Columns

Indiscipline and the unravelling of the social fabric

Howard Gregory

Sunday, February 03, 2013    

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SEVERAL years ago when the municipal authorities in the city of Montego Bay decided to introduce a system of traffic lights and an accompanying one-way flow of traffic on many streets, I pointed out that it would not create the kind of improvement for which it was intended, if all that was taking place was the addition of technology to a system of indiscipline and disorder without some intentional process of sensitisation and education.

Not surprisingly, the system was brought on stream with minimal public notification and has made little difference to the flow of vehicular and human traffic. The centre of Montego Bay remains one of the most congested and chaotic places in which to do business. Pedestrians do as they like, while taxis set their own rules for the roads daily.

It should not come as a surprise then, that the recent attempt to introduce a technologically controlled pedestrian crossing outside the Half-Way-Tree Transportation Centre should run into problems from the outset. The graphic image carried in the news media of a pedestrian wrestling himself from the grip of a policewoman who was restraining him from crossing at will, should serve as a paradigm for where we are as a society when it comes to matters of discipline.

It seems that over time we have become a people lacking in personal discipline which requires external authorities to enforce the same, and even then, there is defiance of such imposition of discipline.

This did not happen overnight. While each individual must develop a personal sense of discipline, and the home and school should be primary agencies in this regard, it is also true that the institutions of public governance and authority have allowed manifestations of indiscipline to blossom into full-blown chaos before attempting to take corrective steps, usually taking the form of draconian action at that stage.

Many of our homes are failing our children with regard to the inculcation of discipline, and many of us are quick to blame persons from the lower social strata of society for these problems. We quickly point to the teenagers who are becoming parents, and argue that if children are begetting children, then what else can we expect?

I do not give this position the credence which some are quick to attribute to it. The truth is that many of these children still fall under the care of grandmothers and great-grandmothers who have traditionally been the mainstay in the inculcation of values and discipline in our nation's children.

What I see happening is that the breakdown of discipline is at every level of the society, as many better positioned parents in our society believe that they are above enforced codes of discipline, in the belief that these are for the lower placed ones in the society.

The police will tell you about the attitude of many of these persons if they are stopped in any routine operation. The police are somehow to just look at them and know that they do not fall in the category of those who are to be subjected to such an experience.

In the same way, many of these parents believe that their children should not be subjected to discipline by anyone other than themselves, and at times pose a serious challenge for the enforcement of discipline in schools.

Whatever is the cause for this breakdown in discipline, the fact is that all around us there is now the need for institutions to begin to set codes of conduct and discipline for those who would seek to access their services. Hospitals, schools, offices, and restaurants have to insist that persons be appropriately attired to enter public spaces, especially as this relates to matters of public health.

Not to mention the fact that many offices and business places now have a challenge getting their workers to understand that there is an appropriate mode of dress for work, which is different from that for the weekend bashment.

Even more telling is the challenge many schools face in which the administration is seeking to inculcate discipline in the students by way of adherence to the dress code where uniforms are concerned, while some of the teachers are sending a contradictory message by the inappropriateness of their attire and conduct.

On the issue of indiscipline, it is futile for us to spend the time seeking to exonerate ourselves from this social malady and merely to cast blame, because in the culture which has emerged, most of us have slipped into the mode that, if persons are getting by doing it, I may as well try it. Nowhere is this more evident than on our roads.

We cannot, however, resign ourselves to this situation, as it not only makes for social disorder and chaos, but it is also the breeding ground for violence and loss of human lives.

I believe that stemming the tide at this time involves the enforcement of external control. In this regard, I believe that the police need to pay greater attention to acts of indiscipline on the roads and not focus primarily on the ultimate outcome of such behaviour, which is the commisson of crimes.

So, for example, the indiscipline which is evident each weekday morning at a location like Dunrobin Avenue in which motorists deliberately use a left-turn-only lane to create a third lane, thereby creating disorder and risking the safety of motorists who are obeying the law, must be the recipients of traffic tickets without fail. I have no problem with this being the route to filling the Government's coffers.

It is the same manifestation of indiscipline which led to the recent accident involving 18 students of Holmwood Technical High School, at the hands of a driver who only minutes before had been ticketed for dangerous driving. So often motorists are able to engage in various forms of indiscipline and violation of the law, as they know that policing is too predictable, lacking the element of surprise and does not focus sufficiently on these violations which, left unchecked, lead to greater risk-taking with costly consequences.

External enforcement of discipline is only one aspect of social discipline, but constitutes an important aspect of the pursuit of social order. At the same time there are voices within the society who seem to resent any form of external discipline. This, I must point out, is not about the perpetration of social injustice and the abuse of the rights of citizens.

There seems to be still ingrained in our psyche that legacy of slavery which makes us want to conform to rules and to exercise what we know discipline demands of us, when there is an authority figure watching over us. It is for this reason that persons can use as licence the expression, "This is Jamaica," in order to justify some act of indiscipline, while the same persons observed in the United States of America or other nations of the north will act with self-control and discipline.

The more serious challenge confronting us is the matter of personal discipline. I know that there are persons who have given up on the society and the prospect of any return to order and discipline in our social interactions. While the task is a mammoth one, I believe we must begin with the children from the earliest stages of their development.

So alongside the preoccupation with getting the literacy and numeracy right, we must focus on the cultivation of appropriate attitudes and values which provide the foundation for the inculcation of discipline. In addition, we cannot give up on our adults. Our men folk must develop a sense of personal discipline so that every light pole or wall does not become a public urinal.

We need to focus on parenting education through all kinds of channels including the church, parent/teachers associations, the workplace, and civil society.

This will only be possible if we are prepared to acknowledge that the nation is on a slippery slope of chaos and disorder, and that each person cannot simply decide what level of discipline or lack thereof he/she will follow.

There must be some parameters on which we can agree because, without that, the fabric of our society will be irretrievably damaged, and we shall become, not the failed state which economists often highlight, but the disintegrated and ungovernable state in which each does as he/she pleases.

Howard Gregory is the Lord Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

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