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OFF CENTRE: Public space, community values


Sherwyn Walters

OFF CENTRE: Public space, community values

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What we have been regretting, especially in the last two weeks or so, is the violation of the public space. What we are not seeming to grasp is how we have colluded in that violation – and in the simultaneous ravishing of community values.

Even a man well known for liberal public use of r-aitches, F-words, C-words and “blindyuhs”, a woman who “proudly” pooches back and grinds and jiggles regularly on de road, and others who are accustomed to abandoning Banks bottles outside of bars are asking, “Wha’ Barbados coming to?”

The news: Unknown assailant guns down a man sitting on the beach with an infant in arms. The sound of gunfire rings out in the midst of passengers travelling on a public service vehicle.

Incredible, gasp-inducing, brow-furrowing incidents.

(And no statesmanlike broadcast from a paused Prime Minister to soothe the anguished national psyche, to rebuild our shattered self-belief, to seek to turn our widespread disconcertion into hope, to energise national determination to do better. What else is news?)

“How Barbados get so?” you, in seeming disoriented shock, ask.

We hear various answers – failing homes, schools and churches prominent among them.

Then there are those for whom everything is tied to economic well-being, and who therefore see our present depressed circumstances as apparently single-handedly birthing today’s brazen cellphone or jewellery snatcher, armed robber, fraudster, rapist, drug lord’s hit man, drive-by shooter.

(The economic hardship-crime synergists never bother to explain why, if economic plight is all, the crime rate in America actually went down during the Great Depression – don’t get fooled, Chicago is not the whole of the United States – or why the booming prosperity of the so-called Roaring Twenties that preceded it produced booming crime too or why Trinidad in times of relative prosperity has been such a frightening place to be or why we had far less (and not generally as dismaying) crime when we were piss poor.

What about greed, materialism, covetousness, a sense of entitlement, less faith and “spiritual” character, weaker families? And little sense of high community values?)

Look, human beings seem to have a natural tendency to less than good. Though this will not necessarily lead to increased or even widespread criminal activity, we should not park it oneside as a non-factor.

So rather than getting on an economic high horse, it may be worth our while to reflect on other things that could give a man the audacity to pull out a gun in public and just shoot.

How does a society create a tendency towards valuing the life and property of others?

Well, it puts an unwavering focus on social discipline, carefully crafting tributaries to it, as well as creating, constantly heralding and enforcing requisite laws. This ought to be a prime concern of those charged with governing.

Do you get the sense that in the governmental mix social discipline (which is best interpreted as respect for fellow citizens – life, limb, property, peace – in both the public and private space) is one of the big boys when compared with economics, education, tourism, culture (narrowly interpreted), health, housing, transport, commerce, foreign affairs, sport, especially the first four?

You could be forgiven if you think that for some time now in Barbados social discipline has been virtually put on autopilot (or passed off on the home, the church and the school) while our governors have busied themselves with “weightier” matters.

In fact, it can be said that with the exception of certain transgressions – killing, robbery, rape – there has been no aggressive effort at making sure that citizens respect the life, property, etc. of others.

In Barbados you can fairly easily get away with domestic abuse, noise pollution, indiscriminate burning of refuse, sexual harassment, public obscenity, reckless transporting of citizens in PSVs, having simulated sex in public, public drug use, littering, disorderly public gatherings, unruly parking, set-up-anywhere-you-please vending, abandoning vehicles in public “territory” and other affronts to others and the common good. Things that themselves arguably open the way for greater trespasses.

Did it dawn on you that most of those things take place in the public space, the place where a society best indicates its treasured values – and its allegiance thereto?

Eschewing serious attention to these incursions, we have looked for redemption through education and “culture”. And there is no denying their potential.

But unless these things are tied to noble community values such as respect and concern for others, a society misunderstands and misuses education and practises “culture” that disregards such values. Education and “culture” that do not answer to higher principles of social order or community-mindedness end up as corrupting influences themselves.  

Of the latter, any sane assessment of Crop Over, the supposed crown jewel of our culture, lays it bare as bringing into the public much of what belongs in private – a contributor (nay, an enticer) to the stretching of the boundaries of good public behaviour, setting the stage for “make your own rules”.

If, instead of this all-embracing effort towards education (for your own purposes) and narrow-minded “culture”, we had a strong and pervasive effort at cultivating and ensuring the best community values, we would probably have somewhat less to worry about now.

Something in us knows what is really not for public exposure; but our self-indulgence always craves the chance to walk on the wild side. And when there is no bridling (as with a carte blanche endorsement of “culture”) and no strong countervailing efforts to make the public space special, that space loses its “sacredness”. And if in public you don’t need to be concerned about others, why would you think you need to be concerned about them at all?

We have not reckoned with the potential of “harmless” abuses of the public space, like “broken windows” (seeming “little” waywardnesses that produce more dangerous deviance), to create troubling unconcern about our fellows – period.

You ever hear about being on your best behaviour in public? Insincerity and hypocrisy notwithstanding, there are still good reasons for that.

Yuh cahn pollute the public space and not expect community values to suffer. Recent horrific deeds are not the beginnings of that violation. Part of a continuum, though a grave escalation. We have been working hard at “desecrating” that “sacred” space.

Of course, there is much more to the recent horrifying incidents than that. But not less.

• Sherwyn Walters is a writer who became a teacher, a song analyst, a broadcaster and an editor.

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