Waylaid Dialectic

March 26, 2012

Sympathy for the Kristof

Filed under: Development Philosophy,Human Rights — terence @ 11:40 am
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There is a lot about Counterpunch that makes me want to puke, so I guess I should have stopped when I saw where the link “Laura Augustin decries Kristof’s poverty crusade” on Chris Blattman’s website went. But, whatever my feelings about Counterpunch more generally, I am open to the idea that Nicholas Kristof needs decrying. So out of curiosity as much as anything else I went and had a look.

And, to be fair, the article – which isn’t about poverty but rather takes Kristof to task about his work on prostitution in developing countries – makes some pretty good points. Particularly about the unintended consequences (what does happen to the young women after their brothels are raided?) and the pomp that Kristof’s adds to the unpleasant circumstances he reports on. Yet at the same time the article possesses an awfulness of its own.

“[S]o many Americans are blind when it comes to what they call humanitarianism, blissfully conscience-free about interfering in other countries’ affairs in order to impose their own way of life and moral standards. The Rescue Industry that has grown up in the past decade around US policy on human trafficking shows how imperialism can work in softer, more palatable ways than military intervention. Relying on a belief in social evolution, development and modernization as objective truths, contemporary rescuers, like John Stuart Mill 150 years ago, consider themselves free, self-governing individuals born in the most civilized lands and therefore entitled to rule people in more backward ones. (Mill required benevolence, but imperialists always claim to have the interests of the conquered at heart.) Here begins colonialism, the day-to-day imposition of value systems from outside, the permanent maintenance of the upper hand. Here is where the Rescue Industry finds its niche; here is where Kristof ingenuously refers to “changing culture”, smugly certain that his own is superior.”

First, it is just plain stupid to equate what Kristof is doing to imperialism or colonialism. The reason why colonialism and imperialism are bad is because they involve large scale exploitation and harm of people in colonised countries by more other powerful nations. Harm that is facilitated through the dehumanisation of the colonised in the minds of the colonisers. What Kristof is doing may be counter-productive, and he may be self-aggrandising, but it is nevertheless adding faces and stories to the suffering of the people involved. Possibly the images evoked are condescending. Probably the stories told simplify the complexities of the developing world. But the intended end effect is about evoking concern and compassion for other human beings. The whole process may be smarmy and simplistic but it is the exact opposite of that used by imperial powers and colonisers who actively portray the victims of their actions as sub-human, dangerous and of no moral weight. Or who, if they can get away with it, try to stop us from actually being aware of their victims at all.

Second, the passage is underpinned with a cheap and nasty cultural relativism – “interfering in other countries’ affairs in order to impose their own way of life and moral standards”; “Kristof ingenuously refers to “changing culture”, smugly certain that his own is superior”. I’ve explained elsewhere what I think is philosophically wrong with cultural relativism so now I’ll limit myself to one simple point. While Augustin’s arguments sound quite nice portrayed as they are (yeah! what gives those nasty wight men the right to say their beliefs are any better than anyone else’s!) it’s worth spelling out specifically what she’s arguing, which is this:

Nicholas Kristof believes that young women should be allowed a choice as to whether they have to work in the sex industry. People who own brothels in developing countries and who frequent them believe that the young women involved exist only to pleasure them and to provide a source of profit. Nicholas Kristof can not and should not claim that his moral beliefs are in any way superior to those of the people running and frequenting the brothels. He is smug to do so.

Philosophy may be tricky stuff and human rights can be mustered to serve the wrong ends. But you can not seriously tell me that a moral world view that posits women should be allowed to choose their fates is not superior to one that sees them as goods for the trading.

Finally, in this article at least Augustin is guilty of one of the crimes she lays at the feet of Kristoff: presuming to speak for the young women involved, and loudly proclaiming to be their champion. No actual evidence is provided that the women who Kristof claims to have helped actually would have rather that he didn’t. Not a single quote. Find me some of the women who he has dealt with, and get them to say they’d rather he didn’t and I’ll happily sign a petition to get Kristof confined to New York for the rest of his life. But for the meantime spare me the nonsense about moral equivalence and imperialism.

Kristof may be all sorts of things but he is trying to help. And – in the absence of actual evidence to the contrary – my guess is that the people on the other end of that help, as problematic as it may be, actually tend to appreciate it.

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