Issues:Setting Moral Boundaries…In a world where all ah we t’ief

By Sam Lochan

This move to emphasize citizenship and values education in schools in Trinidad and Tobago, we are told, is motivated by the high incidence of murderous crimes by young males and the anti-social behaviour of our children. Some say we are producing youths without conscience and therefore need to concentrate on their moral development.

Let me suggest that our concern with civic responsibility, morals and values should begin, not with fear of the youths, but with the recognition of the brazen and destructive display of selfishness by adults in places high and low, at home and abroad. It is in the wider classroom of life that our young people are receiving the most instructive examples of how to behave.

Examine the greed and selfishness that came out of the best and brightest on Wall Street; the crookedness of Bernard Madoff and Allen Stanford in the US and the vulgarity, wanton recklessness and possible banditry at our own CL Financial and Hindu Credit Union. Consider the long and rich heritage of corruption-saturated Trinidad and Tobago- going back beyond even the Caura Dam scandal of the 1940s, the Gas Station racket of the 1960s,the DC-9 scandal of the 1970s, the Piarco Airport scandal of the ‘90s, the allegations of corruption at UDECOTT in the 2000s, and the current “Eat Ah Food” soap opera involving the abuse and misuse of public funds featuring a powerful cast of public personalities throughout the land.

From our leaders down, the example is one of greed, self interest and corruption without inhibition or shame.
How did we come to this sorry pass? And given that we are up to our necks in this mess,how practical and reasonable is it to expect the squandering class to lead the development of the moral fibre of our youth?

To respond to the crisis of corruption and lawlessness we must go back to the very beginning of this society and consider the way people were brought here and the impact of that experience on the psyche of the people, the relationships that developed between them and the relationship of each group to these islands of the Caribbean.
Founding conditions set the mould for the society that exists today. This was not a place to which people came to live; the enslaved and indentured came here to work in a land that was an economy before it was a society. When freedom came, it meant little more to them than that they were now owners of their own bodies. Identity would become a very big issue and remain the primary issue to this day in the Caribbean where we still live in Lamming’s “castle of the skin”. Lloyd Best always argued that because a lot of people were brought here as individuals, the easiest way to connect to others in solidarity was through appearance. Hence the role of ethnicity as a primary force for mobilization in Trinidad and Tobago.

It was not necessary for the elite of plantation owners to set up social institutions for a society of free people since the free were absentee and living elsewhere; in John Stuart Mills infamous words the West Indies “was a place where Britain found it convenient for the growing of tobacco,sugar etc”.

This apparatus for the un-free was bequeathed to us by the departing British with the instruction that we should go forth and create a society of free, independent self-reliant people. It was an objective that would be impossible to achieve without transformation of the institutional apparatus. In 50 years of Independence, this objective was neither affirmed nor achieved.

Today, we pay a high price for this failure in terms of social chaos and mayhem.
In the absence of transformation, we retain our historical lack of commitment to this place, the mark of the transient inhabitant- both rich and poor- waiting to flee to greener pastures. The historical legacy of inferiority and self-contempt keeps us addicted to the idea of somewhere else, somewhere better, somewhere superior. We have no confidence in our ability to fix the problems of this place nor do we accept it as our responsibility. That, we still believe, is the responsibility of somebody else in some other place. In the insecurity of our alienation, we seek protection and support through the obvious identifiers of ethnicity and colour, eternally suspicious of the other and organizing our forces around the motto of “We against them”.

Our legacy of distrust of institutions of governance and law and order remains intact in the face of our failure to transform them. Any wonder, then, that subversion, resistance to authority and distrust of officialdom are the prevailing themes of our lives, etched as they are in the DNA of our people? In our failure to weld a society out of the past, rampant individualism is the order of day, fuelled to a spectacular degree by the materialism unleashed by successive oil booms in the post-Independence period.

Whatever values were once protected within ethnic and geographical communities have dissipated under the rapid urbanisation financed by petro dollars. Communities have disappeared, leaving a new generation of alienated, angry and disappointed youth who, in this land of advantage by corruption, see no reason to be left out.And so, out of the experience of the past, we have created a country of every man, woman, and yes, child, for themselves, each without the moral authority to circumscribe the behaviour of other. Instead, we legitimize and elevate our materialism to the philosophy of “eat ah food” and agree to flex our moral boundaries with the common denominator of “All ah we tief”.

This is the historical context in which we have arrived at today’s disaster. Unless we understand the origins of our behaviour, any programme of Citizenship Education and Character Development is doomed to fail amid a massive waste of time, expertise and money in a grand squandering of the future.

Fifty years after independence, we still need a convocation of the constituent elements of our society as the starting point for fashioning a shared vision for ourselves and this place.

We need through the entire education system—from early childhood to university—to infuse our young people with a sense of commitment to this place, based on self knowledge and self confidence; we need to deal with issues of identity and ethnicity in such a way as to transcend them; we need to create global citizens of our students with a special consciousness of what is unique about us; we need to equip them with habits of self governance and confidence that they can organize people and resources to make things happen; we need to develop an ability to see the needs of the whole society. The greatest achievement of citizenship education will be to make young people feel that they have the power to assume responsibility for their world, their future and their destiny.

Eternal virtues such as wisdom, justice, moderation and courage make for good interpersonal relations in society. But in a post-colonial world struggling to establish solidarity across ethnic divides, traditional virtues may not translate into the civic virtues required for attaining solidarity. Individuals who demonstrate great commitment to the development of personal and family wealth may not transfer this dedication to public life. In fact, public institutions may be used for private purpose while what masquerades as a conglomerate may simply be a family firm and what presents itself as a Credit Union might be a device for accessing the money of the unsuspecting poor. Indeed, the very preachers of service to the people may have a private congregation in mind.

Today, across the planet, a renegotiation of what it means to be human is taking place. National borders are disappearing, opening up issues for global concern. The communications revolution is redefining the ideas of citizenship and morality, sparking a revolt on greed, authoritarianism and intolerance. The environmental movement is challenging the validity of materialis mas a viable path to the future while the advance of individual rights is demolishing the walls of discrimination.

This will affect what it means to be a citizen anywhere on the planet and the kind of character development required of humans. There is therefore a need for a moral citizenship as advocated by Michael Sandel. For us, as with every other society, it must begin with an understanding of who we are and where we are.
Reprinted from the Trinidad and Tobago Review .


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