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A whole new ethic

Grace VIRTUE

Tuesday, December 24, 2013    

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LAST year, I spoke at a church in Grand Cayman on the topic "Parenting for the Educational and Spiritual Success of Your Children".

The audience was predominantly Jamaican, and the spirited discussion which followed largely centred on them leaving their children in Jamaica to work in Cayman. Two of the speakers were especially memorable.

The first was a male professional who, from his descriptions, had a good situation in Jamaica. His wife was also a high-level professional and they had twin girls. They wanted to achieve some material goals fairly early -- especifically buying a house in a brand-name neighbourhood. They agreed that he would take up a better-paying job in Cayman while she took care of the twins and continued to work in Jamaica.

He challenged my position that he should be at home with his family. Modern technology negated some of my arguments, he said. He talked to the children via Skype everyday. He would communicate with them that way on their first birthday, which was coming up soon.

"Can you hug them via Skype, and how do you make up for the fact that you will miss their first birthday?" I asked.

The second was a woman whose teen daughter had attempted suicide after experiencing severe abuse at the hands of the aunt, in whose care she was left. She kept quiet fearing that "telling" would jeopardise her mother's stay in Cayman. The mother found out only after the attempted suicide. She went home and talked to her, she said, and she is okay now. She had a few months left at a prominent rural high school. Mom, obviously, was back in Cayman taking care of other people's children and sending home some strong dollars.

"Maybe instead of being a domestic worker in Cayman, you can be a chicken farmer in Jamaica. The money may be less, and you may have to work much harder, but at least you will be with your daughter. You cannot put a price on that," I argued in response to her question about long-distance parenting.

In a conversation along similar lines with my childhood friend recently, he posited that some of life's most important questions have to be answered long before they are asked. When, in fact, they are asked, there is no conflict.

This position presupposes a set of principles of right conduct or a code of behaviour that we adopt, governing our personal and professional life.

In the search for answers to the problems we face as a nation, surely much of it has to do with the fact that so many of us have never even thought of, let alone apply any such code in our lives? This seems particularly evident in politics and accounts for why politicians, as a group, are viewed in such negative terms.

In the relationship between leaders and followers, for example, there are clear, if unspoken expectations of one versus the other. Politicians often disrespect some followers -- like the nonentities who hang on to the motorcades at election time -- tolerating them mostly because each body equates to a vote and they may need them to do some heavy lifting. They mostly forget that there is tremendous honesty and intuitive wisdom among this group, even if they don't always act that way.

They may not know the law, for instance, but they know when they are asked to do something that is wrong, and even if they go along with it, they actually expect better from the leader -- their "social better." They learn, instead, that the leaders cannot be trusted and, within the underbelly, distrust becomes cynicism and contempt.

The point is, the choices that we make matter -- often more so than we understand in the moment. It makes sense, then, that as far as possible, we are guided by a framework of right conduct.

Just ask those people in public life now who, in their declining years, are trying to reinvent themselves; to delete from collective memory conduct that they deeply regret -- even if they will not admit to it -- to rewrite history to suggest that their contribution to national life was nothing less than exemplary and that they bear no responsibility for our culture of violence and corruption, our political and social dysfunctionalities, or our economic quagmire.

For this and other reasons the decision on the Goat Islands port has to be about the kind of society we want to leave our children -- one not measured purely in economic terms, but takes into consideration how much of our natural heritage we want to leave them, how we treat other life forms, and the importance we place on right conduct.

Just last week, I read with great amusement a newspaper article gently questioning why, after 37 years, the PSOJ, has had relatively little impact compared to a handful of environmentalists, who, in desperate economic times, have still managed to slow the proposal for the massive investment project.

I have a theory on that:

It is because the environmentalists situate their oppositions within a legal framework; challenging the Government to honour its own processes and, by defending vulnerable species and causes from which they will not directly benefit, they can also claim the moral high ground. We pooh-pooh their positions, which often seem more idealistic than practical. But, admit it or not, it is within them that we see our better selves.

Pardon the reductionism, but most of us probably agree that a spirited defence of just "two likkle lizzad" comes from a nobler place than "your policies are getting in the way of me getting richer and I don't give a rat's tail if they favour the poor".

Truthfully, the Goat Islands project represents a genuine dilemma. It is inarguable that a project promising significant infusion of capital and sustained economic activities is well-needed.

Unlike my two friends in Cayman, who were just making bad decisions, this is tougher not just because of its scope and potential impact, but because whatever happens, something of significant value will be lost.

What then is the way forward?

To borrow from international development specialist, Paul Mikov, one premised on "a whole new ethic" -- one that honours honesty over subterfuge; modesty over ostentatiousness; mindfulness over blind consumerism; sustainability over immediate gratification; and the greater good over narrow sectoral interests.

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