Policing Profanity

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Clovis cartoon, Jamaica Observer, April 17, 2017

My Gleaner column of 19/4/17

If I were ever to be tried for murder I would want QC Valerie Neita Robertson as my lead defense attorney. For as we have seen in the case of hapless Kay-Ann Lamont, murdered with her 8-month old fetus for using ‘indecent language’ after being robbed while out shopping for school supplies for her children, Neita Robertson is able to move juries to do the unimaginable: acquit her killer of murder, manslaughter or any kind of wrong-doing whatsoever.

Police Corporal Smart, who killed Kay-Ann Lamont, was regarded as “a very mild-mannered police officer” and his defense was accident, intermingled with self-defense, according to Director of Public Prosecution Paula Llewellyn. In fact the DPP’s statements about this trial are instructive. The Jury, she says, was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the guilt of the accused with respect to murder, manslaughter or wounding with intent in respect of Kay-Ann Lamont’s sister, also shot by the policeman, was made out.

In an interview with RJR’s Dionne Jackson-Miller the DPP explained that Corporal Smart heard expletives being uttered, decided to make a “lawful arrest” but in attempting to restrain Lamont while trying to “overcome her resistance” to arrest, there was a struggle during which his gun accidentally went off. ”A lot of members of the public are not aware that when a policeman is making a lawful arrest he doesn’t even have to touch you, he only needs to say ‘I am arresting you’ and the citizen has a duty to comply, then you complain after,” explained the DPP.

A video shot by an onlooker was pressed into evidence and Prosecution called five eye witnesses, including two sisters of the deceased, one of them the wounded complainant, to testify to the jury how their sister had received her injuries. There were also two policemen testifying for the crown and an independent businessman with no connections to either side. “But remember” continued the DPP, “the jurors are not only listening to the evidence being given they are also observing the witnesses give their evidence, observing their demeanour, their tone, their manner.”

The accused, Corporal Smart, had six character witnesses and according to the DPP was crying throughout the trial, and from his antecedents, the statements of his character witnesses and his demeanour—“he was a very soft-spoken, mild-mannered policeman who had an excellent report from the character witnesses about how he conducted himself professionally so you go back to what the jurors as common-sense persons coming from different backgrounds would have been looking at and observing…They can see elements when human rights are being infringed and they see police brutality, examples of it, but they can also see when members of the public are not being disciplined or not obeying when a police officer is seeking to effect a lawful arrest (pl retain italics). So it is finally left to the jury to observe, listen and assess the demeanour of the witnesses and the accused to decide can they be sure beyond a reasonable doubt of the guilt of the accused.”

I was struck by the DPP’s repeated emphasis on the ‘demeanour’ of the witnesses, in particular the two sisters of the deceased. What does this suggest? That their demeanour was somehow not appropriate enough to work in their favor while the ‘demeanour’ of the policeman—‘mild-mannered’ ‘decent and honourable’ according to the defense attorney, sobbing uncontrollably in court during proceedings and verdict somehow gave him the edge as far as good citizenship was concerned while the dead woman, first in cursing her bad luck at being robbed, and then resisting arrest by the policeman for the ‘crime’ of doing so had somehow wantonly squandered her right to go about her business? Her demeanour wasn’t one of milk toast niceness and obedience so ultimately she was herself responsible for losing her life at the hands of this ‘decent and honourable’ policeman?

QC Neita-Robertson explained in a separate interview that the video showed the 8-months pregnant Lamont and her two sisters advancing on Corporal Smart who then drew his gun in ‘self-defence’. In retreating the policeman fell and his firearm went off killing Kay-Ann Lamont and injuring her sister. The shooting itself was not caught on video but the accused claimed that he was attacked by a crowd who were supportive of the sisters. This claim according to Neita-Robertson was corroborated by a crown witness who testified that crowds in Yallahs “have a habit of attacking police and disarming them.” Of course with the Police’s record of abuse of power and extra-judicial killings this is hardly surprising if true.

Ultimately as the DPP kept repeating “This case also involved whether a lawful arrest was being effected.” And there in my mind lies the rub. Had there not been a law proscribing the use of expletives in public Kay-Ann Lamont would still be alive and so would her unborn child who would have been five this year. At a time when the DPP complains of an acute shortage of court rooms to try the many serious criminal cases that keep being postponed as a result, this case tied up a courtroom, legal luminaries, jurors and judge for five whole weeks.

Isn’t it about time we did a cost-benefit analysis of the law against ‘indecent language’ to assess what exactly the gains are compared to the egregious loss of life demonstrated by this case? Why is the law and order system so intent on criminalizing the use of expletives while allowing alleged criminal masterminds such as Tesha Miller and others to operate without hindrance? Is something being lost in translation here?

Uncivil Disobedience

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My Gleaner column of April 5, 2017

It all started with UWI anthropologist Herbert Gayle saying that in his not so humble opinion there is no such thing as violence against women. The Gleaner followed that up with a 24-page supplement this January titled “Light on Violence” based on Gayle’s research. Naturally there was no mention in it of violence against women because as has been made clear, in the Gayle universe such a thing doesn’t exist.

While I can understand and sympathize with the desire to push back at UN-dictated terms of reference in the funding of social research I thought putting out a 24-page document on violence in Jamaica with not one page or section referring to the violence women face daily was going too far. A section called “Four forms of violence we need to worry about” doesn’t identify violence against women or domestic violence as one, despite the fact that in the months preceding this publication and the weeks immediately following it, the news was filled with reports of horrific murders of women very often by men they were close to.

In addition, the number of women and children routinely being raped points to a pervasive ‘rape culture’ that is so deeply ingrained and accepted that there is hardly any outcry against it. A blogger calling herself Natural Icon Beauty recalls at the age of 6 reporting to the family helper that she had been molested by the next-door neighbor and being told that this was normal, that the helper had gone through this too as a child and that it was probably because the man’s wife was away (!)

Because nine out of ten times this is the reaction of adults to whom a child confesses his or her violation the conviction rate for rape and sexual abuse is abominably low; most women don’t even bother to report their rapes because of the tortuous procedures involved that make them relive the trauma in the process of being interviewed by police and legal personnel bristling with disbelief and completely lacking in empathy. So much for the worry that women are going to come out of the woodworks making false accusations when evidence shows that even when there IS a case they are routinely dissuaded from reporting rape or are reluctant to do so because of the loss of reputation they suffer in the process.

Take Larissa Rhone who gathered the courage after 30 years to bring her grandmother’s husband to court in Jamaica for systematically violating her from the age of 5 to 16. For this she was vilified by the defense lawyer, as well as by her grandmother and others who called her wicked for ‘ruining’ an old man’s life, completely oblivious to the number of young lives his marauding libido had wrecked, for it wasn’t just Larissa but her younger siblings, cousins and even her own mother who had been violated by this man. Yet she and the other victims were all urged to remain silent about their traumas.

Matters were bound to come to a head. On March 11 women dubbing themselves survivors, marched in Kingston and all over the Caribbean protesting the violence routinely meted out to them. In Kingston the march was organized under the aegis of a new organization calling itself Tambourine Army. The protest was preceded by much disgruntlement and kass kass within the activist community between what someone referred to as an older, more ‘staid’ form of activism and the bolder, more risk-taking approach of younger activists fed up of a violent status quo immune to the tactics of older activists.

The newcomers were accused of being too angry, emotional and confrontational. Worse they had no qualms about lobbing profanities. But as singer Tanya Stephens, herself a survivor, retorted: “ The question is not why am I so angry. The question is why the f*%$ aren’t you?” To the criticism that the Tambourine Army was born out of an act of violence (what Global Voices called the bonking on the head of one of the accused with a tambourine) Stephens says: “Yes guys, the tambourine army was formed around an act of violence. That act of violence was RAPE.”

It was writer Kei Miller who neatly put his finger on what is important about Tambourine Army’s modus operandi.

“What is truly radical about the Tambourine Army and the #SayTheirNames campaign is not that a raping parson did get kuff by a tambourine, or that they took to the streets to march and make up noise, or that one of their leaders got thrown into jail. All of that is par for the course in social justice movements. So no. The most radical thing about this movement is the simple belief at the heart of their campaign. ‘I choose to believe you.’ Just that. So simple. If you are a victim of rape, and you come to me, ‘I choose to believe you.’”

In the meantime to quote Stella Gibson, the alter ego of Latoya Nugent, who was arrested under the Cyber Crimes Act for naming alleged sexual predators: “I stand with survivors because ‘enough is b0#$%&#@?t enough’.” To my mind the burning question we are left with is this: what exactly are we doing as a society when we penalize the use of words like’ f&^%#g’ while systematically deflecting punishment from the men f&^%#g underage girls and raping women?

See and blind, hear and deaf…

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The following is my unedited Gleaner column of March 22, 2017. Because it goes directly against the anti-Latoya Nugent and anti-#saytheirnames position adopted by the Gleaner this column wasn’t even shown in the Commentary lineup today (the sidebar showing columns published on a particular day), and you would have had to search hard to find it, very odd considering the number of views it has attracted. Anyway, thank the various gods for blogs…i can easily remedy the situation by posting it here.

The latest is that Nugent’s case which was to have been heard today has been postponed to March 31 because DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) Paula Llewelyn has announced ‘an interest’ in the case. We shall see when the time comes what this ‘interest’ means for issues of libel and defamation in cyberspace. Meanwhile the fate of Latoya Nugent aka as Stella Gibson on Facebook (the name of a hardcore police detective who’s an unapologetic feminist from the British show The Fall) hangs in the balance.

As I pointed out in an earlier column, Jamaican men cry rape every time women say, “Yes, let’s say their names.” A kind of hysteria breaks out because somehow they hear this as women demanding the right to falsely accuse men of raping them. But this is not what women are demanding at all, particularly in the new activism around violence against women.

According to Latoya Nugent, one of the founders of Tambourine Army, most of what has been said in both traditional and social media about the#saytheirnames movement is a damaging and gross misrepresentation. She clarifies that the movement is emphatically not about recklessly calling names without any context:

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When we encourage survivors to say the names of perpetrators we are not telling them where to say that name, when to say that name, we are telling them that if they are ever ready to say the names of their perpetrators in private and/or in public that support is available. Whether you want emotional support, psychological support or legal support, it is available for you. I want folks to appreciate that this is about facilitating the empowerment of survivors and about shifting the blame and shame away from survivors and placing it squarely at the feet of perpetrators and institutions which have allowed folks to abuse their positions of authority and trust because they are aware that we as a society silence our victims and our perpetrators. Our first response when a woman or girl says to us that they have been sexually assaulted or raped is that we don’t believe them and #Saytheirnames is about saying to such women, ‘we believe you, if you decide to come forward we believe you, we will provide the support that you need and if we can’t provide it, we will point you to the entities, or the agencies or the individuals who can give you the support that is needed.’ (Transcribed verbatim from an interview with Nationwide’s Cliff Hughes the day before Latoya Nugent was arrested)

Basically there has been a ‘see and blind, hear and def’ or “see not, hear not, speak not” policy in place in Jamaica for decades. There is widespread buy-in from civil society, the media, the Church, the University, the legal fraternity, you name it. It is enforced by an army of prim citizens, whose first reaction when you speak out about an injustice is to raise their finger to their lips in the universal gesture that means ‘halt your speech’ or ‘stop your noise’ as they say here.

People are socialized to believe that it is fundamentally wrong to ‘call someone’s name’ in public, especially in the media. This should only be done after accusations have been proved in court they say. But court cases take years to be completed in Jamaica and even when they do, often fail to deliver justice. Take the case of the Reverend Paul Lewis, accused of raping a 14-year old girl in Sav-la-Mar, in the presence of another 14-year old girl who testified in court to the rape. Despite the Reverend’s semen being found on the child’s underwear, despite the testimony of an eyewitness, a Jamaican court saw fit to hand down a ‘not-guilty’ verdict.

More often than not rape victims don’t report the crime or give up during the extremely painful, invasive process of going to court to prosecute their attackers. A senior lecturer at UWI says: “I’ve watched helplessly while one of my (now former) students went through 4 years of appearances, delays, and postponements in the courts for the prosecution of two young men whom she had been able to identify as being among her assailants in a gang rape. She eventually decided to pull out of the case. As she put it, they had taken enough of her life, and every time she was required to make another court appearance, she relived the experience. She needed to move on. Justice denied. I wish the perpetrators could be named.”

“Every year, an average of 5,500 people are reporting sexual violence to Canadian police, but their cases are dropping out of the system as unfounded long before a Crown prosecutor, judge or jury has a chance to weigh in,” reports the Globe and Mail. The use of the term ‘unfounded’ to describe cases that the police have dropped due to the inadequacies of their own methods of interviewing victims, taking statements etc has been identified as highly problematic. The article goes on to state:

“True unfounded cases, which arise from malicious or mistaken reports, are rare. Between 2 per cent and 8 per cent of complaints are false reports, according to research from North America, the United Kingdom and Australia.”

There is no reason the numbers would be markedly different in Jamaica. Why then the moral panic about the mere possibility of libel in cyberspace? And why is there not a similar outcry about the out-of-control rape culture here?

‘Tis the Season to Protest

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Correction: This teach in was on Feb 17 which was last week. No wonder the Gleaner removed the information. Mea culpa…have made the necessary adjustments to tense.

It’s time to resurrect Active Voice. My column in the Gleaner today was pruned of most of the last 2 paragraphs which talk about the planned Teach-in at UWI this Friday concerning the review of the Sexual Offences Act (#SOAReview). Since this is a very important example of the kind of citizen participation I’m talking about, I thought it important to carry the unexpurgated version on my blog.

My first visit to the United States since Donald Trump became president of the country was uneventful. New York City was bustling with activity as usual, as was the conference I attended. The College Arts Association is the largest association of art professionals in the US–including artists, art historians, critics, curators, art writers and publishers. Their annual conference attracts 4000 attendees and each of 5 time slots a day might have up to 18 concurrent panels. The mammoth conference runs for four days.

Landing at John F Kennedy airport in the afternoon there were no lines at immigration. In fact everyone had to scan their passports at kiosks, then photograph and press their fingers on screens themselves before proceeding to an actual agent who engaged minimally to retake fingerprints and photographs. Kiosks are always unnerving, even for someone as technologically literate as I am so i wondered how others with less experience were faring.

Then I was off to my airbnb room in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, by public transport, the air train to–where else–Jamaica, in Queens, and then the E train which took me within a block of my accommodation. Unlike hotels, airbnb accommodation in the city might often be in 3-or 4-storied buildings without elevators so packing lightly is a must. My room turned out to be very comfortable though i never fail to be amazed at how constrained for space many New Yorkers are. I had never seen such a tiny bathroom till then. My hosts were incredibly thoughtful and pleasant which more than made up for the cramped quarters.

On the up side i was in the middle of an avenue of good restaurants, a block away from Broadway with all its glitz and glitter and a healthy walk from the Hilton where the conference was. What are conferences and why do people go to them? Those who pooh pooh them disregard the exchange of knowledge, ideas and concepts that occur at such events. The world is not a mechanical place: beneath the technology, the geopolitics and the surface of the societies we inhabit, lie webs of ideas, theories, and hypotheses.

Knowledge is a communal enterprise, not the product of individuals sitting cocooned in their castles. The cross-fertilization that occurs simply by listening to new points of view on the same subject you might be researching is invaluable. The arc of the scholarly enterprise may be long but it bends towards insight. And insight is essential in these dark times.

An unusual addition to this conference was a wall of protest for people to display posters and slogans on behalf of their cause, whatever that might be. Quite a few of them addressed the Trump presidency. Jostling a sign for the Society of Contemporary Art Historians was one saying, “Trump is the symptom, capitalism is the disease.” “Germans against walls and white nationalism” announced another. “NOT MY PRESIDENT”. “This is not normal”. “Make American kind again.”

One of my favorites just said TRUST WOMEN. On the eve of possibly having a female police commissioner for the first time, and a few weeks before March 11 when the Tambourine Army plans to mobilize women onto Kingston’s streets to protest the unremitting violence they face this is a good slogan for all of us.

The Tambourine Army is asking people to wear purple on March 11 and join the protest. “Bring your friends, your family, your colleagues, your neighbours and let’s march in solidarity as one Jamaica against sexual abuse, against rape, against all forms of sexual violence against our women and girls.”

Also on Friday, February 17, the I’m Glad I’m A Girl Foundation partnered with UN Women and the Tambourine Army to host a full day teach-in on the Sexual Offences Act. A presentation on the Act and related Acts was made by Tracy Robinson (Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, UWI Mona) in the morning, and discussions with advocates about how folks can contribute to the current review of the Act followed in the afternoon.

Citizen participation is the name of the game, WE have to become the change we want to see. Purple is the colour of power, let’s put it on and take to the streets come. To all the men out there come show your support for us, with or without tambourines, on March 11 and we’ll reciprocate by joining the one for violence against men whenever you choose to organize it. Deal?

Rebooting the Past: The Flying Preacherman’s Story

Augustown

“Augustown’s elevation from village to inner-city community had to do with urban sprawl. As Jamaica settled itself into the 20th century, Kingston began to spread out from its harbour, rippling out into the dormitory parish of St. Andrew that surrounded it. The ebbless wave of the city frothed its way up towards Half Way Tree, then further up Hope Road towards Liguanea, Mona, Papine and inevitably, Augustown. To its own surprise, the village found that it was no longer five miles away from the city, but on its edge and then comfortably inside it. Kingston flooded in. Houses were connected to the water main of the NWC and to the electric grid of JPS. The residents of Augustown, new urbanites as they were, no longer tolerated the countrified designation of ‘village’. Instead they spoke of themselves as living in a Kingston community. But no sooner had the village graduated itself to ‘community’ than its middle-class neighbours made sure to distinguish themselves with the prefix ‘suburban’ and Augustown with the prefix, ‘inner-city’. Like dark magic, that phrase seemed to draw into Augustown a heaviness and a heat and a rot. Rusting zinc fences now line the streets, and ratchet knives and machine guns have appeared in the hands of young men. A scar is now on the face of the overlooking hillside.”

On the eve of the launch of Kei Miller’s new novel Augustown in the UK where it’s being published it seems appropriate to pause and consider his huge achievement. The sale of the American rights to Augustown in the USA shortly after Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize last year set off a bidding war that earned him a six-figure advance. In the wake of James’s phenomenally successful A Brief History of Seven Killings Jamaican authors are hot properties and Miller was the first beneficiary.

As you can tell from the passage quoted at the top, Miller’s prose is commandingly deft and lyrical, capable of capturing the massive shifts in Kingston’s social and physical topography in a few fluidly rendered sentences. The Augustown he describes is a fictional valley in Jamaica bearing a marked resemblance to August Town, situated just below the University of the West Indies, Mona.

In this novel, that revolves around the figure of Alexander Bedward—the flying Preacherman—Miller performs a gallant act of literary reclamation. Most of us know of Bedward as a figure of ridicule, a ‘lunatic’ who claimed he could fly. When he failed to do so he was carted off to an asylum, discrediting his Church and breaking the hearts of his followers. So we’ve been told and with our pragmatic, rational, utilitarian worldviews we shake our heads and move on.

But as historians such as Kamau Brathwaite, Veront Satchell and others have told us, there is far more to the story of Bedward. In fact his ministry was so successful, his charisma so compelling, that the Jamaica Native Free Baptist Church he founded became a mass movement, a subaltern anti-colonial awakening that demanded the immediate overthrow of the white overlords and the barriers of race, class and religion experienced under colonial rule. So alarmed were colonial governors by the Preacher’s popularity that they embarked on an active campaign to discredit him, one which has proven remarkably successful, judging by the decimation of the Bedwardite movement, Church and all, and the fact that today this extraordinary preacher is viewed as a faintly comic figure.

As anthropologist Gina Athena Ulysse has tried to do with Haiti (Why Haiti Needs New Narratives: A Post-Quake Chronicle), Miller has done with August Town and Bedward, retrieving their story from the dustbin of history and providing them with a new narrative. And the story he has supplied is one that is ingenious, intricately wrought, powerful and moving enough to recuperate Bedward from his ill-deserved ignominy once and for all. In doing so he also illuminates the power of belief, its sanctity, and the ‘autoclaps’ that is bound to follow when you violate and belittle a people’s belief.

With Augustown Miller breaches the gap he himself notes at one point in the novel between “the stories that were written and stories that were spoken—stories that smelt of snow and faraway places, and stories that had the smell of their own breaths.” In his book Silencing the Past acclaimed Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot discusses in detail how history is produced by the powerful, how certain historical facts are privileged while others are pushed into the shadows.

With this novel Miller has ruptured the silence shrouding a very important history, dragging out of the shadows the refusal of a people to submit quietly to persistent inequality and injustice, people who tried to use their faith and their belief to rise above the abjectness of their lives and fly away home to Zion.

Published in the Gleaner 6/7/17

Jamaica’s ‘Strange Love’ for Indian Drama

This was my latest column in the Jamaica Gleaner. Since a lot of people are complaining they cannot access it easily, i’m reposting it here.

I don’t know when I first started noticing it. Perhaps it was the time I went to clear some goods I’d shipped from India a couple of years ago at one of Kingston’s ports. After navigating the much improved process of recovering your possessions from the wharf you finally end up in a large waiting room with about fifty chairs and a TV mounted on the wall in its own personal grill.

It was lunchtime by then. Sitting in front of me occupying the front rows were 15 or so large, tough-looking men, the kind of individuals who lift up crates and literally manhandle them, along with a few wimpier looking folks there to claim their goods. All were glued to the TV screen on which a brilliantly coloured Indian soap-opera was playing. The men were watching the melodrama with the helpless concentration of snakes following a mongoose’s wily darts to and fro.

Some weeks later the Smith sisters came to visit me. When I mentioned serving some Indian sweets up jumped Sister No. 1 accompanying me to the kitchen saying she wanted to see if they were the kind of sweets Khushi makes. Khushi? A who dat I asked upon which Sister Smith informed me that Khushi was the star of Strange Love, one of two Indian soap operas CVM TV had started showing in their lunchtime slot, Monday to Friday from 1 to 1:30 and 1:30 to 2:00.

“Whenever Khushi’s upset she retreats to the kitchen and starts making sweets,” declared Sister Smith as if she was talking about a bosom buddy.

Really? Indian soaps are melodramas of the sickly sweet variety, how on earth had they taken Jamaica by storm I wondered. Sister Smith assured me that they were such fun that not only she but her parents—the goodly Reverend Smith and her Mom—as well as her brother, a financial analyst in New Kingston, were all hooked to Strange Love. In fact at her brother’s workplace, office workers threw ‘Khushi parties’ after work and spent Saturdays binge-watching the serial while at home the goodly Reverend could be seen shouting at the Indian couple to just DO IT. Just kiss the girl no man, her father would yell in exasperation as Khushi’s admirer spent days and weeks gazing into her eyes, while the background music intensified in volume and sentimentality.

Strange Love or Iss Pyaar Ko Kya Naam Doon as it’s called in Hindi, premiered in India in 2011. Comprising 398 half hour episodes the drama is the love story of an arrogant business tycoon,  Arnav Singh Raizada and his middle-class secretary Khushi Kumari Gupta. Played by actors Barun Sobti and Sanaya Irani the series has propelled both to fame and stardom not only in India but around the world where the show is dubbed into the native language of the region it is shown in. After a few years when Barun left to pursue a career in Bollywood, the show’s fans went berserk demanding his return.

Ok fine. But what is the attraction such shows hold for Jamaicans? I mean a recording artiste named Tiana has even come out with a single named ‘Khushi’ that has reportedly been blowing up local radio.

“What fascinates us is the slowness of the story, the way the lovers look at each other.  The music that comes up when they think of each other. Strange Love focuses on…feelings, how people view each other, how they love each other from their hearts, not their gonads,” vouchsafed a blogger named Lady Fingers.

Meanwhile according to Jodian Downs “These dramas are different, as the characters still maintain their pure innocence and for the viewers, this is extremely addicting. Imagine yourself watching the full 20 episodes of one show just to see the main characters at least get a small peck on the cheek from their love interest.”

Also, continues Downs “the level of loyalty portrayed by each female actress for their male superior is rather humorous and astonishing for the modern female.” Aha! perhaps this explains why Jamaican men are so fascinated by Strange Love. The docile Indian female is no doubt irresistibly attractive to them considering the independence of most Jamaican women?

Interestingly unlike Jamaica where Indian soap operas are appreciated as a step back to a time when love was innocent, in places like Afghanistan where they are also popular they are considered too liberal and therefore threatening to Afghan culture. According to a recent article “Afghan video editors must blur all objectionable content in the scenes, such as too much bare skin, Hindu ways of worship, alcohol and anything that could offend religious sentiments.”

In Jamaica on the other hand Indian dramas have generated much goodwill and love of Indian culture. Long may it last!

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.

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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.