By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
October 29, 2018
Now that the waters have subsided after the worst flooding in fifty years, we should engage in a new national discourse about who we are and whether we can keep on doing the same ole same ole and expect different results. We should decide whether we continue along our national highway using the same tired rhetoric of a happy, go-lucky people who never think or plan for tomorrow.
President Paula-Mae Weeks opened up the national conversation best when she said: “Whether causes by an Act of God, omissions or commissions of institutions or individuals or any combination thereof, this is not the time to ascribe blame. Now is the time for all to come together as a nation to render whatever assistance we can to those in such desperate need” (Express, October 22).
The flood brought out the best in our citizens and our instinctive desire to help one another. Yet, we cannot escape the human compunction to engage in national self-questioning. A country consists of a people who live together and have mutual obligations to one another. In 1962, at the beginning of our nation journey, V. S. Naipaul described us as a picaroon society, each of us trying to get his own at the expense of the other.
Dr. Eric Williams, the Father of the Nation, gave Naipaul a grant to write anything he chose. Naipaul wrote about Trini behavior. Although he was not a sociologist, he was an acute observer of human behavior and that paid enormous dividends. Naipaul’s The Middle Passage remains one of our most prescient sociological studies.
Fifty-six years later, a powerful avalanche of water (waters of national cleansing) brought home to us with great urgency our need to care for one another. It was a powerful reminder of Bob Marley’s admonition, “When the rain fall/it don’t fall on one man’s housetop. Remember that.”
We can find support for this truism in the Bible, but I prefer to draw on Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments to sketch out the moral implications of our living together and caring for one another. Smith began his treatise with the following words: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion.”
In : What He Thought, and Why It Matters, Jesse Norman, a philosopher and British MP, expanded on Smith’s thoughts: “Compassion is thus a basic principle of human nature for Adam Smith. Yet, it quickly becomes clear that the key idea here is not so much compassion in the sense of pity, but rather compassion as empathy or fellow feeling.”
Norman outlines the difference between sympathy and empathy when he says: “Sympathy is the capacity to detect and reflect the emotions of others. This then in turn enables the operation of what would now be called empathy: the imaginative capacity to place ourselves mentally, to greater or lesser extent, in the position of those who may be far removed and wildly different from us.”
To empathize presumes a moral investment in others, a capacity to see them for who they are, and a genuine determination to transcend our parochialism, particularly in a multicultural society. Empathy involves more imaginative effort or projection than sympathy. It is not a competition to see who can give more, particularly in a time of national disaster, but a genuine desire to put oneself in another man’s shoes.
It was troubling, therefore, when UNC Senator Khadija Ameen accused Government members of lacking in compassion for the storm victims. “You cannot buy compassion; you cannot PR compassion; you cannot buy wanting to care for people. You can’t buy kindness; that is the difference between you [PNM] and us [UNC]” (Express, October 22).
Was this an expression of pity or feigned compassion? Is compassion something UNC members possess through osmosis; something PNM members lack intuitively? Are UNC members more human, PNM members less so? And if compassion involves a deep sense of imaginative projection with another, wouldn’t Ameen’s moral awareness demand that she sees that attribute in all human beings?
When we started our national journey, Williams announced the national watchwords, “Discipline, Production, Tolerance.” It was a well-intentioned slogan he imposed rather than the product of a national discussion. We are still trying to give life and meaning to those sentiments.
Today we need a more intuitive grammar to grapple with the challenges that face us. The wanton killings we see around us, the callous disregard for the feelings of others, and the extreme “me-ism” of many citizens demands a different grammar-sentiments such as moral awareness, empathy for others, an unyielding generosity of spirit, and the abiding question, “What are my obligations to my brothers and sisters in this day and time?”
Things could have been worse. The president reminded us: “As dire as things are, know that we are all hoping, working and praying to bring whatever relief we can in the shortest possible time.”
Watch and pray, but let us think, talk, and plan more concretely for the coming disasters that will surely confront us.