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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: Violence Cannot Be Tolerated – In Whatever Form It Comes

Gender-based violence is a pervasive issue that often goes unrecognised and unchecked. We all know it exists, but our understanding of it can be quite limited in scope and type.

In discussions about violence, emphasis is generally put on direct violence which includes physical acts like hitting and pushing, with little focus on forms of violence that are just as damaging. Direct violence also includes sexual violence, from harassment to rape, and less frequently discussed acts like human trafficking, exploitation of domestic workers and online harassment.

We have fallen into the habit of excusing direct violence. We find ways to put blame on the survivors and victims of violence. This is sometimes because we want to protect the abusers, but in most cases, we fail to recognise certain acts as violence. We use words like “teasing” and “flirting” to downplay harassment, refusing to see the distinction between them.

Women and girls are seen as unfriendly or “stuck up” when they dare to say or show that attention is unwanted. Men and boys are allowed to make nuisances of themselves because there is more value on their performance of masculinity and seeking to fill their own needs than the comfort and safety of women and girls.

Far too many people concern themselves with what a women or girl was wearing, where she was, who she was with and why she was there with whomever was in her company when she reports sexual assault. This refusal to recognise the violation in favour of misplacing blame for the violation is another act of violence.

Indirect violence includes systemic issues and the stereotypes with which we are familiar, even if we do not recognise them as such.

Yesterday, in a session focused on the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women, a differently-abled woman spoke out about the lack of access to spaces — public and otherwise — and increased vulnerability of differently-abled women.

She identified the exclusion of differently-abled women as an act violence. This is a form of violence we do not often recognise or acknowledge, but is part of the lived reality of differently-abled people and compounds the marginalisation of differently-abled women. Women do not get to be only women. We are women and black, women and queer, women and poor, women and elderly and any number of other layered identities.

Every year, 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence — a global campaign — run from November 25 to December 10. It opens on the Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and closes on International Human Rights Day. These observations underscore both the pervasive and possibly most easily identified forms of gender inequality and the recognition of women’s rights as human rights. This campaign coincides with National Women’s Week in The Bahamas which this year began on the fifty-fifth anniversary of the first time Bahamian women voted.

The Department of Gender and Family Affairs planned Orange Day, a church service and the information and walk-through of the CEDAW report. The Department also disseminated information on NGO-led events and initiatives, including the Zonta Says No town hall held last night and the series of events and actions organised by Equality Bahamas.

These included a Day of Silence, screening of Marion Bethel’s Womanish Ways — a documentary on the Bahamian Women’s Suffrage Movement — and open mic at Expressions at Bistro Underground being held tonight, featuring Tingum Collective from University of The Bahamas, Blue Elite dance troupe and poets Zemi Holland and Letitia Pratt.

This 16-day campaign includes a broad range of activities which are aimed at raising awareness and driving action. Beyond wearing orange and attending events in droves, it is critical we advocate for the change we need, systemically, to end gender-based violence. As Donna Nicolls, of Bahamas Women’s Watch, stated at a few events thus far during the campaign, we need to continue our action and remember that 16 days is not enough.

The campaign is beneficial for introducing people to the issues, increasing and deepening understanding of those issues and connecting with organisations and individuals working on women’s rights and ending gender-based violence year-round all over the world.

Last year, the Life in Leggings movement started in Barbados, swept across the region and encouraged many Bahamian women to share their stories of sexual violence. For most of them, it was the first time they had spoken about their experiences.

While the campaign was not launched as a part of the 16-day campaign, it connected thousands of Caribbean women and highlighted the similarity of stories, laws and systemic issues. This year, just before the beginning of the campaign, people in Guyana stood in support of high school girls who reported sexual violence by a teacher and rebuked the headmistress who shamed girl students for not supporting their teacher. They pushed for a response from the Ministry of Education with regard to the teacher and the headmistress. It is clear none of us can wait for annual campaigns, nor can we limit our advocacy and activism to these limited periods.

Everyone is not able to participate in global campaigns or contribute to ongoing work in the same ways, so it is important to consider various levels of involvement, time commitment, and frequency of activity. As the holidays approach and the season of giving makes us more willing to part with money, think about how can you support an organisation advocating for the rights of women or providing support to women and girl survivors of violence.

While money is always helpful, a phone call or email to find out about items needed is always welcome. The Bahamas Crisis Centre, for example, is currently in need of nonperishable food including noodles, tuna, corned beef and small packs of rice.

Whether you can give a can of tuna or a case of tuna, it would be appreciated by both the organisation and its clients.

There are always people who want to help, but are not able to give tangible items, and there is space for them too. Bahamas Sexual Health and Rights Association (BaSHRA) is running Baby Can Wait — a comprehensive sexual education program — in a few high schools this academic year and could certainly benefit from more volunteers willing to be trained and assigned a class to teach for one hour per week for ten weeks. There are many ways to take action and Equality Bahamas is sharing a new idea every day during 16-days.

The first step is to think about violence in its various forms, where it shows up in your life and how you respond to it. Every act of violence is not intentional, but is still wrong, so it is on the individual, along with organisations, to be intentional in our actions and inclusion of women and girls and all other marginalised people.

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on November 30, 2017

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Culture Clash: Violence Breeds Violence And It Begins In The Home

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on October 4, 2017

Crime is never off our minds for very long. News reports, stories from friends, social media evidence and personal experiences guarantee our awareness and vigilance. It’s difficult to manage our own fear of crime. For many years crime has been viewed as an evil affecting other people. The likelihood that we, as individuals, would become victims of crime seemed low enough to allow us a relatively carefree existence. Now, with numbers rising — particularly violent crimes like murder and rape — we all feel a bit closer to the issue. It could be our homes, businesses, cars, or bodies next.

Our fear of crime is not irrational. It is a threat we know too well and consider far too often as we perform the most mundane tasks. We do not want to lose what we’ve earned, we want to avoid pain and we want to live. Unfortunately we will not survive without sober consideration of crime and its root causes. From poverty to conflict there are a number of issues to study and remedy. One of the most pervasive issues in Bahamian society is violence and the way we perceive, perpetuate and perform it.

Violence includes physical and nonphysical acts intended to cause harm. For now, let’s focus on the former. Physical violence exists in the media and entertainment we consume including television shows, movies, music and video games. In many instances it is the selling point. We have become so accustomed to on-screen violence it hardly elicits a response. We expect it. We ignore it. We encourage. We find endless ways to excuse acts of violence, insisting the victim deserves it because of some act or failure to act. Perhaps more disturbing this attitude is not limited to the fantasy worlds we enter through screen. It accompanies us in our daily lives.

We have a communication problem. Physical violence has become our go-to form of expression. It is the quickest and easiest way, it seems, to express displeasure. Someone thinks their partner is cheating on them. They respond with violence. Someone loses their job because a former co-worker didn’t take responsibility for a mistake. They respond with violence. Someone’s personal property is accidentally damaged. They respond with violence. Where have we learned this behaviour? Why, when we feel we have been wronged, do we respond with acts of physical violence?

It’s difficult for many to talk about, but there is an issue with the way we raise children, and it is manifesting itself every day in our society. In many cases, children are not regarded as human beings. Their participation is limited, they are heavily guarded and missteps are met with violence under the guise of discipline. Parents and guardians convince themselves that beating children is the best way to control their behaviour and mould them into what they deem to be acceptable human beings. Little thought, if any, is given to the negative — largely psychological — effects of corporal punishment. It is simply known as the quick fix that “worked for me.” It is believed to deter children from doing “wrong” and serves as an immediate means of correction. As with every action, we must consider impact versus intent. Sure, parents and guardians may intend to do their best in raising law-abiding, mannerly, well-behaved people, but what else are they doing when they beat children? Might this send the message that when someone does wrong, the appropriate response is to cause them physical harm?

What if we taught children to think critically? Can we teach them to stop and think before acting? To acknowledge their emotions and recognize what they feel in any given moment may not be the most important thing? Could it be useful to teach them self-control? We could do all of this, but probably not before we learn and model them ourselves. We must first come to the realization that punishment is not the most important thing, nor is it the most effective.

Our obsession with punishment is evidenced by our rigid positions on corporal punishment for children and the death penalty. We are more concerned about exerting power and using fear as a control mechanism than we are about building character and addressing environmental and societal issues that influence behaviour. In addition to the use of fear, punishment is frequently meant to cause embarrassment and prompts children to hide their mistakes instead of talking about and learning from them. This focus on negativity leaves little room to acknowledge and encourage good behaviour. Positive reinforcement is severely lacking and, in combination with the glorification of heavy-handedness in punishment, is causing harm to the psyche.

It is critical to our wellbeing that we exercise more intentional thoughtfulness and constructive criticism of current behaviour and the long-lasting effects of the same. It is not safe to assume that our survival of our parents’ methods is indicative of their merits. In fact, being in-one-piece is not all there is to survival and many of us carry the trauma of childhood abuse with us. Some among us are fighting mental illness, diagnosed and undiagnosed, further complicating navigation of everyday life. There are apologies we may never get. Wrongs that may never be made right. Healing that may never come. Nothing could make any of these things worth the loss or grief, but admitting to ourselves that what we witnessed, survived, or mimicked has caused harm and choosing to find better, healthier ways is a start to tackling the seemingly unsurmountable issue of crime.

This, of course, is not the only reason for the rate of violent crime in The Bahamas, but that needs individual, family, and community response.

It is the beginning of a vicious cycle that teaches us, over and over again, that violence is an appropriate response. Corporal punishment has not remedied any social ills. This form of “discipline” in many Bahamian homes is a lazy, emotional response that forms the root of a larger problem. It’s one that demands our attention on a daily basis and will not go away without a shift in our thinking and behaviour. Why not start in our own homes?

Featured image by nitpix at Morguefile.com