plight of the people we treat.”

Another instructive definition of witnessing is the Zulu greeting ‘sawubona’ literally translated as ‘I see you.’ This traditional greeting is more than pro forma politeness. Used when greeting a friend or stranger ‘sawubona’ infers a deep recognition of the connection that has been created; each making the greeting come into being to each other complete with full human dignity . It says, “I see the whole of you—your experiences, your passions, your pain, your strengths and weaknesses, and your future. You are valuable to me.” Seeing another, in this sense, is a dialogue, an act of acknowledging the humanity of the other.

By bearing witness — and hitting ‘record’ — 17-year-old Darnella Frazier may have changed the world,” wrote Washington Post journalist Margaret Sullivan. Ms Frazier, the teen who filmed George Floyd’s murder and helped insure the conviction of Derek Chauvin, has emerged as a cultural hero to many. She took out her phone and pressed ‘record’ because she ‘saw’ George Floyd and reacted by an act of witnessing that indeed changed the world. I’ll repeat the rhetorical question I asked above about Angel’s action: should any of us do less?

Empathy and witnessing
Although humanitarians working in ‘the field’, especially in conflict zones, frequently encounter  human suffering, the sheer volume of what they experience for the most part precludes authentic one-to-one sawubona-esque witnessing. Indeed, the témoignage approach used by MSF is much more commonly employed relative to the plight of classes of people like victims of sex and gender based violence (SGVB). Indeed and ironically, quickly and efficiently getting the most support out to the highest number of those in need in any humanitarian response involves not seeing individuals. The humane and human act of slowing to make an authentic connection to one person is irrational in the larger scheme of effective aid delivery. Bizarrely, empathy toward one individual can indicate a lack of empathy for so many others. In this situation the humanitarian is caught in what sociologist would term ‘role conflict’ where the role professional conflicts with the the role friend, neighbor, or simply fellow human.

All that said, the humanitarian -and all of us- are called to see other as subjects, not objects, and living up to this calling can be difficult and trying.

As the saying goes, we all do what we can. At the end of the day if we have made every effort to acknowledge and respect the humanity and dignity of those around us, bringing out our inner Angel or Darnella as much as possible, we are part of the global humanitarian and humanization process much needed in our world.

For my part I have found myself increasingly making efforts to witness. On several occasions I have pulled my car over when observing a police interactions, most especially those involving BIPOC2, now acutely aware that these interactions can turn violent or fatal for the person being interrogated by the police. I don’t claim to be as thoughtful and courageous as Darnella Frazier, but I will admit to being inspired and motivated by her actions.

As we walk through the night and fog which is our world today should any of us do less?

1Both German words, Schadenfreude means taking pleasure in the misfortune of others and Gluckschmerz means being upset by the luck or fortune of another person.

2Black, indigenous, people of color.



Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised second edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishers

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