The Line of Solidarity
When working in the social sector often we are faced with difficult situations. Whether it is working in a refugee camp or watching dozens of women get sterilized – processing these situations can be difficult. Faced with our own privilege, it’s hard to know how and to what extent to act in solidarity.
Let me give you two examples. Prior to arriving in India I was visiting a friend in Greece who works in a refugee camp. The camp is in the North, along the Macedonian border and it is cold. My friend lives in a small apartment with very little heating. She never cooks and takes a strange sort of pleasure in making herself a little miserable. This allows her to feel solidarity with the refugees she works with, and less guilty about the fact that at the end of the day she can retreat to her own space inside. That on weekends she can drink beer and socialize with friends. She sacrifices her own mental and, to a degree, physical health in order to assuage this guilt.
Second example: on Christmas Eve we filmed in a sterilization camp in a district hospital in Madhya Pradesh, India. Women were treated roughly: dozens were lined up on the floor like match sticks to recover after a hurried invasive tubal ligation surgery (a surgery that we were invited into the OR to witness by a proud surgeon). It was appalling. The next day I was admitted to the same hospital for a terrible bout of food poisoning where I was given a private room and treated on by seven doctors. I did not turn this special treatment down.
My friend acts in solidarity, at the expense of her health. I did not act in solidarity, to the benefit of mine. So the question is, to what extent are we ethically obligated to act in solidarity?
Perhaps a useful lens to use to examine this problem is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics — not to get too academic. Aristotle says we can describe virtues as things that are destroyed by excess or deficiency. In this case if we say solidarity is a virtue, then the excess of that virtue might be moving into the refugee camp or, to a lesser degree, what my friend is doing in depriving herself of warmth and real meals. Nothing is being gained by the refugees she works with by her making herself miserable. The deficiency of virtue, conversely, would be a total lack of solidarity/empathy with those around us, eating a lavish meal in the middle of a starving village.
But of course, situations are rarely this clear cut, and finding the balance, that line, is often more challenging in practice.
In the case of the hospital: do you accept the special privileges? Or do you turn them down in the name of solidarity, of equity?
A few thoughts on this. First a side note on the feeling itself, the uncomfortable truth is that it is uncomfortable. I think it’s good to feel that discomfort, it’s how we should all feel even when we are not facing this reality directly. This discomfort should drive us forward to fixing that imbalance to create something better, something more equal.
Second, on determining where the line is: I tend to think of things in terms of maintaining my own capacity to continue fighting the good fight, e.g. cutting myself some slack in accepting special treatment. But I’m unsure whether that’s simply justification for choosing the more comfortable path. Maybe this is just me trying to rationalize my acceptance, trying to get my friend to take better care of herself.
Using the Aristotelian logic, ultimately I think we need to weigh the harms and benefits for ourselves and those around us to find the balance. For the hospital scenario it comes down to the speed of my recovery versus the harm on the psyche of those around me. On the one hand, I might actually get more sick by refusing. On the other, I am a hypocrite for sacrificing the principles of equality and valuing human rights equally – one of the points of the film we are making – and that might harm the mentality or self-worth of those around me.
By accepting my private room privileges, was I denying somebody else something? Was I perpetuating ideals of inequity by showing them I too thought I deserved better treatment then them? I am not sure; I like to think I was not harming those around me too much by accepting the care, that I am morally just in prioritizing my concrete well-being over the possibility of harming someone else’s morale. Though perhaps they would be the best judge of that.
That’s not a very practical solution, I cannot survey those around me each time about their respective thoughts on my room privileges. I suppose we each need to make the call of where the line is, where is the moderate or appropriate level of solidarity. I hope Aristotle would agree.