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EDITORIAL: Don’t trigger moral panic


EDITORIAL: Don’t trigger moral panic

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 WITHOUT BEHAVING like the chief of a fashion police force, Minister of Education Ronald Jones has quite correctly walked in the shoes of US President Barack Obama.

And he did it on an issue that originated in the US and swiftly spread to Barbados and its Caribbean neighbours. It is “sagging,” the wearing of pants below the waist so that young men’s buttocks or their underwear is in full sight of grandmothers, great aunts and anyone else. How disgusting and disrespectful.

In an address to students and faculty at the Samuel Jackman President Polytechnic a few days ago Jones told the young men that it was totally unacceptable for them to be parading in public with the creases of their buttocks exposed.

“Your pants should not reveal your crack,” was the way Jones put it. “Leave that for the Jamaican ackee. You should not be coming to this institution (SJPP) with your crack exposed.”

Indeed, the minister pressed the right button. Many fashion historians and criminologists trace the style to a prison rule that male inmates shouldn’t wear belts in their pants because some have used them to commit suicide or abuse other men. Apparently, there is more to it. The display of the buttock and underwear behind bars is often interpreted as a come-on sign that the wearer is available for sex.

Interestingly, even before he moved into the White House in 2009, Obama opposed sagging, telling young men: “pull up your pants, brother,” adding “you know some people might not want to see your underwear –I am one of them.” It didn’t come as a surprise that a majority of Americans agreed with the president and chances are most Bajans would endorse Jones’ stand as well.

But how come the style moved from prisons to the outside?  The cross-over of sagging in America surfaced at least two decades ago and efforts to stamp it out have been unsuccessful. Social scientists insist its popularity reflected the social ills that afflict young urban black men, the boys on the block. The problems range from high unemployment and a feeling among the youth that the rest of society was indifferent to their needs. Just as important is the commonplace nature of crime. In addition, there is the popularity of hip hop music, whose lyrics far too often glorify unsavoury behaviour.

The trouble is that many of these nightmares in America aren’t the Barbadian reality. But scores of our young Bajans see the styles, the language, and disrespect for adults and institutions as manifestations of being “cool,” to use the street vernacular.

To reverse the odious trend, the minister has sensibly empowered the principal to deny improperly dressed students entry to the classroom.

Schools do have the authority to set their own dress code and students must be made to follow it.

Still, some notes of caution must be struck. Let’s begin with consistency. There can’t be one rule for the Medes and another for the Persians. Secondly, we must be careful not to brand “sagging” as criminal-like behaviour because it began in prisons. After all, we now accept tattoos, which were popularised in prisons but which are now commonplace outside of penal institutions.

Yes, stand firm about the dress code but don’t trigger a moral panic with exaggerated statements.