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On hubris and the rights of the child

Grace Virtue

Tuesday, June 24, 2014    

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ONE of the most powerful tenets of Christianity, embodied in the Golden Rule, is the call to compassion, which simply means displaying care and concern for the suffering of others. In other words, since we typically do not enjoy the pain of suffering, we should take care not to inflict it on others, and when they do suffer, our noblest response should be empathy and kindness. Major religions like Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism rank compassion among the greatest virtues.

I have had to think about this as I ponder Carolyn Gomes, the woman currently at the centre of our latest national brouhaha, and my own response to her. However, it is worth thinking about in relation to others as well, particularly those whom Jesus called "the least of these, my people". It is important during this time of national ferment, when many of us are concerned that we have lost our way morally, that we are being swept along helplessly by powerful shadowy forces striking at the heart of human existence as we know it. Moreover, the erosion of the social norms that should serve as constraints on our behaviour, and the disregard for law and order, will ultimately render the society uninhabitable. With so much at stake, the tendency sometimes leans toward over-correction, and that brings with it its own danger. We ought not, for example, to go after offenders with the fervour of a pack of hungry wolves; motivated not merely by a real physiological need, but because we derive some sick pleasure from tearing them apart. That is just another way of killing civilisation.

My vision, then, for Jamaica is for civility -- if not gentleness. That as we imagine a society where the rule of law is honoured and reasonable norms constrain us, we will commit to never losing the warmth and kindness that make the island such a special place. We must remember, as well, that Christianity is a way of life. Inasmuch as we condemn in the name of Christ, we must also correct with compassion, even when the offenders offer no contrition.

Gomes co-founded Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) -- a self-proclaimed human rights group. She was the public face of the organisation from its inception in 1999 until she resigned last year to take up another position. A decade after its founding, Gomes received the Order of Jamaica from the Jamaican Government for her work, which then focused largely on victims of State abuse. Last week news broke that JFJ, under Gomes' leadership, had spearheaded the introduction of a sexual and reproductive health programme to 120 wards of the State in six privately run homes. As the details unfolded, it became clear that not only had the responsible State agencies been bypassed, but the material was highly unsuitable for the age of some of the children, and it contained a clear attempt to normalise sexual practices that the culture does not embrace or are not recommended medically.

The JFJ's actions, led by Gomes, contain three elements which are bound to initiate the kind of visceral reaction that is being seen now from sections of the society. The first is hubris, and examined within this framework, Gomes' seeming tone-deafness makes sense. Her overestimation of her own or the JFJ's importance seemed to have blinded her to the reality that she had no legal or moral authority to authorise a programme for wards of the State, with similar content which was previously rejected by the education ministry as unsuitable.

I will say again, this is not a discussion about whether children need sex education or not; they do. It is about whose responsibility it is to decide when, how it is conceptualised, and how and by whom it should it be delivered. These are questions for the children's parents -- where their rights have not been terminated -- and for the State, where they have been. For anyone else to make those decisions is hubris gone wild. In Greek mythology, actions like these are one-way streets to destruction.

The second element is duplicity. Jamaicans For Justice came on the scene as a human rights organisation. The United Nations Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights defines human rights as inherent to all human beings and points out that, at all levels, rights come with obligations, principal among them being respect for the rights of others. A group operating under the banner of human rights should understand its obligations as well. In this case, no such recognition is evident. What has unfolded instead can be dubbed deception on the scope and motive behind their work, which brings me to the third element: targeting/exploiting a vulnerable community.

Children, because they are immature physically and mentally, are susceptible to exploitation and therefore enjoy special protections under the United Nations Charter. The Declaration on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the General Assembly, December 1959, states that: "Whereas mankind owes to the child the best it has to give, now...calls upon parents, upon men and women as individuals, and upon voluntary organisations, local authorities, and national government to recognise these rights and strive for their observance by legislative and other measures..."

The Declaration states further that: "The child shall enjoy special protection, and shall be given opportunities and facilities... to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually, and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity."

I am struck, particularly, by the use of the words "morally" and "normally". What do they mean in reference to the material presented to the children and to the country at large debating the place of homosexuality in the country, including whether to repeal the buggery law?

I eagerly await the response from the authorities as to whether or not laws have been broken and what are the next steps. Clearly, the administrators of the children's homes have questions to answer and the Child Development Agency needs to dramatically improve oversight. None of these excuses, JFJ or Carolyn Gomes. Their obligation is both legal and ethical. For the society at large, let us examine critically the multiple ways in which we violate our children on a daily basis.

Grace Virtue, PhD, is author of the parenting book, How will I know my children when I get to Heaven?

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