Mary Beard and the defence of low expectations

Two men dispensing rice and curry of some sort out of large tubs into small plastic containers. There is a queue of women in black niqaabs waiting.Earlier today Mary Beard, the Cambridge historian well-known for championing the role of women in academia as well as for her TV series, posted tweet defending aid workers accused of sexual abuse in disaster zones such as Haiti. She said,

Of course one can’t condone the (alleged) behaviour of Oxfam staff in Haiti and elsewhere. But I do wonder how hard it must be to sustain “civilised” values in a disaster zone. And overall I still respect those who go in to help out, where most of us [would] not tread.

In response to people who criticised that tweet, she elaborated that, for example, “disaster zones are regions that none who have not been there understand” and that “from what I have read it involves the breakdown of fundamental values”. The original tweet and her defence of it was roundly condemned as colonialist and racist, defending white men who “gave into temptation” while stuck in parts of the world most people, including Beard herself, would not venture into, some of which are often given stereotypically as examples of places that are not very civilised at the best of times (for this critique see Anaïs Duong-Pedica and Jude Wanga; Priyamvada Gopal has called it “the progressive end of the institutional culture I have to survive day in day out”). I find the argument objectionable for another reason: it is a very common defence of abuse in institutions and by soldiers, and is no more valid there than here.

Firstly, disaster zones are not marked by the “breakdown of fundamental values” but by the breakdown of bricks and mortar: the destruction of homes, schools, roads, bridges, water treatment plants, hospitals and the like. In that situation, some people will do things they would not do otherwise, such as beg or steal, because their home, property and workplace have been destroyed and they have no other way of feeding themselves. Criminals may also find their activities disrupted but they have the ‘advantage’ of not being bound by the normal rules that everyone else lives by; they will often have no problem exploiting other people’s distress and desperation even though they have suffered losses themselves. But desperation is an excuse for theft; it is not an excuse for rape, because that has nothing to do with feeding oneself but only harms another. Disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes happen in places with every culture and belief system and every degree of technological advancement. Historians such as Beard are fascinated with Italy — ancient and early modern, in particular — and that’s an earthquake zone.

Second, this is not even about the “breakdown of values” among a disaster-afflicted human community but people who go there willingly, usually as part of a job for which they are paid, and do not live in broken-down houses or packed refugee centres but in fairly basic but clean workers’ accommodation. Unless they are there for the first time, they will have had this experience before and known what to expect. There are also aid staff based permanently in major cities such as Nairobi whose standard of living is equal to what they enjoy back home, if not better because they are paid in “hard” currency rather than, say, Kenyan shillings. We do not know if all of the people accused of sexual abuse and exploitation were there for the short or long term. For many of them it’s a job that involves frequent ‘adventures’ and requires hard work and doing without creature comforts for a while but pays well and adds to their CV. Again, no excuse to sexually abuse anyone else.

The argument that “work stress”, being in a hostile or less-than-civilised environment full of people you wouldn’t want to rub shoulders with unless you were paid is one that I have heard before to justify all kinds of abuses. To give an example, when I was at Kesgrave Hall, a special boarding school (now closed) with a violent and destructive culture, in the early 1990s I heard of an incident in which a British soldier stationed in Northern Ireland had harassed a local man on a regular basis for several weeks, then ordered him to stop and when he ran away, shot him dead. I mentioned this to a teacher who was known for assaulting boys and dragging them around rooms and down corridors, and he made some excuse about how I’d never been in such a stressful job with bombs going off and where you don’t know who’s a terrorist/murderer or whatever and how I’d behave in that situation. On another occasion, where a care worker also known for his foul language and violent behaviour was sacked for drinking with a group of fifth-form (year 11) boys at the Black Tiles pub in Martlesham, he made the same excuse about how stressful the man’s job was. I have heard variations on this excuse made for mental health staff who over-restrain or humilitate or otherwise abuse the people forced to suffer their ‘care’. I once saw an interview with a former mental health worker who had witnessed a colleague whack a patient over the head with a bedpan, and gave the excuse that “if you live among shit, you become shit”. But it’s not an excuse; the man who did that had no compassion for the people he was meant to be caring for and one wonders if he had developed that attitude through interacting with other members of staff rather than through dealing with the patients or residents. And whether he had gone into the job because he loved people and enjoyed caring or because it was “a job”, ultimately he had power over another human being and chose to hurt them for his own gratification.

And that’s even before we get to the subject of people who seek out caring jobs where they have direct power over others because it gives them access to vulnerable people: those who physically cannot fight back or would be punished if they did, or who cannot tell or would not be believed if they did. Doubtless a few of these aid workers had heard from their friends of opportunities to “get laid” in exotic locations with women who are ‘willing’ (read desperate) much as institutional abusers seek out homes and hospitals with easy targets and lax vetting of personnel; others come with pre-existing prejudices against the people they will be looking after, especially if the institution is a prison (or is called some euphemism for prison). Was it really the ‘stress’ of being away from home and in basic living conditions and having to deal with desperate people or violence in the streets that turned them into sexual abusers or was it the fact that law and order had broken down somewhat, the police were loath to hold to account aid workers (or forbidden to) and they could get away with it?

The excuses reflect a certain type of low expectations some people have towards men: they believe some men “can’t help” but take advantage of any sex on offer and if they’re under any kind of stress, God help them. The truth is that men can and do restrain themselves all the time, whether they are in a stressful job or work situation or not. The same goes for using other forms of violence: those of us who weren’t at the top of the pile, or even the middle, got used to keeping our heads down, to keeping away from trouble and to turning our anger on ourselves and our property rather than people who were bigger than us (one very frequently hears of women using the first two of these behaviours to avoid or defuse interactions with aggressive men); it was those who knew they could that took out their anger on other people. I strongly suspect that many of those who commit abuses (and it is worth remembering that some of the abuses are against colleagues, especially women, as well as locals) in the countries they have been sent to help rebuild after disasters are dominant characters who have become used to being at the top of a hierarchy, who bullied and got away with it, who was never in the position of needing to learn self-restraint. Shaista Aziz, who has worked at Oxfam (one of the major charities implicated) has linked it to the “bro culture” of organisations dominated by white men from the top down and aid-worker teams which are also male-dominated in themselves; to “a culture where bullying was rife, women were frequently belittled and racism was casual” and where people who tried to draw attention to the problem were made into the problem. It’s ridiculous to defend these sorts of people as having succumbed to temptation while doing a job a lot of people would not touch; there are plenty of jobs many people would not want to do, but we would not excuse this from a bin man or toilet cleaner and we mustn’t when it’s white western aid workers who are getting paid, went out of their own accord2 and will go home again.

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