Stella Smith: We should be 'horrified' by major disasters, not the sleazy Presidents Club

What allegedly happened at the charity's fundraising event was wrong, writes our columnist, but we should reserve our strongest language for truly terrible crises, such as Yemen

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

Before working in charities, I was a teacher. Within weeks of starting my first teaching job I realised that if I was too strict, always insisting on complete compliance, I would soon burn out. Each personality in the class needed a different approach, different measures of success. For some kids, doing the homework and passing tests was easy, but for others simply turning up, pretty much dressed and with a smile on their faces was a far greater achievement. This was an important first lesson in influencing others – you have to start your influencing from the place the other person is currently inhabiting, not the place you would like them to be. You have to keep your focus on the bigger picture but see the world through their eyes. And you can’t fight every battle.

This lesson came to mind when I read the sector’s responses to the Presidents Club episode. Undoubtedly, the behavior at the club’s dinner reported by the Financial Times was completely unacceptable and it is awful that this was happening in the name of charity. But I didn’t feel the same shock as many in the sector seemed to. Is it completely surprising that powerful rich men filled with alcohol and a sense of entitlement harass women? It is unpleasant and sleazy but surely not unexpected. Sector responses though talked of being "horrified" by the revelations, describing the behaviour as "appalling", "disgusting" and "vile". It was terrible behavior, but was it enough to horrify?

This reaction troubles me for a couple of reasons. First, if we want to change the behaviour of the men involved, this is not the way forward. It strikes me that they are unlikely to be the types who will go home and, in quiet moments, reflect on the moral outrage and harm they have inflicted on others and wake up tomorrow resolved to be better people. To me it’s more likely that they will go home reinforced in their belief that charities are easily offended and irrelevant to the realities of their everyday lives.

Perhaps what concerns me more, though, is how we use words to describe our responses. If we are horrified about how money is raised at the Presidents Club, what words do we use to describe the crisis in Yemen? If the behaviour of these men is vile, how do we describe the behaviour of the people who traffick vulnerable migrants across Africa? These are not comparable wrongdoings and our use of words and our response should reflect this. Otherwise we are doing a complete injustice to the victims of some truly horrific, vile behaviour.

Something else I learnt from teaching is that in every class there is invariably a smart alec who delights in making the class laugh at the teacher’s expense. When they are not getting the attention they want, they are likely to pipe up from the back of the class with comments akin to the teacher "disappearing up their morally righteous posterior". They then sit back to enjoy the class giggles, the teacher’s outrage and the gathering kudos from their delinquent mates.

Rob Wilson’s comments are provocative, but we shouldn’t get distracted by a bored kid craving attention. What happened at the President’s Club is wrong, but let’s make our response helpful, reinforcing social disapproval and encouraging behaviour change. In amongst all this noise, we should reserve our truly angriest responses for the most dreadful injustices we have to fight.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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