Civilisation

When carrying out fieldwork in Rwanda, there was a bar in Kigali I’d go to in the evenings. I was always the only white person there and I would sit outside with some nice cold beers, a cigarillo, and a book getting nicely toasted. On one occasion, a big air-conditioned vehicle drove up, stopped, and out spilled a young woman, glamorously dressed, and laughing loudly. The bar clientele looked over at her with some disdain. She leant into the car and tried to pull someone out. I watched as a plump fifty-something white man (who bore a passing resemblance to James Wolfenson) looked up at the bar and shook his head. The woman laughed again and obediently got in the car and the driver took them off somewhere else.

Now, my best guess of what had just happened is that the man was out for a good time in Kigali. He was being driven around looking for a good spot for a few drinks and he was accompanied by an escort. Her professional agreeability, heavy make up, and youth made it difficult to imagine what other relationship would take them out to bars in Kigali at night.

I was thinking about this in light of the recent – and characteristically noisy – social media response to Mary Beard’s ‘civilisation’ tweet. I remember a fellow PhD researcher who was in Cambodia during the UN operation in 1992-1993 showing me a photo he had taken of a brothel, outside of which was a car park full of United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia vehicles. I remembered in my own research on Mozambique reading about strong allegations made against Italian soldiers abusing young women/girls. The battalion was quickly removed from the country. Reading about this reminded me of the fact that Italian troops in Somalia, again under a UN operation, had tortured young Somali men and beaten one of them to death. All three operations had a peacekeeping, reconstruction, development, or humanitarian mandate in a ‘disaster zone’.

None of these examples suggest a slipping of standards as a result of being influenced by the conditions ‘in country’. They suggest that ‘internationals’ occupy roles in those ‘disaster’ spaces in which there is opportunity to pursue a kind of hedonism that one wouldn’t countenance at home, or to abuse others because they are others. Instances in which UN troops or NGO workers abuse the bodies of vulnerable others are not instances of hardship in harsh places; they are products of a mixture of power over- and relative isolation from- local people. Both aid and humanitarian operations are constructed as transnational spaces, not local ones. Bear in mind a pivotal detail from the recent Oxfam scandal: Roland Van Hauwermeiren’s alleged abuse took place in a villa rented by Oxfam, and other accusations also relate to guesthouses and official buildings of NGOs.

The moral anxiety of maintaining one’s civilisation ‘out there’ is a longstanding one in European imperial history. The writings of imperial intellectuals and diarists evoke it. Imperial patriarchs sexually preyed on female domestic servants. The gentrified behaviour of European plantation owners was accompanied by acts of spectacular violence to make an example for others. Civilisation, inescapably attached to an imperial aesthetic and practice, contains a kernel of social malice and hedonism that makes it difficult to see a discrete act of violence and abuse as exceptional or contingent.

The word civilisation does not need quotation marks, it needs tearing down. This is not so much because the disclaiming work done by the quotation marks is insufficient but rather because it precisely encapsulates the nature of a civilising project. There is always in some degree a ‘wink’ in the notion of civilisation when applied to the practices of the civilisers in other places. It says something like ‘we all know roughly what civilisation is because it is what defines us and because it doesn’t define distant others we might let our standards slip when we go abroad for our missions.’ Seen as an imperial trope, civilisation is always ‘civilisation’: the moral equivocation between coercion or abuse and a declared altruism. Civilisation is an irredeemably toxic word when deployed to make sense of the myriad Western interventions on the rest of the world.

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