How does cultural context matter for creating and retaining social memory, and for responding to disasters?
Is social memory transferable across places and contexts?
This is one of our favourite pictures from our collection of media images for the message it conveys about responding to disasters. It appeared in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail a few days after Cyclone Yasi, which struck North Queensland in February 2011. At the time we were analysing Australian newspaper reporting on natural disasters over a five-year period to understand how the word ‘resilience’ was being used in relation to disaster events (Leitch and Bohensky 2014).
A recurrent metaphor was of the tough North Queenslander, a ‘hardy breed,’ well versed in extreme weather and accustomed to coping in times of hardship (as exemplified by our laid-back mate in the photo). Similar descriptions were applied to other ‘country’ or rural populations. In fact, such an image is deeply engrained in the Australian psyche and has a historical basis in the development of Australian identity in the colonial days, when self-reliance, together with mateship, were keys to survival.
One attribute of resilience is the ability to self-organise. Self-organisation, in the context of community response to disasters, means the organisation of support and resources for community preparation, response or recovery. The more that the community can provide and resource this support itself, and the less that it has to rely on aid or assistance from elsewhere, the more resilient it will probably be. Of course, natural disasters are, by definition, situations that overwhelm a community’s capacity to get back on its feet without some form of external aid (Etkin and Dore 2003). The question is how much assistance should be provided, how long, and by whom?
Certainly the media depicted many examples of people helping others, of whole communities rising up: Brisbane’s Mud Army after the Southeast Queensland floods became one such feel-good story.
Yet in examining how concepts of self-organisation were expressed in the media discourse related to disasters, we found references to another dimension of Australian cultural identity. Entitlement, expectation and complacency in some cases seemed to be undermining the ability–and incentive– to self-organise and therefore be resilient:
“‘While most people are resilient and are prepared for the worst, we still find a number who would not even sandbag or move their gear upstairs before floods,’ said one man who did not want to be named. ‘They were hoping to get new furnishings or a handout so they didn’t bother. It does make you wonder if we offer too much.’” (anonymous, Cairns Post, 20 October 2010, referring to the 2010-11 cyclone season)
Culture can define attitudes and responses to disasters. But culture changes. Even the culture of entitlement can change, it seems, when governments stop doling out disaster assistance payments, or insurers refuse to cover homes in areas that have been repeatedly hard hit.
How has culture affected responses to extreme events elsewhere? Can cultures learn from one another’s experience?