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WORD VIEW – Hypocrisy or survival?

Esther Phillips

WORD VIEW – Hypocrisy or survival?

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Recently I listened to Brass Tacks on the topic of the function of the Press and freedom of speech. I couldn’t help but be aware of journalist Julius Gittens’ constant repetition that the right to free speech belonged not only to journalists, but to every single individual. I thought the point perhaps too obvious (in this part of the globe, in any case) for Mr Gittens’ persistent reiteration.
The journalist, however, was making a telling point against the background of a very Barbadian characteristic: reluctance to express one’s thoughts freely – especially in public.
There is little doubt that a country’s size contributes significantly to the outlook and behaviour of its inhabitants. I’ve met Americans, for example, who do not seriously believe that anything of consequence happens beyond the borders of their country. Certainly the notion exists for many that the Caribbean is a location fashioned merely for exotic adventure and other pleasures.
We, in the Caribbean, know differently. But how are “islanders” affected by the question of size? We may be familiar with Jamaica Kincaid’s novel A Small Place in which she makes scathing commentary on the politics and culture of her native Antigua.
If we accept that geography shapes us to a large degree, is it surprising that in a space as small as 166 square miles, people choose survival over freedom of speech? For that is often the problem.
Let us accept the fact that everybody in Barbados knows everybody else, or can do so if they wish to. Take for example the popular call-in programmes. From “Mr Agriculture” in “the beautiful parish of St Philip” to “Ms P”, who appears to be the spokeswoman for a cadre of listeners, there is a parade of “callers” who may not only be easily identified but located as well, in this small place.
Fortunately, our reputation as a peace-loving people holds up: while it is common to “share lashes” on these programmes, I have not heard of anyone attempting to do so physically. Not yet.
But are we a tolerant people or just hypocritical? And what is the source of this fear of reprisal for speaking out? Moreover, are there other layers to this Barbados where people express what they really think and feel, however malicious or destructive it may be?
It may be argued that if you really want to know how the average Barbadian feels about a matter, you should do the following: wait until the meeting is over; wait until the back of the individual (to whom he or she had just been talking) is turned; listen in to small private groups.
These characteristics may not be peculiar to Barbados, but may have some roots in a past where we had to know our place and keep quiet. Hence the still lingering and deep-rooted fear of reprisal if we do otherwise. The fact that we are so quick to put one another down may have some links to that same reality.
What is even more troubling, however, is the reference made in the same Brass Tacks discussion to that section of Barbadian society that apparently exercises its “freedom of speech” from some hidden lair in a corner of blog land where misinformation and malice abound. Here is one tributary of the widening cesspool that threatens the underpinnings of our small society. 
Meanwhile, there are indeed blog sites where the writers identify themselves and present readers with serious and fair analyses of their subject matter. Bravo for free speech in such cases!
Freedom of speech is not only a right, but a natural human instinct: witness the inevitable implosions that occur when people are denied that avenue for self-expression.
Like all other rights, however, such freedom carries responsibility. I am persuaded that there are more intelligent and decent people in Barbados than otherwise. But the typical Barbadian is wedded to silence which, as we know, is a necessary component in the perpetuation of many evils.
Esther Phillips is head of the Division of Liberal Arts of the Barbados Community College. She is also a poet and editor of BIM: Arts For The 21st Century. Email [email protected]