Columns

10 things we should not be confused about — Part 1

Grace VIRTUE

Tuesday, April 08, 2014    

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In the public sphere, there are always contending views and all should be respected. It is also true that every society should agree on some basic principles. Otherwise, it can remain stuck in an endless cycle of debates with no real progress. While there may not be complete consensus, generally, there should be agreement on the following issues.

1. The dignity of the individual is inherent and separate from man-made variables.

Whether or not one looks through the lenses of Christianity, or any other religion, every human being deserves to be valued and treated ethically just because they are humans. We, however, have practised the contrary — to only respect those with certain attributes. Bereft of bling, the average Joe or Jane, the poor; the elderly, and the disabled, are treated as expendable. Nurses, doctors, policemen, lawyers, and journalists often relate to them from positions of indifference, contempt or condescension, seemingly unaware that the overall cheapness of life in our culture is directly related to our branding of some as valueless. However, a society where human life has no value is nonviable. We must reprogramme, therefore, to be equally committed to and respectful of the weak as we are of the strong.

2. All human behaviour is learned.

Imagine a normal human child who, for whatever reason, has never heard a human voice or otherwise exposed to language, but has heard the incessant mooing of a cow. He/she will not know language but will imitate the cow. While all human beings have innate tendencies, our environment either brings out or suppresses them. We act out our cultural markers.

I recall an incident years ago, when I was a student at the University of the West Indies, which drove home to me how we judge people by their circumstances. Down the street from the house I shared with three friends in Barbican was an empty lot where the boys from "the ghetto" played football. It was also a shortcut for me, depending on where I got off the bus. I met a child there one day, a delightful wide-eyed boy with perfect little baby teeth and soft skin that was dark like nightfall. He was barefooted, covered in dust, and his oversized T-shirt fell down his shoulder. I took him inside for a popsicle.

When I came home the next day, he was waiting for me at the gate. It soon became routine. My friends took him under their wings too, before one of our proper middle class neighbours, on behalf of the others, came to reprimand us for "harbouring" Junior, or the friends he started bringing with him in the neighbourhood. "Because as young as you see them, they are thieves, just waiting for an opportunity to break (into) your house."

I never plucked up the courage to follow Junior behind the zinc fence to see from whence he came, but common sense and the literature tell me that in communities where violence, drugs, neglect,and disparity are obvious, children learn to relate to the world through precisely those lenses. When the society reinforces those expectations, the chance of growing up whole is drastically reduced. If Junior continued to live in that community, he probably would have attended New Day All-Age School. I hope he made it out and is thriving somewhere. I know he was not born a thief.

3. Christianity and morality are not synonymous.

The information age has unleashed a barrage of social changes; the influences are many and the impact far-reaching. Our challenges are compounded by behaviours that are unseemly and unproductive, such as the tendency to act outside of an ethical framework, and putting the well-being of others at risk.

Some of us recognise that this is untenable for the long haul — that there is a need for clearly defined framework to guide our conduct, privately and publicly. Inevitably, though, such discussions are conflated with Christianity. Morality, however, is not the same as Christianity, although religions, generally, are understood as likely pathways to ethical lives and secular laws in the West are heavily influenced by the moral laws of the Bible. Ultimately, moral laws are rules that should apply to everyone -- religious or not. Non-religious frameworks include humanism, consequentialism, and utilitarianism.

4. Sex is not the goal or totality of human experience.

The media peddles sex as much as it can because sex sells. The problem is that one cannot commodify the act without objectifying the participants, including the consumers or onlookers. This means separating them from that inherent dignity and from their finest human feelings, like that which says sexual intercourse is the highest expression of intimacy between a man and a woman and, therefore, belongs within certain confines.

According to the "sex sells" paradigm, crassness has to be rebranded as sophistication and reducing the entire human experience to mostly a series of bump and grind, made acceptable. A credible media, however, cannot be virginal when it comes to advancing dictum for the conduct of others, and be nine months pregnant as far as its own go. Here also, boundaries need to be re-examined and redrawn.

5. There is virtue in simplicity

Simplicity, says one definition, is the virtue of removing the extraneous to reveal the essence. This is why good real estate agents advise their clients to declutter before showing their homes. Clutter will hide the elegance of a space or make it seem smaller.

This is true of life too. Clutter is excess baggage. Our tight fiscal space is an opportunity to dial back on over the top pretentiousness and unsustainable consumerism.

"Small nations," said Professor Errol Miller, "have been misguided into believing that their destiny is to become like the large industrialised countries, even if it means following them into social and moral decadence...they have a great opportunity to chart a new course in discovering the true meaning of humanity. None are better placed than several small nations, many of them in the Caribbean."

I say that Jamaica, with its oversized global footprint, is perfectly poised to lead and we should.

Read Part II next week.

Washington, DC-based scholar, Dr Grace Virtue is a public affairs practitioner, analyses social policy and advocates social justice. Comments to gvirtue@usa.net

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