By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
July 25, 2022
PART I — PART II
The Hatter asks Alice: “Why is a bird like a desk?”
Alice was pleased. She enjoyed playing word games, so she said, “That’s an easy question.”
“Do you mean you know the answer?” said the March Hare.
“Yes,” said Alice.
“Then you must say what you mean,” the March Hare said.
“I do,” Alice said quickly. “Well, I mean what I say. And that’s the same thing, you know.”
“No, it isn’t!” said the Hatter.
—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
On April 21, 2022, the prime minister commented on the close to 20 murders that took place while he was in Barbados. Asked if T&T was losing its fight against crime, the PM responded: “I don’t notice anybody running away from the fact that we are a violent society and in recent years a number of persons have gotten their hands on firearms, handguns in particular.” (Express, April 22.)
While murders have increased over the past few years, I am at a loss to understand what led the prime minister to conclude that “we are a violent society”. I am not sure what sources he drew upon to arrive at his conclusion, but in the 1950s T&T was not considered to be a violent society. In the 1950s, boys and girls walked in the moonlight and my mother visited her in-laws who lived about a mile away, without fear. Even PNM was famous for holding its nightly meetings at Woodford Square, Harris Promenade and other parts of the country.
If, as the PM claims, T&T is a violent society, the critical question remains: when did T&T become a violent society and why?
On July 18, expanding on the theme of violence, the PM announced his intention to declare violent crime a public health issue. He said: “With respect to breaking the cycle and stilling the flow of new recruits into the criminal elements and the flush of criminal behaviour from our young people, who form significant parts of these minorities that are terrorising the country, to break the cycle, it is the Government’s intention to declare violent crime a public health issue because violence across society is now the norm, from domestic violence, violence in schools, violent person against person, armed responses for everything and gains to be had by criminal conduct, lives lost and property to be stolen and things like that.” (Express, July 18.)
In response to this tremendous violence, he notified us that he intends to form a committee to deal with the problem. Its objective “is to enter the youth population at various levels and begin a line of education which should steer people away from participation or being desensitised by crime to criminal activity”.
If we are a violent society, and we wish to eradicate violence from the society, why single out the youths whom he has described as “monsters” or who Fitzgerald Hinds has advised to take “the more civilised and lawful paths to express [their] grievances”. (Express, July 6.) Is it that the youths are the greatest purveyors of violence in society?
The World Health Organisation defines violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened, or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, or deprivation” (“World Report on Violence and Health”, World Health Organisation, 2002.)
If, for purposes of this discussion, we can identify four types of violence: physical, sexual, psychological and verbal abuse, why is it that the prime minister focuses exclusively on youth violence against people and property?
When, for example, a businessman or a lawyer makes a million dollars a year, is he doing violence to his society by extracting an inordinate amount of resources from his fellow citizens? When poor families reside in extraordinarily unlivable quarters, are we not perpetuating psychological, emotional and physical violence against them; when young people are frozen into jobs in which they make $900 or $1,000 a week, isn’t the society acting violently against them; when Dr Rowley calls young people “monsters”, and Hinds implies they act in an “uncivilised” manner, are we not perpetuating verbal violence against them; and when we refuse to acknowledge sexual violence against women, are we not repeating a cycle that we have inherited?
If we wish to fight violence in our society, let us do so at every level of society and in every form in which it manifests itself. If we simply zero in on one class of citizens, we are likely to make the same mistake that we’ve made over the past 20 or 30 years. And while those officials who insult and exploit our population verbally and physically feel they are exempt from blame, they should look anew at their behaviour.
Sometimes our PM doesn’t always say what he means, or mean what he says. In this context, it might be wise to ponder the subtle linguistic distinction that the Hatter makes in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when he says: “I see what I eat means one thing, but I eat what I see means something different.”
With the rise of violence in every segment of our society—be it physical, sexual, psychological or verbal—at this moment in our history, it is potentially damaging to use imprecise language to outline the problems we face.
Saying T&T is a violent society or that violent crime should now be considered a public health issue does very little to help us solve our problems if we seek to penalise one segment of our society at the expense of others.
Let’s be careful in the language we use and the actions we take.