Disasters are often described as exceptional moments that demand global solidarity. A ‘state of humanitarian exception’ emerges as citizens foreground norms of compassion and cooperation while contestatory discourse – the argumentative, blame-seeking and fault-finding forms of speech – are stigmatized as inappropriate interventions in a society seeking to recover from a distressful crisis situation. This article critically unpacks these representations of post-disaster situations empirically and normatively. By analysing the discussions in the public sphere over the first 100 days after Typhoon Haiyan battered Central Philippines, the article examines the moral force behind the ‘discourse of compassion’ and its ‘ethical boundary work’ that places the ‘discourse of contestation’ outside the scope of acceptable conduct. It proposes that the discourse of compassion’s ethical boundary work is only democratically acceptable when one takes a short view of a crisis situation. Drawing on deliberative democracy theory, the article argues for the importance of contestatory discourse in fostering inclusive discourse formation and ensuring that the state of humanitarian exception does not become the rule.