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Moral slippage


Ralph Jemmott

Moral slippage

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You don’t have to be a Bible-thumping Pentecostal or a fire-and-brimstone preacher to recognize that righteousness exalts a nation while wickedness will have a degenerative effect, the degenerative effect being that life becomes, in Hobbesian terms, more “nasty, brutish and short”.
All human activity must flow from moral principle, from some sense of what constitutes “the good”. Society only functions because the vast majority chose voluntarily to follow certain ethical rules of conduct and to obey the law.
The more of us who reject moral conduct and disregard the law, the more dysfunctional society becomes. Life can then become hellish, particularly for those in society who are most vulnerable – women, children and the elderly.
It is hard not to recognize that the collective functional morality that once inhered in Barbadian society has diminished over the past 30 years.
In a letter to the Nation on May 20, Olu Walrond wondered whether we were beginning to inhabit “a moral jungle”. This is not to romanticize the past. Barbados was never some shining city on a hill, but there was a certain level of moral probity to this society that was recognizable.
In his sermon at the Margaret Thatcher funeral, Reverend Richard Chartres noted that a country’s moral and spiritual capital is something that is built up over generations, but he warned that it is very easily “dissipated”.
My thesis has been that Barbados’ moral and spiritual capital was largely a result of the evangelizing work of the Protestant churches and the Protestant church-schools. This reflected the renascent evangelical Christianity of the late 18th and early 19th centuries exemplified by the Methodism, Moravian mission and reformed Anglicanism.
The church and the school fashioned our collective moral intelligence. To borrow from Dean Frank Marshall in his sermon at Glenroy Straughn’s funeral, generally speaking, the Christian church in Barbados functioned over generations as an agent of social good with Jesus Christ as a moral example for our humanity. Gentrified working class parents and teachers, in Sunday school and day school, tried to pass on a sense of what was considered accepted and unacceptable behaviour. The wider society, infusedwith certain values, frowned on and censured inappropriate conduct. Such conduct abounded, but we knew it was inappropriate and we could be shamed into admitting it.
Sometime in the 1970s things began to change as Barbados became subject to high levels of cultural transference. Our collective moral quotient began to, in Reverend Chartres’ word, “dissipate”.
Firstly, the school became increasingly more an agent of credentialism than of education in the more meaningful sense. A decaying wider culture infiltrated the schools which began progressively to surrender their moral authority. As society and family structures crumbled, the schools found themselves faced with an expanding social remit which they were ill-equipped to fulfil. Indiscipline has now become entrenched in most of our learning institutions. We discovered a “we culture”, the tenor of which seemed to run counter to the traditional sense of inhibition and restraint. As a whole we became less sensitized to the gravity of moral choice.  
The church may be less effective than it used to be. A visiting Jamaican Methodist minister in a sermon at the James Street chapel observed that in a scientific, technological age, it is becoming increasingly difficult to convince persons of the verities of the Christian faith. The church may also have failed to emphasize the social gospel.
A religion with an inordinate concern with the hereafter and the otherworldly may lack the willingness to confront the dreadful realities in contemporary life. In some cases the churches have themselves conformed to the gospel of material prosperity and the culture of popular entertainment. Sin has become too exclusively synonymous with sexual proclivity, while greed, corruption and the abuse of power have not been commensurately censured.
Perhaps the greatest failure has been that of the state itself, more specifically, the judicial arm of governance. A few weeks ago, there on CBC-TV was the current minister of transport declaring his Government’s intention do something about the ZR culture. He talked about getting the drivers and conductors to wear the proscribed dress, the loudness of the music played and the vulgarity of some of the songs. No one listening would have thought thatthis was going on for almost three decades under both political parties that have formed the Government of Barbados.
In the absence of the deterrent force of enforced law, we have now come to rely on moral suasion, but ethical suasion will not work if the moral constituency of the country is appreciably diminished.
In 1966 what we needed was greater state-directed affirmative action to fashion a national ethos. Instead, in matters relating to psycho-social development, successive administrations opted for a more neutral role of the state. In this regard, policy reflected an excessively liberal, laissez-faire ideology that allowed us to do as we damned well please, ostensibly in celebration our so-called “freedom”. We have come to like it so.
The declining state of our ethical and spiritual capital should be a cause for serious discourse and even more serious action by a Government that claims that Barbados is more than an economy, but a society.
• Ralph Jemmott is a retired educator and social commentator. Email [email protected]

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