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Can’t get no understanding!

Sherwyn Walters

Can’t get no understanding!

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THE PRIME MINISTER made the call – and yet I was sad, so sad.
Last Tuesday morning I was almost at the point of tears. I have already told you that tears are my friends. I am not half a man.
The Rolling Stones couldn’t get no satisfaction. Rodney Dangerfield couldn’t get no respect. And I was feeling that I couldn’t get no understanding. (There is a twist coming up. Keep reading.)
I had bought the DAILY NATION and was rereading my column as is my wont – I am always trying to look at my actions and what I produce with new eyes, a fresh mind.
I feel that one should have a healthy second-guessing of oneself. And sometimes I shake my head at myself.
Last Wednesday, though, I was shaking my head at some (many) of you. Sorry.
I realized that the reason for my sadness was that I couldn’t get any understanding from fellow Bajans. This is the twist: I was not sad because people were not supportive of my points of view – since I am off centre, that is always going to be the case; I know that.
In fact, I was sad because the truth of what I had written last Tuesday hit me like a drop-kick from Andre the Giant. In the Alexandra issue, Barbadians had – in frighteningly large numbers, indeed – comfortably executed self-irony without a blink and with resolute violence to the human soul. That left me so dispirited.
I had read many of the letters, emails and articles published in the Press on the Alexandra issue; heard many of the voices on call-in programmes. And a pall of downheartedness overtook me.
It was about most people’s failure to show understanding (sympathetic awareness of other people’s feelings) of the striking Alexandra teachers.
The culprit is, I think, what Deborah Flick calls the debate culture – Deborah Tannen calls it the argument culture.
It is the issue, unsullied by concern about people, and the rest is a face-off of positions, almost no holds barred, and certainly no heart off-limits. And there is widespread belief that it works, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, despite the many casualties along the way.
It is, in fact, polarizing and dehumanizing. Any time sympathetic awareness of other people’s feelings is not a part of our engagement of an issue, we are being far less than fully human.
But while thousands would have sent the combatants back into battle, to face-off – as they would have – like rabid gladiators, stuck at extreme positions, stuck in the debate culture/argument culture paradigm (“I am right and good, and you are wrong and bad”) – Prime Minister Stuart tries a different tack and comes out talking about the teachers as people.
Unlike almost everybody else, he brought the element of understanding (I don’t mean comprehension, and I don’t mean agreement – I mean empathy, compassion, a sympathetic awareness of other people’s feelings) – into the mix.
Honestly, do you think that that would have emerged in another meeting? Do you think they would have bared their personal souls (their hurts, their vulnerabilities) in that other kind of meeting?
If you think so, you had better engage in some serious self-reflection.
How many times you have been in a ding-dong conflict with someone, delivering blow for blow (“You wrong ’bout dis”, “you wrong ’bout dat” and all the rest of that kind of bassa-bassa) and somebody gets  a chance to express their feelings – not their arguments – and a seemingly stubborn heart melted? You haven’t? You have never been married long, have you?
I believe that for the first time the Alexandra teachers felt they were being dealt with like human beings.
Some might say they were dealing with the children as human beings. I have to say, though, that even as children were frequently mentioned in the debate, I got the sense that they were introduced as transactional elements (much like people use patients when doctors or nurses go on strike, much like people talk about stinking garbage when sanitation workers go on strike) in the guilt-tripping enterprise that much debate and argument descend into, not as real flesh and blood about whom there was heartfelt care.
We know that what we value most in people’s treatment of us is their showing sympathetic interest in our feelings – even if we are wrong. But over and over we fail to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
My people showed little understanding (sympathetic awareness of other people’s  feelings) in the Alexandra issue. The Prime Minister was virtually alone. Sad.
Sherwyn Walters is a writer who became a teacher, a song analyst, a broadcaster and an editor. Email [email protected]