Altered States

Ever heard of Piltdown man?  He would have stood four feet tall and was the talk of the scientific town 100 years ago.  If you are an evolutionary biologist, you probably know exactly who I am talking about; otherwise, you’ve no idea.  That is, unless you are a creationist Christian who believes the Bible is a literal interpretation of the word of God; hence unless you are somebody who believes that mankind dates back only several thousands of years that that the stunning paleo-biological history of humans is false.  If you believe that, if you deny Darwin, Australopithecus and the concept of evolution itself, then the Piltdown man is, well, he is your man.

The story is fairly simple:  a seminal scientific discovery turned out to be a hoax. If you read creationist literature, that example is trafficked over and over and over again to dismiss the entire body of evidence called the fossil record and the credibility of scientific thinking.  To the believer in Adam and his rib, that one hoax is enough to negate every bone in the ground, every trilobite’s age, every Lucy.

It may be an indication of my mental state, but I choked up with pride when MSF launched its bombshell press release that there had been a devastating chemical weapon attack in Syria, with 3600 treated and 355 killed.  I could well imagine the risks of going public with such témoignage, and could well imagine the difficult discussions and calculations that went into the message.  I could not imagine, of course, that that I’d misconstrued the press release so badly.

MSF’s témoignage is why I joined MSF.  It stems from the idea that an humanitarian response to crisis cannot limit itself the delivery of assistance, but must also take into account the protection and dignity of people;  and is rooted in that special relationship between medical carer and patient, where seeing the wounds of violence prompts a responsibility to act.  The doctor does not treat a child for rape and keep his/her mouth zipped.

Témoignage is further refined in MSF, an organization that must make sage use of what it knows.  Illness, wounds, and voices will tell you a great deal about the bad things some people are doing to others.  So there are times where we engage in advocacy about what we see, what our medical data reveals, in the hopes that exposure and pressure can play a role in stopping the crimes, or pushing others to stop them.  The foundation of all this activity is the word témoignage itself, its implication that we have – directly – seen something through our medical work and our presence amidst people in danger.  Bearing witness is the closest English.

I have had to defend the use of our voice to angry authorities many times. Very often they believe we are being naïve, being used, being fed messages that we then transmit. Me to Sudanese security guy: “We know that village was burned down because our mobile clinic team, including two expats, went there while it was still smouldering.” His response: surprise (“You went there?” – “Yes”) then quiet. Acting as a spokesperson for what others have said happened is not the same thing as bearing witness to it ourselves.

Yesterday evening, along the shores of Lake Kivu, I was catching up on my inbox and realized that MSF had not treated anyone for chemical weapon attack, nor had MSF seen the results of the attack.  I was confused, furious; calling up the press release to read it again.  In fact, I had missed its clear declaration: the report of the chemical weapon attack came from doctors whom we support with supplies, not from MSF.

I guess a first lesson is how the brain simplifies: I had missed sentences worth of disclaimer. Rather predictably (intentionally?), this distinction also seems to have been lost on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who swiftly stoked the USG’s neocon reaction to events in Syria with the credibility of MSF (no chance of another WMD moment embarrassment, we have MSF’s word!).  Such distinctions and disclaimers are hard to maintain, and don’t live on very long in the media, where speculation that, e.g., there “could be as many as 200,000 refugees” quickly hardens into fact.

There is nothing easy or formulaic about the development of, in particular, public messaging around témoignage (which can, of course, remain at the diplomatic level). I hate to find myself as the defender of orthodoxy, that we do not talk about it if we haven’t seen it, even (or especially!) when the news is so shocking, so aching to be released from our lungs. Such orthodoxy clashes with a world, and even an MSF, that are evolving.  For example, we are increasingly working through partners, and will have built relationships of trust – of faith – with doctors such as these brave Syrians, struggling heroically to care for the wounded in such a brutal war.

They are not MSF, and yet they are not strangers.  On the other hand, we know that this is a highly polarized war, that operating via partners involves compromise (see e.g., this post), and we certainly understand the massive investment on both sides of this conflict in the war for global hearts and minds, with propaganda at the fore. As an organization, can we afford to believe them? Me, I do not think we can afford staking so much of value on such imperfect calculations.  But as humans, can we afford not to believe? I don’t know.  I am uncomfortable with the path of conservatism, and fear it harbors dogmatism.  In the end, though, I prefer “you have to see it to believe it”, because credibility is like being pregnant, you either have it or you don’t, and in the hands of our enemies, one misplaced bone wipes out a veritable record of truth.

7 thoughts on “Altered States”

  1. It’s not just the content of what you write and the depth of your thought, it’s also the way you write – your images, metaphors, turns of phrase – very effective, thought-provoking, humbling.

    1. Thanks N, Thanks S. Nice of you to comment.

      S, couldn’t agree more about evolution not inherently being progress. I mean, in the end, bigger brains might wipe out the planet, right?

  2. Marc – Sorry to hear this. As a side note, there are plenty of unconsidered critiques of “evolution” (which in the vernacular seems to imply a positive change, not just a change with no value ascribed) that are quickly dismissed because of our current zeitgeist. It increasingly appears to me that even those with the “truth” must be just as crafty in getting their interpretations out there as those with the “lies.”

  3. Having spent much of my working life working with ‘partners’ in the field, there are some I would trust as I would my family and others that I’d keep at arms length.

    Provided MSF has an implicit and proper understanding of the source of its information, and are reasonably certain that they are not politically motivated in their intentions, then the word of a trusted source is not dissimilar to that of an MSF staff member.

    1. Hi Joe,
      Thx for the comment. I guess one question that comes to mind is this, trust how far and for what? Trust to use our drugs and medical supplies to treat people? Trust on info that has potential to cripple MSF’s name? Second, trust partners you’ve been working with, hand in hand, for years? Or new partners you’ve never met? Third, I trust that in polarized conflicts, and Syria seems to fit that category, pressure on people can be enormous. Finally, and most importantly, I do not trust that others will trust our sources. Like I said to the Sudanese security guy, we were there. If I had said it was our partner, or even our national staff, he would have instantly dismissed the claim as war propaganda. So I think you are right to trust partners, but advocacy during war places a lot of stress on the sound considersations you’ve outlined.

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