IS TT a fair and just society? Or do our laws and our grab-bag of customs and beliefs create an inherently unequal space? To put it another way: do TT’s laws and traditions undermine the promise of equality in our anthem? This was the theme of some spirited discussion at the May 2 morning session at the Bocas Lit Fest, titled An Equal Place.
Feature speakers were accountant Mariano Browne, a former trade minister; attorney Sophia Chote, a former judge and current independent senator in Parliament; “jouvayist” Attillah Springer, an indigenous culture advocate and an opinion columnist on many social issues; and public affairs journalist Dr Sheila Rampersad, who heads the Media Association but who spoke on her own behalf as a citizen, not as a MATT representative.
Attorney Sophia Chote acknowledged the perception that in TT, some people of different races did not necessarily have a sense of belonging but said while that may have been true of a fractured TT society immediately after Independence, it is not true today. She believed generations born after Independence do not respond to the divisive rhetoric of race in the same ways previous generations did. She suggested people stop generalising about such divisions and instead focus on how best to use existing institutions for the greater good.
Journalist Sheila Rampersad noted that journalists who also function as sources of social commentary often tap into both overt and obscure TT sociologies, able to access communities in unconventional ways that other kinds of commentators may not.
Responding to Mariano Browne’s comments on Carnival and J’Ouvert, Rampersad said she was reminded of why in its early days the field of economics was called a “dismal science,” and in a gentle jibe at Browne, said it helped explain why leadership is sometimes unable to tap into the cultural sensibilities of the society and often seems to be guiding the society in ways that are contrary to how the society itself may want to go.
Rampersad said the journalist’s sociological understanding of societies, born of unique access over time, produces work grounded in the basic principle that “we are here to be a comfort to the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable,” a quote from American humorist and writer Finley Dunne. The audience laughed as Browne quipped he was being criticised twice.
Browne then clarified that the development problem ought not to consider race but should consider how to include all citizens in a way that allows the society to function and to grow. “Growth does not necessarily mean income, but includes that,” he said, and in order to grow the society, the concept of race should be removed, treating people as individuals.
He observed that the conversation about economics in TT has been more about how much money is being spent, and per-capita income, and less about quality of life.
Browne went on to emphasise that as a society, TT has not spent enough time developing or repairing its institutions: they need to be made stronger and more capable in order to build a more equal society. He said the public has difficulties trusting the dependability and relevance of any TT institution to meet their needs, a lack of faith and belief partly due to failures in education and other areas, he said. He pointed to the key importance of shared services in enhancing equal access and a better quality of life; the public transport system, for instance, can help achieve this, but desperately needs fixing. He said too often, people undervalue the importance of how institutions affect them daily instead of thinking about and enacting practical solutions.
Chairman Colin Robinson commented that there has been unequal access to some institutions, and that many of the institutions TT inherited were created to deliberately exclude most people; and not to be efficient, but to perpetuate and legitimate systems of inequality and violence.
Springer stepped in to give the example of the National Museum, which, she said, began its life as the Royal Victoria Institute, an institution set up to study subjects of interest to the colonial authorities, such as plants and natural history. At that time it had no place for things like the culture of mas practised by people of Ibo descent, because as far as the authorities were concerned, those activities were deemed savage and not culture. So an institution was created to exclude workers of African descent: the museum had no place for mas. “So when you talk about us not storing our mas, it’s not because we don’t want to keep the mas – but where do we keep it?” she asked, saying up to today there is no museum for mas, which is something people here practise a lot.
Robinson interrupted to observe there are many relics of institutional irrelevance that remain; for example, in the parliamentary public gallery, he said, you are not supposed to cross your legs in the first row; if you do, uniformed officers will rush up to stop you. Such inappropriate regulatory behaviour exists at service counters across the nation, he noted. “We think authority is the solution to everything,” he commented, criticising the notion that power hierarchies are the only way to make things work.
Rampersad commented: “At the root of it, from my observation (and I would credit Sunity Maharaj with this thinking) is that we have to confront a rather uncomfortable reality (uncomfortable because we are so many years after Independence) that we have, as individuals and as a people, a dysfunctional relationship with power.”
She said the way power has been exercised in TT has never (historically) been legitimate, so people have not had much experience of power being exercised for the public good. And that manifests in many ways today: overbearing security guards and executive secretaries, for instance, and many others who are otherwise powerless, but who use their little bit of power in generally brutal and antagonistic ways.
Chote agreed, while observing that individual insecurities are common. She said too many TT citizens wait to be invited in as part of the national community, rather than having the confidence to say: “This is my place. I own it. I belong here.” She gave examples from her own experience of the court systems here and abroad.
The TT court system is supposed to be open to all, yet too many people here see the courts as an entirely hostile environment, she said. She compared that attitude to the attitude of citizens in some other countries who confidently use their courts to speak up for themselves and their rights, with a strong sense that the institution is theirs.
“We do not have that here, and we should encourage that,” said Chote. Springer said it came back to the vision for development: Who is development for?
She commented that in TT, it feels as if education is preparing children for a world that no longer exists, and that institutions seem to be in a state of fossilised irrelevance, not meeting the needs of people or the environment.
Questions and comments from the audience raised many other rights-related issues.
Among them were:
• Alleged neglect and charges of pervasive continuing mismanagement of public dumps across many governments over decades, as expressed by a union representative from SWMCOL (Solid Waste Management Company Ltd) who called for public pressure to force Government to fix dumps that are highly toxic and dangerous to the workers there and to the environment. He said the daily-paid workers are treated like slaves and it is a glaring case of social injustice.
• Alleged poor and unco-ordinated response by official institutions during last year’s floods and devastation, showing an inability to reach people and do the necessary community work to help people cope.
• A disconnect between institutions and the realities of many disempowered people who are unable or too intimidated to access or make use of them for a variety of complex reasons.
• A tendency to “wayward” self-governance by citizens, which can be both a good and a bad thing.
• The privileging only of official institutions, while not giving credit to the many unofficial indigenous institutions, people’s organisations and community groups that exist as a basis for survival, sharing and self-development.
• Persisting attitudes of suspicion towards, or perceptions of entitlement of differing ethnic groups, such as the past furore over the alleged privileged “one per cent” of wealthy Trinidadians of Lebanese/Arab ancestry who it was said controlled the country (without any evidence cited). What do such attitudes express about present and past race/ethnic relations?
• The long lack of protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation under the Equal Opportunity Act.
• The lack of laws dealing with hate language and hate crimes.