Mary Beard sparks Twitter outrage over Oxfam scandal tweet

18 February 2018

The Cambridge Classics professor Mary Beard has been left "sitting here crying" after a provocative tweet concerning the Oxfam sexual exploitation scandal exposed her to a torrent of abuse on Twitter.

The Academic tweeted on Friday that "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 wd not tread".

The tweet has sparked controversy over the last two days. One of hundreds to engage in the Twitter backlash was fellow Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal whose series of tweets against Beard included "this kind of thing is the *progressive* end of the institutional culture I have to survive day in day out" and "Cambridge desperately needs a Breaking the Silence on racism. About time and beyond". 

In a following tweet Gopal directly satirised Beard: "Obviously it's not a great idea to randomly get your dick out, rape people etc. But it's not easy to be politically correct while in shitholes. And overall I still respect people who head out to shitholes 'cos I sure as hell wouldn't dream of it'."

Launching an impassioned defense of her actions in the wake of the backlash, Beard tweeted "I am amazed that after decades of Lord of the Flies being a gcse English set book we haven't got the point about the breakdown of morality in danger zones!! Just saying and this is NOT to condone the actions of a few aid workers".

Beard then took to her Times Literary Supplement blog to further her defense, but admitted in a tweet that she was left "sitting here crying". Her blog told of the torrent of abuse she had experienced: "the predictable name calling 'pervert', 'sick cow', 'disgusting creature' or gross misreadings… 'how hard is it not to gangrape women in a disaster zone?'. 'you've lost your house, your family are dead, fancy a shag? Do you take PayPal?' (I didn't really want to include that, but I felt that you needed to see the tasteless too.)"

She added: "I find it hard to imagine that anyone out there could possibly think that I am wanting to turn a blind eye to the abuse of women and children" and that " while we deplore what has happened and expect better, it is worth thinking of the context in which it took place. 99% of us have no idea of the stresses of working in these environments (and yes, living in them is worse, as there is no escape route). Most aid workers deal with that, I suspect, by drink and cigarettes. But that kind of societal, infrastructural breakdown provides a space for much worse.

"That is not to condone the awful things that happened but to contextualise them. And that is what we need to do, if we want to stop this happening again."

Truth is I look and feel a wreck. pic.twitter.com/esBEaL7os1

— mary beard (@wmarybeard) February 17, 2018

It is not the first time Beard has been trolled for speaking her mind. In 2015, the Classics professor was left “wanting to cry” after a letter she co-wrote supporting freedom of speech exposed her to a torrent of abuse from supporters of transgender rights.

TCS has contacted Mary Beard for comment.

TCS has contacted Priyamvada Gopal for comment.