Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Dead in Roma

In Rome, one the primary focuses of our educational mission was to help our students to learn to become better tourists. Our hope was that during their time in the program they would broaden their tolerance for and understanding of other cultures while learning to see their own in a new light. Ideally, their experience abroad would teach them to be more deeply critical and appreciative of their own, American culture. This mission seems especially important in the face of contemporary tourist behaviors which are often complacent if not outright malicious.

Today, I ran across this article in The Independent. The article is about two Roma girls (more commonly known by the slur "Gypsy") who drowned at a beach in Napoli. Their bodies were hauled ashore, towels laid over them, and then left on the beach for upwards of three hours before authorities arrived. During that time the vacationers at the beach continued to swim with little regard for the dead women. The picture in the article depicts some of these vacationers lounging only tens of feet away.

Incidents like this force me to wonder if some sort of moral or ethical education should be a necessary component of a study abroad program. Of course, there is a certain morality implied in the pedagogy of broadened horizons, but only implied, and really very softly so. This picture shows tourists carrying on with their tourism in the presence of two freshly dead teenagers. I'd like to assume that this sort of disregard for human life is beyond the behavior of our students, but I would have assumed it beyond anyone. Additionally, I have to wonder if this incident is indicative of an attitude about going abroad, especially to Europe for Americans, that dictates a disregard for ethics and morality. The logic being that since some laws do not apply while visiting another country, no laws apply.

It is easy to forget that there is a large and very lucrative dark side to tourism. Some Western men visit South East Asian countries because sex with children is either legal or the laws against it are not enforced. Some people visit other countries to hunt animals that would normally be illegal to hunt. Other people visit certain countries to do drugs they cannot do at home. There is a reasonable case to be made that many American college student enjoy studying abroad in European countries because few have legal drinking ages. While not all of these acts are morally equivalent (for example, raping a Cambodian child is not the moral equivalent of getting stoned in Amsterdam), the will to escape the legal authority of one's country of origin is. Call it the meidung effect (meidung complex?). And, it is easy to confuse these acts of transgression, that have their genesis in a rejection of the law, as morally comparable because of this concomitant disregard for the law.

So, although drinking to excess is not the moral equivalent of doing nothing about a dead body, both acts can be, however accidentally, rationalized as a part of the experience of being abroad. The logic being that if one is able to jettison one moral norm from home, why cannot one jettison another, and another, and so on. This is a particularly difficult lesson to teach, because a study abroad program is usually focused so heavily on getting students to open up to foreign cultural norms, that the lessons of when and how to reject them are rarely important enough to be included in a curriculum. Educators assume that they do not have to add "unless someone is dying and no one else will help" to the end of "When in Rome..."

So one has to wonder how this happened. Do the Italians really not care at all about a couple of dead Roma children? Were there no Italians around? Did the tourists not know who to call? Were the tourists simply fitting in with the Italian culture by ignoring the human tragedy laid on the beach before them? Is it a normal human behavior to ignore the dead body of stranger?

Ultimately, I doubt that our students need such a simple moral lesson, but they might need a practical lesson in who to call if you see someone in trouble. They also might need to be told that fitting in to another culture does not mean that they have to accept and engage in every behavior. They have the space in their luggage to pack their morality, ethics, golden rule, religion, or whatever else it might be that guides their decisions about right and wrong when they travel abroad and perhaps that needs to be a part of (even if a small part) the study abroad curriculum.

1 comment:

Well Behaved Krissy said...

Mark, your professor, Dr. Benson, suggested that I look you up. I am hoping to start a global studies 2-week program in athens and rome at my university. I would welcome any suggestions you could possibly give of where to go, eat, stay, etc. You can email me at

Thanks, Kristin Scroggin