Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Who Are You When No One's Looking?

How much of how we act is a result of who we are, and how much of it is the result of social pressure exerted by those around us and the norms and regulations imposed upon us?
Most of us like to consider ourselves ethical people.  We like to believe that we would be good people, even if there weren’t any consequences for acting in ways that are contrary to existing laws and norms. For example, I like to believe that I wouldn’t purposefully hurt someone for the heck of it, even if it wasn’t against the law. But, in fact, I think we’ve all seen that this isn’t necessarily true. We often act and speak differently depending upon whom we’re with and where we are. People who make sexist or racist comments in private, but hold their tongue in front of those they don’t know well or who would be offended.

This can also hold true when we travel, when we’re in a place away from ‘our’ culture, norms that hold true at home may not apply. Think of men who travel to other countries to abuse children, and justify it by citing the normalcy of it in the place they are and the availability of children. Or people who would hold their tongue in the US, but have no problem calling entire cultures or countries ‘lazy’ or ‘incompetent’. I’ve noticed that the tendency towards disregarding criteria for acceptable behavior increases when (some) people are traveling or working in the developing world. (I can’t speak about whether this happens in the developed world as I have no experience working abroad there.) Somehow it’s suddenly acceptable to be more ‘ist’ of every sort. Whether this is because of the legacy of colonialism and white men’s superiority is still assumed to a greater extent or because the stereotype of the people in that place as less moral or less deserving of commonly held rights is difficult to say and not necessarily generalizable across diverse contexts.

Alternatively, perhaps it’s that people with those attitudes are more likely to work abroad as participating in things like the diamond industry are less likely offend their scruples. Or maybe my naïveté is showing again, as assuming that people working in the developing world want to work to improve things, when in fact they may be there with the explicit goal of exploiting a country’s wealth of resources. So there’s the question, do more people ‘behave badly’ in developing countries, or do people with the desire to do so seek out those places where they are less likely to be criticized or ostracized and in some cases are effectively above the law or local moral order?

Is it being in Las Vegas or the fact that the city’s ad campaign tells you that you can do anything there because no one will tell the people that respect you at home? 

Happy Holidays and here's to positive situational and personal influences, and to the people who act morally and ethically even in their absence.

Monday, December 12, 2011

What's in a Name?

I have a very common American last name. It just so happens that a former Liberian president has the same last name as me. He was Americo-Liberian, which means he came to Liberia after being enslaved in America before emancipation.

Liberia has been described as America's only outright foray into colonialism. The initial goal was to create a country in Africa of freed American slaves, and this was accomplished through the purchase of land and conquest of the Africans already living in what is Liberia today. The irony doesn't stop there sadly, Americo-Liberians took control of the country, placing themselves in positions of power and excluding native Liberians from many parts of social, economic, and political life. Somewhere in here there must be a lesson about how people who are the victims of abuses of power will come to abuse power, should they be given the chance, rather than treating others as they wish they had been treated. 

Americo-Liberians were, and are, lighter skinned than native Liberians, due to generations of coupling between slaves and slave-owners, whether by force or by choice. This was used as a means to measure their superiority, as they went about creating a society in West Africa that closely mirrored America, but with themselves as the dominant group. Many buildings in Monrovia are similar in style to those in the American south. There are similar holidays, laws, and elements of culture. The Liberian flag obviously is based on the American flag.

And so what's in a name? In the United States, when I meet someone who is African American and has the same last name as me, the issue is largely ignored. It may cross my mind that somewhere in far off history someone with the same last name as me owned slaves. Hopefully not my actual ancestors because I think we're exclusively Northerners, but it's hard to be sure. Then if I meet someone in Liberia with the same last name as I do, I know this person most likely Americo-Liberian and is a descendent of American slaves. I can't quite put my finger on the difference between the two experiences, but they certainly exist. Perhaps it is because the identity of ex-slaves in Liberia is in fact one that garners privilege, as they are the relatives of people who are viewed by some to be 'more civilized' because of their time in American, than members of tribes who have always lived in West Africa. I get the impression that in America we are more reticent to point out our likely roles as relatives of ex-slaves and ex-slave owners, we most often talk about slavery in the abstract, as something that happened, not as something in which our ancestors participated. Whereas every time anyone mentions any sort of Liberian history, slavery is mentioned. There is a slavery museum and historical anecdotes about Americo-Liberian ex-slaves are shared with a kind of pride.

I'm still digesting this part of the experience and welcome any thoughts you all have. Here are a couple of my reflections:
1. Liberia has been a place of clashing interests and cultures for over a hundred years now. From clans to politicians to rebel groups, conquest and violence have been the name of the game. This was supposed to be a place where former slaves could be free and start over, forgetting that they had to take land and power from someone to do that. So how can people in a place born of violence stop the cycle of aggression and retaliation while still allowing members of diverse histories and backgrounds to interact and participate in decision-making?

2. Historical memory is an interesting thing, and it is the winners who write the history. This has made being descendants of former slaves a matter of pride in Liberia and what appears to me (as someone who has an admittedly limited peripheral perception) a source of shame and hurt for many African Americans and caucasians alike. 

3. Why is people's reaction to being dominated to dominate others in return? It's like paying forward pain and vulnerability in exchange for power. I suppose this is not everyone's reaction, but the people who want to treat others fairly and kindly are rarely the ones pursuing power.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Compounds Part II

So I have a follow-up post for you which is a bit of a reflection on the previous post about the prevalence of compounds in Liberia. I'm home safe and sound in San Francisco, but have a list of topics to blog about and am going to do my best to get through them while everything is still fresh in my mind.

Some of my lovely readers offered interesting insight into the world of compound living, the effects it can have on the psyche of those living both inside and outside its tall walls. They also mentioned other places in the world where such things have happened, where people foreign to the environment arrived and built walls to protect themselves from nature/people/animals/the unknown. It fascinates me that people move away from their homes and across the globe only to wall themselves off into places that keep out everything that is different about the place they live.

HOWEVER, I think I neglected to appropriately explain why all these walls exist in Liberia in particular, but rather simply pointed the finger at the expat community for being paranoid and isolationist. I know many of you know a lot more about the civil wars in Liberia than I do (like did you know Charles Taylor escaped from a Massachusetts prison?!), but I'm learning and I welcome your input here. But during the wars, almost back to back, 1989 - 2003, with a one year reprieve in 1996, Monrovia was often the center of conflict. Unlike in many civil wars where most conflict takes place outside the capitol, Monrovia was often at the heart of the violence and fighting (in addition to border areas, and areas with diamond mines etc). And while I can't think of a civil war that didn't involve unnecessary loss of life, this war was particularly brutal for a variety of reasons. 

There were many factions fighting so, for example, one group of young men with guns arrives in a village and demands shelter and food, which the people have no choice but to provide. Then a rival faction arrives, calling all the people in the village supporters of the first faction. Then they take all the young men and (this is one example I heard), first teach them how to shoot a gun, then tell them they need to know how to shoot it blindfolded, so the men practice firing again blindfolded. Then the blindfolds are removed and the boys find that they have killed their parents and brothers and sisters. Then the entire village is burned to the ground and young boys, and often girls as well, become associated with the fighting forces. Or as various factions would try to enter Monrovia to take over the national mansion and kill whoever was the leader at the time, local people would often take refuge in 'neutral' locations. I was informed that the church near the apartment where I stayed had been one of those places. Until one faction decided not to respect the sanctity of the church, locked the doors, and burned it down with everyone inside.

I apologize for the graphic nature of the stories, but I think that they bear sharing, partially because I think the effect of that sort of indiscriminate violence on the psyche of individuals and a nation is both important to remember, and also impossible to forget. Additionally, many of the young people who were associated with fighting forces are unemployed or underemployed, and spent their youth using violence to get what they want. The vast majority of people I met in Monrovia were incredibly friendly and polite and helpful and kind. But the prevalence of petty crime as well as robbery, assault, and sexual assault is astounding and apparently increasing. So while one could look at living in compounds as a way to isolate oneself from reality and maintain a distance from the local population, it also allows international experts in post-conflict redevelopment to remain in the country and continue working "Lift Liberia" as the UNMIL slogan says.

I think that some crime will always exist, as it does in any city, but I also hope that some day violent crime is low enough to decrease the security focused feeling that exists in many parts of Monrovia due to high walls, razor wire, guards, and barred windows. But on the other hand it's always easier to put up walls than to pull them down.