A Culture of Anti-intellectualism?

Well, it would appear that I’ve abandoned blogging and wandered back into the arms of traditional media. At least for the time being. It’s a month now since i started writing a weekly column at the Daily Gleaner, Jamaica’s premier newspaper, and in consequence Active Voice has become inactive. It’s an interesting zig-zag, from column writing to blogging to column writing once again. In a blog you address the big wide world, in a column you tend to address local issues for a local audience.

The movement is not unlike a lens zooming in or zooming out, manually of course, there is no autofocus available, only telephoto or wide angle and all the calibrations in between. As you zoom in small things get larger and more legible; as you zoom out the enlarged shrinks, allowing you to see the big picture and where you fit into it. Occasionally the view becomes panoramic, collapsing horizons and walls, a grand sweep from left to right.


In my second column I took on a group of what I termed ‘cultural nationalists’ who seemed more interested in protecting Jamaica’s image than in changing the dangerously lopsided society we live in, one designed for the middle class and the wealthy, to the detriment of those who have not/naught. A CNN anchor had described Jamaica as a ‘remarkably violent place’ after two North American missionaries were murdered here. Up rose the cultural nationalists claiming that the anchor was  exaggerating wildly and there are only ‘pockets’ of violence here.

This seemed rather disingenuous to me when murder and violent acts dominate the news headlines here daily so that the nation seems equipped with an abnormally large number of violent ‘pockets’, if one must use such imagery. Yes, areas where uptown people live don’t suffer the same intensity of violence as poorer neighbourhoods, but surely to deny that the country has become remarkably violent is like thumbing your nose at those for whom this is a daily reality. Are they likely to disagree with the American anchor’s description of Jamaica?

These are people  who live, as UWI scholar Norval Edwards pointed out in the 90s, in a permanent state of emergency. The rest of us tolerate this, some even demanding this routine abrogation of citizens’ rights. Not surprisingly when the violence then spills across the boundaries and news of it escapes into the international news circuits some of us start squealing about bias and exaggeration when actually what is being reported is the truth.

But of course the truth is dispensable. We prefer to think of ourselves as highly cultured, civilized, law-abiding, English-speaking citizens who do not curse or act violent. This is the image we want to project, let no foreign anchor tell you otherwise. The level of denial and self-delusion is all-pervasive. I spoke to a couple of individuals who don’t live in middle class enclaves and they too insisted that Jamaica could not be called a violent society. A banal nationalism trumps all.

What seems curious to me is that at the same time the cultural nationalists are busy pushing back at portrayals of Jamaica as a violent country by outsiders they have no problem with internal declarations that there is a ‘culture of violence’ here, sometimes even uncritically reproducing this canard themselves. In doing this they seem unaware of the ethnic profiling they are participating in, one that is made amply clear by the following tweet:

Stereo Williams @stereowilliams
Black guys fire shots at rap shows and u hear “culture of violence.” White guys fire shots at theaters/schools/offices and it’s “isolated.

In my third column I tried to elaborate on this weird incongruity between local commentators’ denial of the existence of violence on the one hand and their comfort level in  denouncing the ‘culture of violence’ that allegedly exists here. Not all are guilty of this but far too many are and it makes you wonder what’s going on. The following is taken from my column The ‘Culture of Violence’ Thesis:

The ‘Culture of Violence’ Fallacy was the title of a book review by David Scott in 1997 in the second issue of the journal Small Axe. He was reviewing Lauri Gunst’s Born fi Dead and Geoff Small’s Ruthless: The Global Rise of the Yardies. Praising the books’ authors for being ‘thoughtful, perceptive and readerly’ while attempting to arrive at “theoretically informed understandings of the problem of organized violence in Jamaican society” Scott rued the reliance on ‘pop’ cultural psychology in their analysis. The books’ main weakness he said lay in their “unproblematic reproduction” of the view that there is in Jamaica something called a ‘culture of violence’.

Scott noted that while this view was a widely held one, much retailed by the press and others, he doubted its usefulness as a conceptual framework, fearing that it obscured problems rather than illuminating them. What Scott was objecting to–rightly in my opinion–was the proposition that Jamaicans have an inclination towards violence or a ‘constitutional aggressivity’ and that there is social acceptance towards violence in Jamaica. He also questioned the idea that violence was endemic to Jamaican culture or that the frequent episodes of violence here are due to ‘historically constituted behavioural patterns’.

In contrast to the way violence in Jamaica is portrayed countries like Sri Lanka, victim to decades of the most violent conflict and prolonged warfare, are rarely described as having a ‘culture of violence’, said Scott. He went on to clarify that his objection was not to culture being used as a conceptual tool in analysing violence but to the particularly narrow and limited concept of culture employed by analysts.

In her 2011 book Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica anthropologist Deborah Thomas highlights the same problem pointing out that the notion of Jamaica having a ‘culture of violence’ is so widespread that commentators within the country freely use it without questioning its validity. She cited a National Security Strategy green paper of 2005 that used the phrase unproblematically claiming, “It is now conceded that Jamaica has spawned a culture of violence in its most negative form which is abhorrent to its values and stands in the way of every kind of social progress.”

The problem with viewing violence as a cultural trait is that it presents the issue as one of an innate brutality and savagery, whose roots are in Jamaican culture rather than generated by the system itself. Thus it distracts attention from the socio-economic inequality and the lack of opportunities for decent work and living conditions in the country, the everlasting structural adjustment that has marooned the impoverished out on a rickety limb; the systemic problems that contribute to violent solutions to social problems and need urgent attention. For the violence that envelops Jamaica is not a symptom of its culture but the fallout of the ‘Babylon’ system the country’s numerous singers and DJs have raised their voices against.

Though there were many who appreciated my use of cutting edge scholarship to make my argument on the subject of violence, there was a surprising pushback from the Gleaner. I was told that this particular column was considered “Too philosophical and not digestible by regular folk”.

A lot is claimed on behalf of ‘regular folk’ and it made me wonder whether the reason most public discussion here remains simplistic and one-dimensional is this insistence on dumbing down debate for the much maligned regular folk. I’m sure some folk object to exercising their minds even occasionally but there are many others who don’t. Which constituency is a columnist at the premier newspaper in the country to cater to? What is the role of an opinion columnist? To provide pap for the masses or to give them the benefit of some of the finest thinking on a subject of relevance to them?

Are we not guilty of fostering a culture of anti-intellectualism when we insist on insulating the public from complex ideas and arguments? Don’t Jamaicans deserve better? I don’t like running fast myself nor could  I if I tried, and I’m sure there are many more like me, but I’m so glad that Usain Bolt, Shelly Ann, Asafa and the others weren’t told they had to slow down and keep pace with us so as not to hurt our feelings.




Author: ap

writer, editor and avid tweeter

9 thoughts on “A Culture of Anti-intellectualism?”

  1. Excellent commentary. ‘Giving people what they want’ is a mantra that all media establishments from all societies around the world state that is what is needed to become viable and relevant. However, as stated in this article ‘giving readers & viewers food for thought’ and something to think about, is also just as important…if not more so during these times of crises. When my father, Bobby Ghisays was Director of Televiision at the old JBC TV in the 1980s, which was then the only terrestrial TV channel, he scheduled programmes for all sectors of society, including the ‘intellectually oriented’ and this period was deemed a great success and the only period where the JBC was profitable. So it is possible to both give the people what they want without ‘dumbing down’ and also be viable. We under estimate Jamaicans intellectual abilities and thirst for knowledge at our peril.

    1. Thanks for this comment Dom. yes i have found the Jamaican reading public to be very hungry for something meaty to chew on, there was a big contrast betw the feedback from the Gleaner and the enthusiastic response I got from people in person and on social media. Had heard of your Dad as a playwright, didn’t realize he was at JBC as well.

      1. Thank you for responding. Well done on your writings, observations and the positive feedbacks. Yes, my late father Bobby Ghisays (1934-1990) was a writer, theatre director and actor also, but his day job in the 1980s was as director of television and also as director of radio for a time. As his eldest son and confidant, I witnessed my father contesting and challenging the same issues you raised in your article, with ‘the powers that be’ at JBC, the Government and the cultural clique in Jamaica.

      2. How interesting! So the roots of the anti-intellectualism go back to the 80s and perhaps further. Do you remember who would have constituted the cultural clique in those days? I’m trying to research this phenomenon for a book i’m working on, trying hard to understand the thinking–or lack of it–behind such a posture.

      3. Greetings again Annie. Yes, I have some ideas, leads and possible names for you to consult. However, I am not an authority and left my beloved Jamaica 14 years ago. I am now living in Penzance, in the UK. I would rather communicate with you ‘off the air’ via direct email or Skype if you can.

  2. Where have you been? Or, where have I been? You are seeing things so clearly. You saying things that the vocal minority never publicly say. Is it because you have a foreign reference, or no legacy baggage?
    Anti-intellectualism has triumphed since the 80s. It is as if all that reasoning, the widespread grassroots research that glowed so brightly, that openness to new perspectives, that love of discourse were all to be blame for the failures of ‘socialism’.
    Suh if yu waan money fi jingle inna yu pakket, yu betta stap wayst time wid all dem igle chat deh.
    Suh all de places af reasoning such as de ban yaad, de culcha yaad, de herb yaad, an de Rasta camp, shut dung, or we’ll redooz.
    Dem time deh, inna de 70s, man an man an ooman tu use tu travel far an wide fi guh reason.
    Dem time, yuh guh Bingie fi guh ole a reasoning.
    Dem time, de iest reasoner wooda get de title – Iyster Dread.
    Now, reasoning gaan an gassip deh yah. Its aal aboat celebrities an soap operas.
    Kancentraishan gaan under pressure of the SMS an de soun bite.
    Suh social discourse deh at a low. Mysticism return wid astralagie and de Laurence.
    Ruminations an rumours bout Illuminati an belief inna de semi-god-like demonic powas of of the Great Conspiritas delimit reasoning an research.
    It is doubtful dat the accolades dat Walter Rodney showered on de intellect of de ‘Bredrin in Kingston’ in de 60s could be merited by any sector of Jamaican society today.

    1. haha these are the kinds of comments bloggers live for but seldom receive…THANK you! you’re right, the neolibs have cheapened life for all of us and enriched themselves at our expense. so much more to say but let this suffice for now…

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