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Culture Clash: We Need to Disagree Better

Physical violence is an undeniable issue in The Bahamas. Reported events bring shock, fear and disappointment, filling us with questions, self-righteous proclamations and rebuke. In disbelief and grief, we look at the world around us, shaking heads and shrugging shoulders. We see physical violence as separate from us, and completely unrelated to the way we speak with one another. We do not want to make that connection, and that is unfortunate. It exists whether or not we acknowledge or choose to address it.

While it is exciting to finally have platforms — like social media and talk radio — allowing various levels of control, monitoring and contribution, they reveal a societal problem that presents an opportunity. We do not know how to disagree well, and we need to learn.

Disagreement is not inherently bad. It does not need to be rude, unproductive, or life-threatening. It is unreasonable to expect complete consensus on any issue. Even when we agree on the what, we are bound to butt heads on the how. Again, this is not an insurmountable problem. It only requires that we have conversations about points of disagreement and find courses of action to cure the disease we have already diagnosed.

Over the past few days, I have observed activity on a few Facebook threads. I considered the amount of time and energy wasted on arguments that really had nothing to do with the matter raised, and almost seemed to intentionally detract from the valid points being made. This happens every day, multiple times per day, but for what reason? Do people just love to argue? Do we like to make each other feel stupid? Is it a game for some of us, trying to see how quickly and easily we can derail a conversation?

Have you ever witnessed a conversation involving people who are in agreement, but they don’t know it? One person says the sun is hot, and the other says they are hot because of the sun. They make the same point in different terms and somehow come to the conclusion they are on opposing sides. They argue about the importance of vitamin D, while you stand there wondering why this happened. You want to explain to them they are saying the same thing, but it is too far gone now. One of them is google searching alternate sources of vitamin D to prove it may be worthwhile to get sunburn because vitamin tablets are too expensive. You have to walk away.

On Saturday, someone posted about mosquito fogging. What chemicals are they using? Are they harmful to people? Is there a schedule so we can close our windows and plan to be indoors or out of the area? She explained the reasons for her concern and many people agreed. It was not long, of course, before people showed up to suggest we are all either ungrateful or confused.

Here’s a typical example: “I saw at least 20 posts last week complaining about mosquitoes. Now they doing something and there’s complaining about that. Can we ever please Bahamians?”

Some people on the thread figured we all just hate the government, and nothing they do will be right in our eyes. “It’s six of one and half dozen the other. Mosquito-borne illness or chemicals. Can’t win for losing.”

The original poster did not explicitly state she was against fogging. Her post made it quite clear she was not a fan of chemicals, but especially unknown chemicals. How is it that people decided she was completely opposed to fogging? Maybe she would like to be free of mosquitoes and be sure she is not being poisoned at the same time. Too much to ask?

As a person who does not like mosquitoes and would rather not be poisoned, I find her position quite reasonable. As someone who generally keeps the windows open and goes running, I agree a schedule would be helpful and the government should not have to be asked for it. This is not the same as ingratitude.

If no one asks the questions, clearly no individual, department, or ministry of the government will make this information available. They can please this Bahamian — and probably the one who asked the question on Facebook — by doing something about the mosquitoes and telling us what that is and how we will be affected. That is really not something to argue about, but if there is disagreement, it should be about that central point. Someone wants to know what is being used and, subsequently, inhaled by human beings.

In recent weeks, Paul Ratner’s article on Paul Graham’s “How to disagree” essay has been circulating on social media. It includes a pyramid that ranks the ways people engage when in disagreement. At the highest level is refuting the central point. Toward the middle are counterargument and contradiction, and name-calling is at the bottom.

Also included, near the bottom, is tone policing. This is a frequent practice, particularly when a member of a marginalised community speaks on an issue affecting them and their community. Dominant groups are quick to say they are angry or using the wrong approach. Suggesting the central point is of no import or consequence does not even make the cut.

Graham says, though it may feel like it, we are not actually getting angrier. Disagreement just gives us more room to talk and, quite obviously, we all want to be heard. Even if we truly disagree, it is important we do it well. If you have a different point of view, make sure you can refute the central point of the person’s argument.

Unless you have a problem with the government informing citizens of the chemicals used for mosquito fogging and have a counterargument, it does not make sense to post in disagreement. You may not like the tone of the post or the person posting. You may think the topic is silly. You may think something else matter more. None of these are valid arguments.

Sometimes people get into defence mode because they feel attacked, even when their names have not been called. They feel the need to set the record straight.

On Tuesday morning, I read a horrifying story by a woman who was given the run-around on the day she gave birth to her second child at Princess Margaret Hospital. PMH wrongfully forced her to go to the public ward when she told them she had already paid for private. This resulted in her private doctor not being able to deliver her baby, and her husband not being allowed in the room. In addition, she was not given anything for pain, so almost nothing went according to her birthing plan.

In her post, she pointed out the issues with PMH administrative practices and encounters with rude, uncaring nurses. While most people sympathised and encouraged her to take further action, a number of nurses felt the need to defend themselves and their profession. They said all nurses are not like that, most nurses are kind and caring but that a few bad nurses make everyone look bad. That may be the case, but is that what the original poster needed to read in response to her story? No. Could it completely derail the important conversation? Yes.

Everything does not have to be an argument. We do not always have to disagree, but when we do, let’s do it well. Let your argument stand on its own. Do not disrespect other participants in the conversation, or distract them from the central point. Focus on that central point, and take it down with supporting material. Communication does not have to be a problem, and disagreement does not have to end in violence. We have to argue better.

Published by The Tribune on April 4, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Nationalism And Collective Energy

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on September 13, 2017

THE past week has been hectic and panic-filled as the country prepared for Hurricane Irma which we expected to impact more islands and people than it did.

We rushed to stores to buy food, water, ice, plywood, and all of the other supplies demanded by this active hurricane season.

For as long as we had electricity and internet, we tracked the storm like meteorologists-in-training, checked on family members and friends, and monitored social media closely. It was the latter that inspired us to activate one of our most popular, prized team sports — national outrage.

We have no shortage of reasons to be angry. Our educational system has been failing for years and continues to go without critical review and transformation. Crime and the fear of crime inspire no innovation in prevention techniques or programming.

The poverty rate is over ten per cent and successive government administrations continue to play numbers games with unemployment by creating temporary jobs as opposed to developing new industries, helping people to up-skill, or encouraging entrepreneurship.

The Disabilities Act has been passed, but the able-bodied continue to park in parking spaces designated for differently-abled people. The abuse of children is so commonplace and normalised that we agree to call it “discipline”. All of this and more, but what really gets us going? People on the internet who make negative posts and comments. These inspire more nationalism than anything else.

From Nellie Day who wrote about the “small beach shacks and huts”, she claimed we live in to the people who complained about Shaunae Miller’s dive to the finish in the 400m at the Rio Olympics, Bahamians are keen to teach non-Bahamians not to mess with The Bahamas. We, as Bahamians, can complain about poverty, crime, and environmental hazards, but no one else can.

Our issues with this country, the way it is run, and the way its people behave are valid. Our responses to these issues, however inflammatory, insulting, and unproductive, are valid. It’s similar to sibling relationships. We can bully our brothers and sisters at home, but no one at school can even look at them the wrong way without having to deal with us. We don’t recognise our own behaviour as violent or counterproductive, but when others behave the same way, we read it as violence. How do we respond? With more violence, of course.

In the blink of an eye, we go from a Christian nation — a praying nation — to a band of keyboard gangsters. We forget about love, forgiveness, and divine intervention because someone callously wished ill on these blessed and highly favoured islands. We combine our powers and, for as long as the power company and internet service providers allow, hurl insults filled with vulgarity at our new enemies.

This becomes the national priority of the moment and is when we reveal our true selves. Maybe we are not the Christians we pretend to be on Sundays, during referenda, and when some — not all — of our islands are spared a hurricane. Every ounce of misogyny rises to the top as we associate our adversaries with the worst things we can think of — femininity and vaginas.

It is used against both men and women, stripping the former of their masculinity and reminding the latter that they are seen as little more than their reproductive organs. Many of us use these words and phrases with little thought, not intending to belittle or harm women and girls, but words have meanings.

Why is the wrath of the Bahamian people cloaked in misogyny? And why do we, when challenged, try to defend ourselves and our choice of words instead of recognising the issues and committing to better behaviour? What would our comeback be if our opponents called us on our misogyny, and that became the new way of seeing The Bahamas? Would we care then?

There are better uses of our time and energy as Bahamians who care about this country and impacting its trajectory. Thousands of tweets at people who think we did not deserve a gold medal we will always have do not shift it.

Bullying and doxxing people who make foolish statements about us do not improve our circumstance. We are constantly proving our creativity, but only occasionally show our dedication to our country, our people, and our future.

How can we use our time, energy, and creativity to turn our love of country into commitment to a collective vision for this nation? Can you secure a space for a reading programme? Do you have vacant property that can become a community garden? Can you teach the children in your neighbourhood to swim? Do you have access to resources a non-profit organisation can use to benefit its community?

Think about what you have — tangible and intangible — and how it can be used to benefit others. #CYC is just a term and the internet. We, as a people, have more than that, and we should be using it to improve our circumstances, across all islands and cays.

Today, many Bahamians feel like winners. We made people wish they never said anything negative about The Bahamas, and then we prayed a hurricane away (even if it was after it hit our southern islands). Still, our greatest battle has not yet been fought.

We have numerous issues to address as a nation, and one of them is the safety and comfort of those evacuated and displaced because of Hurricane Irma. They will need long-term shelter, food, clothing, toiletries, and various forms of support.

It takes more effort than angrily replying to people on social media, but we have the time, creativity, and motivation to help our fellow Bahamians.

Instead of complaining about the extra food we bought, donate it to those in need. When shopping, pick up a few extra toiletries. A number of organisations are assisting in hurricane relief efforts and will need our support.

Equality Bahamas volunteers will be at Lignum Vitae, 11 Meeting Street, on weekdays from Thursday to Tuesday, 4-7pm and at the farmer’s market at Doongalik on Village Road with Seasonal Sunshine Bahamas on Saturday, 9am to 1pm. We’re collecting toiletries (especially pads and tampons), underwear, and new clothes. Even if you’re not able to donate, you can volunteer with one of the many organisations doing this work and share posts on social media to help increase reach. We need to construct a positive narrative of the Bahamian people and our collective power. Let this be a start.