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February 19, 2018


Patrick Kirk

I don't know about this huffing and puffing over consensual sex. If a man can sleep with a "native" in London, its hard to see why doing the same in Haiti is different. And if its OK for a man to hire a prostitute in London, how do we get outraged if he does the same in Haiti?

Or are people meant to behave better abroad? The whole scandal strikes me as a scream for a return to Victorian morals.

James Moore

Mary Beard explains her tweet here https://www.the-tls.co.uk/oxfam/


This reminds me of the experiments the Home Office did in the 1970s.

A prisoner who regularly and frequently broke prison rules would be sentenced to a period of time in an isolation cell where they would be watched 24/7 on closed circuit TV. Any infractions of prison rules, however minor, (eg a V sign at the camera) would be observed and the sentence restarted. This would continue until the prisoner exhibited "perfect behaviour" for the period of the original sentence.

The idea behind this regime was for the prisoner to permanently internalise the Home Office's camera so as to induce a sensation of being continuously monitored for infractions of prison rules, even when not under surveillance. Once the prisoner's psyche had been so adjusted, he would be released into the general prison population.

Fortunately, these experiments were stopped, hopefully on ethical grounds.


Great post. As my partner just pointed out, the missing impartial spectator also explains much anonymous online behaviour.


One could also consider the idea of moral luck, here elaborated on by Nagel http://rintintin.colorado.edu/~vancecd/phil1100/Nagel1.pdf

We all like to think we would be good moral people. The type of people who would not exploit Haitians. The type of people who would risk our families to shelter a Jew in their loft during World War II. The type of people who when faced with the order to shoot people on the Eastern Front, would have the moral courage to say no.

It's a comforting fantasy.

But we will not know until we get there. We have the moral luck to be born into a society that does not put us in such stark moral positions. For that, we should consider ourselves both lucky, and ignorant about what we would do in any given circumstances.

Dennis Smith

Another factor relevant to the current moral panic is that increasing numbers of people spend increasing amounts of time inhabiting virtual worlds remote from the real world which we once shared with real fellow-humans. Spectators may still exist in these virtual worlds but they are perceived, and express themselves, in very different ways. A lynch mob stirred up on Twitter is likely to have a very different demographic from most real-life crowds.

This is related to the current use of “inappropriate” as the ultimate adjective of moral disapproval. Virtual worlds exist outside space and time so they cannot easily accommodate any sense of cultural variation or historical change. So activities that took place in 1960s Britain, Viking Scandinavia and 5th-century BCE Athens are all judged by a single early-21st-century standard, without any understanding of how spectators would have judged them in their own time and place.


There's a level at which I wouldn't disagree with anything you have written here. But I read what you say, and your caveats aside, it's as if our societies 40-50 odd years of discovering, understanding, recognising need, and endeavouring to promote good race relations (which is, as they say, “a thing”) never happened. I hope I'm not being too harsh. I don't in any way doubt MB's integrity. Its just... well as an inner-city dweller of the cheap seats, with pride I can say I'd be hard pushed to find an equal degree of insensitivity among my peers... Here at least we know race relations is hard work, ongoing and the very first thing you don't want to be, given a public forum, is thoughtlessly unaware of shared history/current state of affairs. So not surprised by the backlash.


So, if I have this correct:

if a right-winger says or does something bad, then unleash the social media hounds of hell to force him out of his job, but

if a left-winger says or does something bad, then rally round to obfuscate the issue with high-minded sophistry?

Dave Timoney

The issue for many in Mary Beard's words is the assumption that disaster zones inevitably see a breakdown in social norms. In fact, the opposite is usually the case because the majority of the people who have to deal with the consequences of a disaster are the locals themselves, not foreign aid-workers. There tends to be an increase in pro-social activity, notwithstanding opportunistic crime.

A recent example of this was last year's floods in Texas. Though some areas were temporarily reduced to a state comparable to Haiti in 2010, and there were some cases of looting over-and-above the salvaging of food and fresh water, what was noticeable were the many stories of people mucking in to help each other out. That a selection effect is at work here is obvious if you compare and contrast the media coverage with the reports on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans in 2005.

While many have highlighted the casual racism behind Beard's assumption, less attention has been paid to her Hobbesian belief that when the veneer of civilisation (which has been imposed from above) is removed we all revert to bestial nature. It is disappointing to see a scholar of her calibre essentially recycling the myth of the "Dark Ages".

Ralph Musgrave


What's so "unethical" about that Home Office experiment? Many children are punished whenever they do something wrong - verbal dressing down or whatever. That way they learn.


I dont think this line of reasoning really works. If we're talking a minority(and it seems we are)then you have to ask why did subgroup x engage in bad behaviour while the rest didnt. The proper comparison then is to institutions like the Catholic Church which(1)probably attracted some people who were predisposed to abusive behaviour, and(2)had poor mechanisms/no real interest in punishing them for it.

"The issue for many in Mary Beard's words is the assumption that disaster zones inevitably see a breakdown in social norms."

Yes, and it's also the cliched understanding of the aid workers job, which is generally difficult and dangerous but not exactly an anarchy ridden apocalypse.

"I don't know about this huffing and puffing over consensual sex."

Am I missing something or is the main point of the outrage not the fact that they were making aid contingent on having sex with children?
Beyond that, is there a difference between paying for sex in London and paying for sex in Haiti while youre being hired in a capacity meant to allieviate suffering? I think there probably is, but I dont know how to weight the difference.

Jeffrey Stewart

I'm sorry the comments on commodity fetishism are closed. You consistently and constantly misrepresent Marx. Why do you do this?

Fetishism is that a quality is attributed to something that it doesn't innately have. This relates to commodity fetishism because commodities have value because of the abstract human labor expended in their production. However, some economists just take prices and or values as natural properties of these things. THAT is commodity fetishism! Geez!


I think the whole thing speaks more to a fixation in certain quarters with post-colonial and post-imperialist narratives that attempt to exist in a bizarre exceptionalist vacuum from the rest of recorded human experience.

It's interesting that Gopal's rather convenient response to the point Beard wasn't making ends with a shouty proclamation that post-colonialists are not relativists, without being explicit about what type of relativists they aren't. Post-colonialists tend to implicit moral relativism by calling out the moral wrong-doing of their chosen colonial/imperial target whilst remaining silent on analogous moral wrong-doing that cannot be attributed to those colonialists/imperialists.

White men did some bad things when given the opportunity, the circumstances may be noteworthy, but they are not exceptional.


Ralph Musgrave

Children are punished but are not subject to continual monitoring, and they are also indulged by their parents. I cannot see that the prison experiment was in any way ethical (complete isolation is classified as torture). I do not believe that a society with continual monitoring, internalized or external is a healthy society. Then of course there are two other questions. The first is Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, and the second is, who defines what behaviour is acceptable.


"...and that many of us have darker tendencies."

Really? Perhaps a different word choice would be better here?


Interesting how people just jump to the worst possible interpretations.

I read the tweet above (had not seen it otherwise) and your third interpretation (which you seem to think is sort of off the wall but just possibly what was meant) is the only one which even occurred to me.

"But I wonder, might there be another reading of that tweet? We could read it as meaning that decent behaviour – civilized behaviour if you must – is not hardwired into us, and that many of us have darker tendencies..."

I would argue, absent strong contrary evidence, that the only reasonable interpretation is exactly that. Civilization is clearly not hardwired at all, but rather a learned behavior, which is over ridden by our more violent tendencies hard wired into us by evolution. We are collectively a bunch of beasts and civilization is a thin veneer which needs constant care.


The connection between your point and the racism/sexism of "civilization" is actually very close.

You write: "In other words, what we call “civilization” is not some property of individuals. It is, instead, emergent; it arises from social pressures upon us and might evaporate when those pressures are absent, depending upon how much the impartial spectator is internalized."

The point that targets of racism/sexism keep trying to make is that crimes happen in plain sight in "civilized" countries, targets come forward and complain about them and they are gaslighted or treated as if they are crazy, because the perpetrator is someone who knows that his or her credibility in "civilized" society is great enough to get away with the crime. People who think they are impartial spectators are frequently just easily manipulated fools.

Tbh in my experience people in less "civilized" societies are frequently more conversant with the complexity of social interaction and less likely to be easily manipulated. And so we are back to the nonsense of seeing "other" places as inherently inferior, instead of in some ways better, in some ways worse.

derrida derider

"We are collectively a bunch of beasts and civilization is a thin veneer which needs constant care."

That is the cri-de-coeur of reactionaries everywhere - seeing their personal power, of course, as the means of tending to the veneer.

You don't have to believe in the other extreme of the 'blank slate' to know it is nonsense. Rather, evolved social beasts are innately civilised and it is barbarity which is a thin veneer.

Patrick Kirk


"Am I missing something or is the main point of the outrage not the fact that they were making aid contingent on having sex with children?"

That is absolutely not the case with Oxfam. Teh outrage is that the aid workers had sex with local hookers. There has never been a suggestion that anything criminal like child abuse was part of this scandal.

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