How To Retain Your Intellectual Independence: Lessons from Justin Podur at HHR

Justin Podur, a Toronto-based author and political analyst, started his talk at the Health and Human Rights Conference arguing that a nuanced political understanding is critical to gain perspective as a humanitarian aid worker. An understanding of the historical and political context of a region should always precede travel, because these regions are not simply passive recipients of aid but complex systems.

He explained that, as a humanitarian, it might make sense to focus on the current period of crisis, but it’s important to remember that they are merely consequential events on a much longer timescale.

Through his extensive journalistic experience in conflict zones, Podur warned of the intense propaganda used to hijack local and global political narratives. Labels used to dehumanize and demonize entire populations, he warned, must be avoided by humanitarians, whose role requires unrelenting neutrality. To do this, one must retain their ‘intellectual independence,’ he explained.

The three steps he outlined to retaining and maintaining intellectual independence are as follows:

  1. Form a community; converse with people who have different views than you. Read everything, even the most outlandish ideas. Don’t be biased in your sources; you need as much context as you can get.

  2. Investigate and study politics. Pay attention to the history before the conflict. Be aware of historical narratives laden with political agendas.

  3. Remember that, overall, the number of conflicts on a global scale are going down (good news!). Think about diplomatic solutions rather than military solutions.

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