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What does it mean to be honourable?

Grace VIRTUE

Tuesday, June 10, 2014    

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FORMER Prime Minister P J Patterson triggered a mini firestorm recently with his comments about the country's moral state which he likened to be on the edge of a precipice.

Although he was simply echoing what many others have said in different fora, his words carried significant weight since he is a former prime minister. Critics also took exception to the comments based on the fact that he was prime minister for 14 years, the country's longest-serving, and in their minds, could have or should have done more to stem the downward spiral which was evident during his tenure.

In fact, his response triggered the observation from a friend that Jamaica is already over the precipice. Another friend suggested that, while we may already be over the precipice, there is still time to crawl back if we have the will to do so.

I will not attempt now to split the difference between being near the edge or already over it, but I will agree that we are in a place of deep moral confusion. It comes in large part from our unresolved philosophical directions as a nation; from dying traditions around family and village life; unrestrained external influences, relevant or irrelevant, positive or negative; the diminishing influence of the church as agents of socialisation or moral authority; and from changing global perspective on issues once held sacred such as marriage and the new liberal approach to homosexuality now sweeping the western world.

Routinely in America, states are overthrowing the ban on same-sex marriage. Currently, same-sex marriages are legal in 19 states. Overall, 44 per cent of the United States population lives in states with the freedom to marry for same-sex couples, 46 per cent in states with either marriage or a broad legal status such as civil union or domestic partnership, and over 48 per cent live in states that provide some form of protection for gay couples. There are lawsuits challenging the ban in every state where it currently exists.

With such dramatic change in perspectives on these fundamental issues, it is not hard to understand why many would be confused about the continued relevance of any kind of moral reference point for behaviours once considered taboo.

The broadly acknowledged fragility of our situation, the jarring lack of character among too many of our leaders, and the approaching Father's Day holiday have me thinking about the concept of honour and what it means in relation to Jamaican manhood and our predominantly male political leadership. This is particularly since we have retained the tradition of addressing them as honourable, based on their status as members of parliament or in other positions where tradition entitles them to be addressed thus.

While many will argue that politicians are generally undeserving of the honour, I believe that most of them are quite wedded to their titles and expect to be addressed accordingly, and it is not a simple matter of protocol. It is a feeling that simply by virtue of being elected to office they have earned the distinction that the title connotes.

They like the prestige and they believe that they are entitled to it, and the deference from others that should come with it. Such expectation is without basis, since the system is not based on merit but on an immature and random process around party affiliation and loyalties and on the vagaries of the electorate at a certain point in time.

It is somewhat similar to ascribed status, where an individual's position is assigned on the basis of traits beyond their control, such as race, sex, or inheritance, rather than on any real achievement. The attitudes of our politicians are strictly in keeping with material systems of wealth and power and our post-colonial affinity to status and hierarchy where worth is determined by external validation.

Syndicated columnist Miss Manners, in response to a reader's question about changing the established tradition of addressing politicians as honourable, since many of them are anything but, noted that it is a fantastic leap to interpret the traditional title as an endorsement of a person's honour.

We are talking tradition here, for heaven's sake, not literal analysis. Do you hold everyone dear whom you address as 'Dear Madam or Sir?' This perspective makes the tradition tolerable because it renders it merely a cumbersome but completely meaningless bother but, by the same token, it forces one to ask, why bother? Why not remove the confusion or any expectations that one should expect political leadership to be imbued with a sense of honour? Why not refrain from using the word unless it truly means what it is supposed to?

To live or act honourably means commitment to a code of sound ethical conduct. It is a commitment that is internally rather than externally imposed, influenced by the ethical framework of the society overall or organisational principles to which one subscribes.

People who subscribe to living honourably will do the right thing, even at great personal cost. They will not habitually lie or seek to manipulate others. They keep their word, honour their just obligation, and they are kind, honest, and courageous. Honourable men do not cheat on their wives, have sex with their daughters or step-daughters, with their wives' sisters or best friends, or their helpers or their secretaries under threat of losing their jobs if they do not. They treat all women with respect, not just their wives.

Politicians who are honourable do not disrespect their constituents or enrich themselves through illegal use of State funds, strive to act in the interest of the people they are elected to serve rather than in their own self-interest and are serious and conscientious about service.

The cynical among us will certainly say being honourable as defined here is incompatible with being a politician. I disagree and I believe that regardless of how standards change, there is a place for honour as well as other concepts with which it is deeply intertwined, like integrity, ethics and morality.

In truth, it is not merely our men or other political leadership that should act honourably, it is the whole society, but we have to be trained how to. Otherwise, the society is not viable.

Grace Virtue, PhD, is a social justice advocate.

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