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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021



Parallel Papers Session 4
Saturday 6 July 1.45pm-3.00 pm, EEST
Einstein Hall 2

Paper Code: PP28

Humanitarians: Civilising the Discontents Beyond salvation: the psychosocial dynamics of humanitarians.

Presenter: Simon Western
Moderator: Jeremy Vine

This paper reflects on Freud’s seminal work Civilisation and its Discontents as a starting point to explore the psychosocial dynamics of humanitarians. Freud positioned the individual seeking to fulfil instinctual driven needs, against the force of a civilising societal demand that aggression and sexual drives should be curtailed in order to live well with others. Later he explored how pleasure principle instincts were constrained by the civilising societal forces of the reality principle i.e. we have to control our individual and collective libidinal drives seeking pleasure, and face our physical limitations and the demands implied by society to live more harmoniously together. Freud continues this theme in his leter to Einstein ‘Why War’, where he makes the case that progress towards greater civilisation can be traced through cultural and intellectual development, he ends his letter saying “Meanwhile we may rest on the assurance that whatever makes for cultural development is working also against war”

Why Humanitarians?
Humanitarians hold a symbolic relationship within contemporary global society. They are seen by many (including by themselves) as a civilising vanguard in a world of discontents. Societies discontents enact their aggression explicitly through conflict and war, and also aggression is sublimated in more nuanced ways via the logic of rampant capitalism i.e. hyper-competition, take-overs, poor treatment of workers. The degradaton of the environment and how we treat marginalised social groups are other expressions of societies discontents, with fear, anxiety and greed being enacted as uncivilised aggression, without due care for the other.

Humanitarianism emerges from two forces i) religious and moral salvationist tendencies to save the suffering other and to bring civilisation and light to the darkness (xxxx); ii) through modernity’s
utopian enlightenment ideas (John Gray), science and rationality with its emancipatory ideals would bring material progress, greater shared prosperity and it would tame and civilise both the wildness of nature, and also our human natural wild instincts.

The paper then explores the psychosocial dynamics of humanitarians, how they play out both within humanitarian organisations, and between humanitarians and wider society. Humanitarians work with the excess of fallen humanity; in wars and devastating earthquakes, they face trauma, death, poverty and great suffering. Frontline workers engage with a side of humanity many of us never encounter first hand. On the other hand, other humanitarians are largely funded by donors in the global north, and the big INGOs and UN are huge ‘machinic’ organisations critiqued for being over regulated, bureaucratic, colonial, paternalistic and unable to deliver effectively to the global south.

This paper draws on the direct emotional and lived experience of a senior humanitarian leader, and on recent research and consultancy to the humanitarian sector, from a psychoanalytically informed academic and organisational consultant.

The paper concludes by briefly engaging with the Lacanian idea of the symptom. If salvation and hope is the symptom, how can humanitarians put this symptom to work for themselves and for society in the best possible way, avoid some of the destructive shadow elements. Also how can society move from projecting salvation onto humanitarians, and re-integrate the responsibility to
engage with the suffering, and take back some of the aggression it exports to others.

The paper will draw on psychoanalytic literature, critical theory and the observational and lived experience of the authors working in the field.

Biographical Summary

Dr. Simon Western is the founder of the Eco-Leadership Institute, a leading academic and practitioner in coaching and leadership. He is the author of "Leadership a Critical Text" (3rd ed. Sage 2019) and "Coaching and Mentoring a critical text" (Sage 2012), as well as the co-author of "Global Leadership Perspectives." He has also contributed to the development of a new paradigm in leadership through his work on Eco-Leadership. Dr. Western works with diverse organizations to learn from differences and cross-fertilize knowledge, bringing an unusual depth and breadth of experience to the world of leadership, coaching, and organizational change. In addition to his work at the Eco-Leadership Institute, Dr. Western is the CEO of Analytic-Network Coaching, an avant-garde coaching and leadership company that is ethically driven and inspired by human endeavor, courage, and beauty. Dr. Western's approach to leadership and coaching is grounded in the latest theory and is tried and tested in various organizations. He believes that our task is to work in 'good faith' to build the 'good society' Dr Western is a Past President of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organisations, previously adjunct Professor at University College Dublin and Director of Coaching at Lancaster University Management School, Director of Masters in Consulting and Leadership at the Tavistock Clinic. His breadth of experience has led to praise from Manfred Kets de Vries, Director of INSEAD Global Leadership Center, who states that "Dr. Western helps us to obtain greater insight into the enigma of leadership" Throughout his career, Dr. Western has advised and supported various leaders, including the CEO of the UK national Centre for Excellence in Leadership With his extensive knowledge and experience, Dr. Simon Western continues to make a significant impact in the fields of leadership, coaching, and organizational change.