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Alexandra and the people angle

Sherwyn Walters

Alexandra and the people angle

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Last week that was essentially my question to people who were expressing views about the Alexandra issue, in particular those who never seemed far from wanting to send out a mob to lynch the teachers.
You see, this issue will disappear at some point in time, and I will have to live with you and you with me. So instead of taking the more common, issue-obsessed tack, I prefer a more consequential slant.
A lot of people think that their biggest task is to judge other people and situations and to hold the “right” opinions. I think not. I believe our biggest task is to be good people.
And frequently “right” opinions don’t come along with good behaviour. That suggests that we should have more fervour for self-examination than for other-judging and expressing opinions.
But these days, in what seems a perverse twist of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”, many people appear to have fallen for “I have a position on an issue, therefore I exist”.
As if they couldn’t possibly get through another day without taking a (usually public) position on some issue or the other.
If that en bad enough, most comments you hear (as on the Alexandra t’ing) sound like they come from automatons fitted with opinion chips – not from people who understand that they are dealing with people and also painting pictures of their own humanity or lack thereof.
Sadly, our interactions are now mostly about issues and opinions and not about our lives and our humanness.
A ruinous narrowing down of our existence.
So even as we say we are progressing, we are becoming less humane, less mature in our dealings with others – and largely because a lot of our engagement of life is missing the emotional dimension. People have become opinions, positions, judgements.
I invite others to explore this issue. How is it that we have this burgeoning propensity to deal with people as objects in an issue – rather than as individuals with lives, with families, with emotions, and so on?
And then we sanctimoniously talk about right and wrong and truth – not realizing that right, wrong and truth have their most proper relevance in courts and such, and even there the scope is often broadened to include other very human aspects.
The majority of the responses to the situation in which a young woman took possession of a National Housing Corporation unit some weeks ago provide much food for thought in this area.
As does the oft-repeated suggestion in the Alexandra matter, “Transfer the 30 teachers”. If it was your sister, brother, son, daughter, wife, husband, would you be saying so? Honestly, tell me.
Or are you the Pharisaical, Scribish, self-righteous one thinking that those you cherish would never be in that position? Hmmmm.
In connection with the “people-as-mere-units” thing, I found that Peter Wickham made a telling statement in the last SUNDAY SUN: “In Barbados we often appear to have an unhealthy presumption that those in authority are always right . . .”
It is not only in Barbados. Read about the experiments that Stanley Milgram documents in Obedience To Authority and the ones carried out by Philip Zimbardo in the Stanford Prison Experiment. Your mind will probably be blown by what these studies reveal about human beings’ inclination to side with those in authority, and what they are willing to inflict on others in pursuance of that.
Also read Dr Leslie Perlow (When You Say Yes But Mean No) and others and become familiar with instances of nurses not speaking up as surgeons were cutting off the wrong limbs, of people pleading guilty on the insistence of persons they viewed as authority figures, of subordinates remaining silent as the dastardly Watergate break-in was being planned and as the fateful preparations were being made for space shuttle Challenger’s 1986 mission.
A bit of a saving grace is that, as someone said, “It is also true that [closeness] to the [victim] and distance from the authority figure promote disobedience and, with it, humanity.”
When right and wrong and truth and self-interest become our only guides, it seems we will easily let the devil do his worst with the “others”. After all, they are not “our” people – just entities in an issue.
• Sherwyn Walters is a writer who became a teacher, a song analyst, a broadcaster and an editor. Email [email protected]

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