Culture Clash: Raising Questions Over the Future of Democracy

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on July 26, 2017

The results of the 2017 general election left The Bahamas in good spirits. Many of us have been in celebration mode for months, and insistent that we all temper our demands with patience and manage our expectations of the new FNM-led administration.

Criticism has generally not been welcome — an odd sentiment to express during “the people’s time” and unbecoming of a democratic nation. Fortunately, the second annual Future of Democracy Conference created a “people’s space”, inviting Bahamians to presentations, conversations, and workshops at University of The Bahamas to consider, critique, and address issues of governance and democracy.

Presentations and roundtables from educators, activists, community workers, Bahamians living abroad, (former) politicians, and practitioners covered a broad range of topics. Their questions, challenges, and messages spoke to the limited understanding and exercise of democracy, the (under)use of people power, and the need for better systems. A common thread throughout the two-day conference was the importance of civic participation and careful attention to systems, especially those that do not reflect the principles espoused by the Bahamian people or meet the needs of the collective.

Public Disclosure

For the past few years, there has been an increase in attention on public disclosure as required of Members of Parliament. It has become a part of the conversation about transparency and accountability, and civil society has demanded compliance with the law.

Perhaps more importantly, focus has been on Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition who are named by Article 8 of the Public Disclosure Act as responsible for publishing communication received from the Public Disclosure Commission to the House or Senate and/or provide information to the Attorney General or Commissioner of Police for appropriate action to be taken.

Such action has not been taken, presumably because Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition have found their own Members noncompliant with the law, and are not more interested in lawfulness, transparency, and accountability than they are in the facade of the same and protection of their membership.

In his presentation at the Future of Democracy Conference, Lemarque Campbell explained the Public Disclosure Act in detail, and pointed out the deficiencies in the law and recourse for the Bahamian people. Anyone unfamiliar with the Act can access the recording of Campbell’s presentation on the Out Da Box Facebook page.

One of the expectations of the Bahamian people when they voted against the PLP, leaving us with the FNM by default, was an administration that valued and embodied the principles of transparency and accountability. We expected the FNM administration to repair the system that clearly has not worked for us thus far. Unfortunately, that has not happened, and there has been no indication that it will happen.

On July 12, it was reported that three parliamentarians missed the filing deadline, and the names had not been forwarded to the Attorney General. This came after the report that Public Disclosure Commission Chairman Myles Laroda was instructed to send the list by July 3, after the government-set deadline of June 30. What does this say about the FNM administration’s commitment to transparency and accountability? What does this mean for our democracy; in particular, the principle of the rule of law?

Can this same administration mete out punishment to PLP Members of Parliament of the last administration? Is that what democracy looks like? Is the law for some, not all? Are those in seats of power under no obligation to follow the laws of the land, and only subject to questioning and consequences when they no longer have the safety of seat in Parliament?

We must be careful not to be duped by the theatrics of politicians who act on their own time, in their own mysterious ways, and create events that appear (often in retrospect) to be designed for the gain of quick and easy points at best and mass distraction at worst. The current administration has not been convincing in its attempt to present itself as law-abiding, transparent, accountable, and for the people.

Death Penalty

National Security Minister Marvin Dames said, “We cannot have a lawless society and it is our job as the government to introduce new policies and to enforce old ones to make sure everyone is safe.”

It is unfortunate that the government does not seem up to the task. Not only is there no regard for rule of law as an equalizer among all people, regardless of position or affiliation, but complete disregard for human rights.

Yesterday, we learned of the FNM’s plan to push for the death penalty to be enforced — certainly only one part of their “zero tolerance” plan to curb crime which was not well-detailed in the party manifesto. The death penalty is a breach of two human rights protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — the right to life and the right to live free of torture. The over-referenced theory that the death penalty is crime deterrent has been disproven in several countries.

This administration seems to be under the impression that punishment is equivalent to prevention — a gross error. The death penalty is only an option after a crime has been committed and the accused convicted. The country would have already suffered a loss, spent money on court proceedings, and put victims, witnesses, and their loved ones through significant trauma. Why is this administration’s response to the climbing murder rate a punishment — not a solution to the issue, but a scare tactic that has proven ineffective?

In discussing crime and creating systems and strategies to reduce crime, there must be a conversation about the difference between prevention and punishment. Punishment only happens and has effect after a crime has been committed. This is already something we, as a country, are not doing in the most effective way, failing to incorporate rehabilitation which results in high recidivism. Prevention is the area that needs the most focus. Civil society members from social workers and psychologists to researchers and economists should be invited to contribute to a national crime prevention plan. Bigger prisons, moving prisons, and capital punishment do not help people to resolve conflict, solve financial issues, or push students to finish high school. Crime is a systemic issue, and requires a robust, dynamic plan that responds to the environmental factors that lead to crime.

These two examples — public disclosure and the death penalty — are indicative of the FNM administration’s view to systems.

Our current position is a reflection of the same kind of thinking from a different group of people. To see the change we desperately need (and voted for), we need to build better, more instructive and responsive systems and see the too-little-too-late reactions for what they truly are — unproductive distractions. We, the people, must stop showing up for their poppy shows and demand the systems, policies, and recourse we need and deserve.

Women’s Wednesdays: Sexuality and Online Harassment

Join Equality Bahamas and National Art Gallery of The Bahamas tonight for our third Women’s Wednesdays event.

The Sexuality and Online Harassment panel centers the woman’s body and explores ideas of access, presentation, expectations, and vulnerability. Questions framing the conversation include:

-What is sexuality?
-Who owns and controls the woman’s body?
-How does the state support/impede bodily autonomy?
-What have we learned, and what do we need to unlearn, about our bodies and sexuality?
-What is harassment? Who is at risk of harassment?
-What is our responsibility in protecting ourselves and each other from sexual violence?

Our Sexuality and Online Harassment panelists are:
Jodi Minnis, Multidisciplinary Artist
Princess Pratt, Storyteller
Erin Greene, LGBT+ Advocate
Tamika Galanis, Artist-Scholar

2nd Annual Future of Democracy Conference

The Future of Democracy Conference is back for its second year, organized by University of The Bahamas’ Schools of English and Social Sciences with Dr. Ian Strachan at the helm. The two-day conference — packed with panels, roundtable discussions, and workshops — is bringing a diverse group of people together to go beyond conversation, focusing on solution-building. Educators, activists, students, and community workers will pool knowledge, experience, and ideas around interesting and immediately relevant themes like “Democracy and Governance in the 21st Century Bahamas” and “Power, Progress, and the People”.

Conference organizers are pleased to welcome Ret. Justice Zainool Hosein, Chairman of the Integrity Commission of Trinidad and Tobago to deliver the keynote. The Commission is an independent body comprising five members appointed by the President and its mission is to provide excellent customer service and public education, ensure compliance with the Integrity in Public Life Act, and detect corrupt practices and dishonest conduct. Hosein will speak to the role and function of the Integrity Commission, and his presentation will be followed by a Q&A session.

Dr. Strachan said, “The Future of Democracy Conference is intended to help mobilize citizens and build their capacity to participate as change agents and builders in our society. A key part of the solution to so many of our governance issues is citizen leaders emerging across race, class and party lines and helping to introduce the new models we need. This conference is dedicated to creating the spaces where we start that work.”

The public is invited to participate in two of six workshops on Saturday afternoon, after two engaging roundtable discussions on drafting legislation and creating change, respectively. The 90-minute workshop options are listed below and linked to Facebook events with more information.

2pm

3:30pm

The Future of Democracy Conference is an excellent opportunity to learn, share, engage, and create. It is the perfect way to spend two days for those who are interested in democracy as a concept, system, and responsibility, good governance, and citizen-led action. For more information, visit Out Da Box or email futureofdemocracy242@gmail.com.

Culture Clash: Tackling The Abuse Of Online Harassment

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on July 12, 2017

“Talkin’ to people bad” is the Bahamian way. That’s what they want us to believe. We play into the narrative that to be Bahamian is to be abrasive, rude, and condescending without second thought, apology, or recompense. We imagine that adulthood gives us the right to say and do as we wish with no consideration to the impact we have on other people. A “Christian nation,” we spin, bend, and reshape scripture until it tells us what we want to hear. We convince ourselves that it is our job to give people what they deserve. We cut their skin, we hit their car, we vote them out, we embarrass them on Facebook. In our minds, there is justification for this. There is righteousness in this. Vengeance is ours. We are doing The Lord’s work. Right?

Online harassment is seldom discussed as it is generally viewed as a minor issue, its impact ignored and trivialised by most. Taking various forms, online harassment is a growing beast, used to disempower, embarrass, and defame people. When discussed, whether it affects a celebrity or a community member, too much attention is put on the personality, politeness, and profession of the victim. Many are quick to search for reasons to justify the attack and blame the victim for the harassment they experience and its subsequent effects.

Most recently, Blac Chyna and Rob Kardashian have entered the headlines, dominating online conversations for days after Rob posted nude photos of her on Instagram. Public dialogue centred around Blac Chyna’s career as a stripper, perceptions about her reason for being in a relationship with Rob, and the amount of money Rob spent on her. It is telling that people are more interested in excusing Rob’s behaviour, using Blac Chyna’s behaviour to somehow cancel out Rob’s, or painting Blac Chyna as the villain in this situation than seeing online harassment for what it is — abuse.

As a human being, Blac Chyna — like all women and all adults — has bodily autonomy. This means she can strip. This means she can be a sex worker. This means she can take photos and videos of herself in all states of dress. This means she can share those photos and videos with people of her own choosing. These are her rights. You, too, can do all of these things. Maybe you do. You may even do one or more of these things without realising it. None of these things makes Blac Chyna (or you) deserving of online harassment.

Rob’s Instagram post was revenge porn — the nonconsensual sharing of sexually explicit images by a former sexual partner for the purpose of embarrassment. It was the distribution of images Blac Chyna did not intend for public consumption. Using her work history as justification of Rob’s actions is both ridiculous and counterintuitive. If Blac Chyna’s body and the ways she provides access to it is a means of income-generation, why are Rob’s actions not recognised as theft? Why would he not be sued for loss of potential income? This happens in cases of copyright infringement and intellectual property disputes, so why not with the body? In any case, the act is classified as revenge porn.

Revenge porn — a form of abuse — is illegal in California, and Blac Chyna has since been granted a restraining order. Instagram responded by suspending his account. These two consequences are a validation of the real impact of revenge porn and other forms of online harassment.

We need to understand online harassment as abuse, a crime, and the cause of emotional distress and, potentially, professional ruin, for those experiencing it. We have to be able to separate personality from the details of criminal acts.

When we start to respect people’s bodily autonomy, we may finally be able to talk to our children about consent. We may be able to help young people recognise early signs of abusive relationships, and create an environment where they can report incidents without fear of being blamed or ridiculed. When we are able to see sexual violence as a spectrum, from harassment to rape, we may be able to address it at multiple levels — not just enforcing punishment, but implementing effective preventative measures.

Online harassment has many faces. It is not always sexual in nature. It can seem innocuous at the start, and build to become a scary, damaging, embarrassing experience. At a time when so much of our national dialogue lives on social media, it is important that we are considerate in our communication with others, especially those we do not know personally.

Divergent points of view should not lead us to participate in hate speech, threaten, or defame others. There are ways to disagree respectfully without losing “stripes” or the argument. Even more, there is a responsibility to intervene when we witness online harassment. The intervention may not be of the Sermon on the Mount variety, but should be a visible form of support for the person being attacked, and a clear message to the attacker that their behaviour is being monitored and is condoned or welcomed in the space.

If you see someone sharing sexually explicit images or videos without consent of the people depicted, report it to the platform and to the Royal Bahamas Police Force Cyber Crime Unit. If you know the person, take the opportunity to tell them to delete the post because it is a form of abuse and a crime, and there is no excuse for it. If you see other forms of online harassment, say something to the harasser.

The experience of online harassment is compounded when people standby in silence, failing to rebuke the asinine behaviour of the harassers. There are many ways to intervene. You can be direct and speak to the harassers on the post, in their inbox, or in person. You could also ask someone with a better relationship to the harassers to address the issue. If you are not comfortable with any of these options, check in with the person experiencing harassment. Knowing someone sees it, knows it’s wrong, and supports you makes a big difference.