Words for Ills

The Rhetoric of Suffering in Contemporary Humanist Discourse
By Éric Grillo

In this article we examine humanitarianism as a discursive formation, fortified by the observation that humanitarian discourse now occupies a central place in the new configuration of contemporary ideology. Nowadays it is in the “language” and the “dramaturgy” of humanitarianism that the “big” social and political questions of our time are tending to be (re)formulated: the asylum and the accommodation of migrants, the question of refugees, poverty and financial instability, aid to the most vulnerable, North / South relations, and so on. Adopting a resolutely pragmatic perspective, we try to understand why it is precisely in this language that the ideology of our time is formulated. We put forward the hypothesis that it is by virtue of its rhetorical potential that the “language” of humanitarianism has become ideologically operative: by being deployed in the form of a rhetoric of suffering, the “language” of humanitarianism constructs a vision of the world that is capable of assuming the three functions (of integration, of legitimization, and of distortion) that an ideological formation traditionally assumes.


  • ethics
  • humanitarianism
  • ideology
  • rhetoric
  • suffering
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