What is the root cause of violent crime in the Caribbean?
Hardly a day now passes in any CARICOM nation without the occurrence of some horrific incident of violent crime or misogynistic abuse of women. Indeed, just two days ago we in Barbados learnt of the violent death of 29 year old Jabar Lashley who was reportedly stabbed to death by a teenager—the ninth homicide of the year.
So, where do we go from here? How do we confront and tackle this social pathology that is threatening to overwhelm our country?
Of course, many persons will respond to this question by calling for more rigorous policing, tougher penalties for criminal convictions, more police officers, the establishing of gun courts, and other similar law and order measures. But while these are merited responses, the truth is that they only address the symptoms of the problem and do not reach the core root or cause.
So, before we can prescribe truly effective and permanent corrective action, we first have to make an effort to identify the root or fundamental cause and source of the problem.
And the sad but undeniable truth of the matter is that the root of the problem resides in our currently existing “culture system”. Indeed, if we examine our current reality closely we will detect that with every passing year our over-arching “culture system” is gradually becoming one in which — on the one hand — greed, self-centred individualism and lack of empathy or respect for “others” are promoted, and, on the other hand, violence, alienation, social ostracism, and the suffering of “others” are trivialized.
But if we are to understand how and why we have come to this cultural and psychological state of affairs, we need to go back to our early years of Independence, and to the testimony and advice of one of our most outstanding Caribbean scholars— the late Professor Gordon Lewis.
Back in the mid-1960’s— when Barbados and several other Caribbean territories were on the verge of becoming independent— Professor Lewis urged the West Indian leaders of that era to carefully consider what socio-economic path, and what ruling value system, they were going to adopt for our new nations.
Lewis– in his magnificent work entitled “The Growth of the Modern West Indies”— warned about the social and psychological deficiencies that were already present in our colonial-derived culture, and of the dangerous prospect of exacerbating and adding to those deficiencies by permitting the newly established nations to come under the sway of the cultural and material imperialism of capitalist North America.
Indeed, Professor Lewis held up before us the very negative example of Puerto Rico— the Caribbean territory that had been most exposed to the full blast of North American cultural and material imperialism. This is how Professor Lewis described the Puerto Rico of the mid-1960’s :-
“…the local scene is one characterized by a population large sections of which are at once psychologically depressed and socially disorganized, with alarmingly high percentages of mental retardation, psychosis, incest, prostitution and drug addiction: not to mention a collective inferiority complex that comes from the habit, reinforced by the externally controlled industrialization programme, of always looking to the norteamericanos to do things, to make decisions as the controlling group in the relationship.”
Well, instead of taking to heart Lewis’ wise words of caution, most of the political, social and business leaders of our newly independent nations gleefully embraced the so-called ‘American way”, and made the United States of America their model and cultural point of reference.
But, the United States of America– as we all know– possesses a Capitalistic culture that, while it may have some strengths and attractions, is also suffused with such malignancies as the qualities of self-centeredness, arrogance, greed, cynicism, spiritual emptiness, an ethos of “winners” and “losers”, and violence!
We are all aware of American capitalistic self-centeredness, arrogance, cynicism, and greed. But let us focus for a while on the phenomenon of violence.
United States television routinely features news stories (and movies) about death and destruction inflicted by the American Government and its military forces on human beings all over the world, and the mainstream of American society accepts this as normal and routine. And when this national predisposition is mixed in with a popular culture that glamorizes violence and that insists on the individual right to possess guns, it is not surprising that every couple weeks some American gets it into his head to shoot down a dozen or more of his fellow citizens!
In addition, the powerful business corporations of the USA have created an intense consumerist culture in which the most powerful and sophisticated instruments and techniques of psychological conditioning are devoted to nurturing and maintaining a de-sensitized, atomized, uninformed, pleasure and entertainment seeking population.
And so, if this is our cultural reference-point, can we really be surprised that with every passing year our societies (like Puerto Rican society in the 1960’s) are exhibiting more and more symptoms of the North American capitalist social / cultural malaise?
The truth is that we — as a people — are gradually becoming more and more self-centred, self-consumed, self-righteous, spiritually empty and less and less capable of appreciating and valuing the worth of other human beings. And, we too, are subjecting ourselves to a surfeit of mindless entertainments and social media titillations and trivialities, and are gradually drifting away from the guidance of a moral code and a communal ethic.
Now that we have sketched this background, we can acknowledge that at the very core of incidents of senseless violent and destructive behaviour are alienated persons devoid of empathy with their fellow citizens and emotionally and even socially disconnected from their national society.
Thus, the national response to this phenomenon must be an organized effort to establish a new and significantly different cultural reference-point and to instil in our people – particularly our youth – a sense of community; a sense that they “belong” to the nation/society ; a sense that they are connected in some vital way to the entire society and body politic – that they are our communal sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, cousins.
And since virtually all Caribbean youth spend at least 12 years of their lives in our national school systems, it would make sense for us to commence our “national fight-back” at the level of our education system.
The sad reality is that too many of our children and adolescents are not being sufficiently nurtured, cared for, and prepared for life in our Caribbean schools.
Let us therefore—across the Caribbean Community– establish programmes in each nation to examine all of our schools, with a view to determining where we need smaller classes, more individual attention for students, a greater teacher to student ratio, remedial education teachers, an expanded curriculum, more technical, vocational and artistic training and certification, the assistance of psychologists and/or guidance counsellors, organized interventions in the deficient home environments of “at risk” students — and the list goes on.
And having done so, let us then enlist the assistance of all relevant national authorities and organizations – the Ministry of Education, our Parent /Teacher Associations, Old Scholar Associations, service clubs, philanthropic organizations, private sector businesses, trade unions, churches, relevant professional organizations, retired educators, Caribbean diaspora organizations – to act urgently on the results of such national examinations.
Let us also determine how we can so restructure the content of our educational programme that we do a much better job of instilling in our students an acceptance and appreciation of themselves as sacred beings; a deep respect and regard for humanity/other human beings; a sense of personal responsibility; and a notion of duty to family, community, nation, humanity.
And , of course, we must also address the phenomenon of negative cultural penetration!
Let us begin with simple awareness of the problem. We must therefore make a communal effort to develop a national awareness that our nation exists within an international Capitalist cultural environment in which some of the most negative, anti-social, and even anti-human values are currently being propagated, extolled, and imposed, and that we have to be on guard as a nation as to what values, social practices, culture we accept.
Such a national awareness should, in turn, produce a collective determination to NOT be mere culture imitators or borrowers! Rather, we should be impelled to counter negative cultural penetration through our own nationally and institutionally organized processes of analysis of the external environment in which we exist, and also by developing, having faith in, and pursuing our own indigenous, self-generated, healthy and attractive cultural alternatives.
I am therefore issuing a “call to duty” right across our Caribbean Community to our Parliamentarians, Government ministers, journalists, scholars, educators, Ministers of Religion, artists, and other significant interpreters and shapers of public opinion, and urging them to commence upon this critical task with earnestness. They must think about the problem, analyze it, talk and warn about it, and establish mechanisms and programmes to counteract it and to encourage our own indigenous cultural expressions.
Finally, let us, at the highest levels of our national political and economic governance develop a culture/philosophy/ideology/value system that is based on the notion of the “General Welfare” – the idea that every citizen matters; that no-one is to be callously discarded and left behind; and that the highest and most powerful political and economic entities of our nation must accept that they possess a responsibility for the wellbeing of every citizen.
We must consciously set out to champion and instil the notion that the nation belongs to each and every one of us, and that each and every citizen matters!
If this powerful idea is truly embraced as a national creed it means that we will henceforth set out in an organized way to be our brother’s and sister’s keeper, and whenever misfortune or hard times befall any segment of our population our entire society will appreciate that we all have a national duty to respond positively and help to mitigate the loss or misfortune. In other words our ambition must be to ensure that — as far as possible — no-one is alienated, ostracized, or reduced to a state of hopelessness.
These, then, are just a few initial and basic ideas around which we can begin to more consciously and determinedly structure in each CARICOM country a nationally organized response to the social pathology that is causing us such concern across the region.
I once again put them forward for consideration.
(DAVID COMISSIONG lives and works in Barbados and is a Citizen of the Caribbean.)