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On social justice and the theatre of the absurd

Grace VIRTUE

Tuesday, May 27, 2014    

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A few years ago, in the dental suite of a Washington, DC, hospital, I witnessed an incident so strange I broke my own rule against interfering in conversations between strangers. An elderly man, obviously in pain, was trying to register so he could see a dentist. He spoke English clearly, but his accent suggested that he was not a native speaker. The receptionist, however, was hearing the accent only and ignoring every word the

man spoke.

"What language do you speak?" she asked.

"Engliss," the man sounded. "I have been in this country 40 years."

"What language do you speak?" she asked again, much louder this time. The man repeated his assertion with even greater clarity. "My first language is Farsi, but I speak Engliss." Unbelievably, the receptionist repeated the question again, her voice going up another octave while the old man rocked back and forth, his face a mix of raw pain and frustration.

"I need to get you a translator," she concluded. I looked around wondering who else found the situation entirely absurd, but everyone stared resolutely ahead. "Wait a minute "I said, walking up to the window. "Didn't you hear what he just said? What part of it did you

not understand? What do you need a translator for?" Without another word, she beckoned the man to the desk.

Each new national dust-up reminds me of that incident. Whether the differences are real or imaginary, it seems most of us believe that the louder we shout or the longer we talk, the better we will make ourselves heard or understood. There are few filters, and the barriers are firmly in place. One of them is the feeling that some people or positions are incontrovertible, while for others it is always open season. This is partly why some people are even congratulatory of Jamaica Public Service (JPS) President Kelly Tomblin's turning off the light to paying customers in impoverished communities to punish none-paying customers.

But, if Tomblin — an American — in a similar capacity, had done that anywhere in the United States, she would have been looking for a new job that would probably never come because there is nothing professional, heroic or noble about such an action. Commendably, she is calling for laws to allow the JPS to call names of light thieves from wealthy communities. How is it possible that she can, without repercussion, disconnect the service to some communities, but not to as much as name those elsewhere who are stealing the service?

It is time for the Government to address the issue of electricity theft. Mark Wignall in his May 15 article, 'JPS has a genuine case,' pointed out that there is no profile of the individual who steals electricity. Establishing that is central to determining the sensible policy directives for which Garnett Roper is advocating.

Dr Jeffrey Meeks, of the Hillel Academy board of directors, and Senator Marlene Malahoo-Forte, host of the talk show Justice on Power 106, apparently also believe that they, or the institutions they serve, ought not to be questioned. Meeks took issue with my description of Hillel as a school patronised by the country's elite, but offered no hard data to counter it. For example, what are the current fees? How many of the students are regular civil servants? How many school-sponsored children are there from any of Kingston's numerous inner city communities?

Malahoo-Forte's response, meanwhile, is another issue. A reader's comment intrigued me. She questioned why would a talk show host, or connected persons, refuse to disclose that the broadcast was indeed an extended ad for the school.

Dr Dennis Harriot, who posed the initial question on Facebook, raised similar concerns: "Since it is teachers' appreciation day, shouldn't the focus be on teachers who are facing real challenges such as hostile students, violent communities, and poverty-stricken kids, etc?"

These are pertinent questions for people who understand media as serving public rather than private interests, and this was the basis of my observations and I stand by them.

As for my agendas, to the extent that I have one, it is simply to let it be understood that I will not go along with the status quo and join the choir beating upon the poor, the weak and the vulnerable, while deferring to the wealthy or the powerful. This is not a hidden agenda since I have always made it clear that I come from a social justice perspective, a position based on the belief in the inherent dignity of every human being.

By extension, I believe in the elimination of oppression and barriers that people face because they are poor, or because of their gender, age, race, ethnicity, skin colour, religion, or disability. And I reject entirely our habit of using the experience of the dominant socio-economic group as the norm for all other groups.

Although I am not a member, I embrace the Catholic church's teaching on social justice awakened anew by Argentinian Pope Francis, and which emanates from the directives of Jesus in scriptures such as Matthew 25: 34-40 (What you do for the least among you, you do for Jesus) and 1 John 3: 17-18 (How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's good and sees one in need and refuses to help?).

Rather than ostracising the poor, I believe they should be enabled to become active participants in society and to share in and contribute to the common good. This is not an adversarial position nor does it pit one group or class against another. Rather, it is based on the belief that "the deprivation and powerlessness of the poor wounds the whole community, and the extent of their suffering is a measure of how far we are from being a true community of persons".

I believe that addressing these issues is fundamental to peaceful coexistence and to national development.

Grace Virtue, PhD, is a social justice advocate.

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