By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
April 13, 2014
Let me confess to my eternal shame that I am a soft man. After my prostatectomy (an operation for prostate cancer) about six years ago, I am sure that I can never win any titles for possessing the hardest hard which some of our calypsonians, promoters of this kind of wisdom, proclaim is the true sign of a real man.
Let us then congratulate Keith Rowley, a man of steel, whose steel-like prowess, as Camille Robinson-Regis, a deputy leader of the PNM, assures us will allow him to lead the nation aright. According to the Trinidad Express, Ms Robinson-Regis assured the nation, at a meeting of the PNM Women’s League, that although Anil Roberts likes to shout, at heart he is really “an empty vessel and ‘a soft man’” (April 4).
Given Ms Robinson-Regis’s desire to promote the virtues of hardness and men of steel, the use of Penguin’s “Soft Man” seemed appropriate for the occasion. But what message did this convey? “Soft Man” is a clever calypso filled with double entendres set to an infectious beat. It celebrates patriarchy at its worse and enthrones sentiments that our nation can do without particularly at this stage of our development.
In “Soft Man” Penguin tells us that a woman likes a man “who lays down his turf, a man who can stand up straight”. He says further that “a man is supposed to lead/ supply his woman’s needs/Never make the yard get weeds/Dig the soil and plant the seeds.”
Just in case a woman ever forgets her place in this hierarchy of power, Penguin reminds her that man lays down the law. He says: “A man should be like a tower/Protect his household at any cost/He got to show strength and power/ and show that he is the boss.”
These sentiments embody a message that might have been the prevailing wisdom 30 years ago. They have no place in our society today. When that calypso was written, most of us accepted a society in which men were perceived as primary authority figures in the household, in the political arena, and God’s appointed rulers in the vineyard. Such a world privileged male power which, by definition, relegated women to a subservient role in the society.
I am not saying that in my mother’s and father’s world, 60 years ago, women did not have their spheres of power wherein they demonstrated their leadership abilities. I am only arguing that such structures always presumed male leadership and power and, in many cases, did everything to let women know their place. My suspicion is that Hindu households, given the precepts of the religion, entrenched male power even more deeply.
How relevant are such attitudes in 2014 where women are trailblazers in so many areas and there is so much violence in our society—in our schools, homes, and communities, with much of the violence directed against our women. Can it not be argued that the values inherent in “Soft Man” promote a misogyny that is unhealthy for our society?
I know that Ms Robinson-Regis would say that she did not intend to denigrate women and perhaps such excesses (she may call it picong) are excusable in a political context. However, when one sees how some of our ministers treat their constituents (observe the endorsement of such behaviour by an organisation that is supposed to be working to uplift women), one can safely say that we are dealing with a structural problem that transcends party lines.
The newspaper article suggests there was audience participation in Ms Robinson-Regis’s misogynistic posturing. The Trinidad Express reports that after Ms Robinson-Regis declared Dr Rowley a man of steel, “Soft Man” was played; the audience sang aloud with it, and then shouted the names “Faris and Hinds”. Ms Robinson-Regis informed them that as far as she knew, they, too, were men of steel. As Penguin asserted, and presumably Ms Robinson-Regis concurs, a soft man “could never get women’s respect/Everybody does call him stupidy”.
Language matters. The messages that we send to our youths can be very powerful especially when they are enmeshed in popular culture. The struggle for women’s dignity and equality should remain paramount in our party and our society. Something has to be terribly wrong when after 30 years we are still sanctifying sentiments that we thought we had long ago abandoned.
It may be the political season but we all need to be extremely careful about the language we use and how we go about assassinating the character of our foes and friends alike. As we watch the brutalisation of our society, the best measure of a man cannot be reduced to how hard or soft he is. A man’s hardness endures for a while. His character and respect for women should last a lifetime.
Even as I reiterate my support for Dr Rowley and his team, I remind my party that the struggle for women’s dignity and equality must remain central to our party’s ideology. They are the values our women’s group should promote.