BU shares the Jeff Cumberbatch Barbados Advocate column – Senior Lecturer in law at the University of the West Indies since 1983, a Columnist with the Barbados Advocate
MUSINGS: A bold change in policy
It is only natural that local policymakers should carry out their functions these days with a […]certain degree of circumspection, given the near palpable ennui of an electorate that appears to be at least doubtful that the way out of our current
socio-economic plight lies in a partisan political solution. Of course, in ordinary times, this disinterest might have inured to the benefit of those not constitutionally charged with the creation of policy, that is the Opposition, but the present sentiment of popular political disinterest seems to be rather deep-seated, to such an extent that it may be tentatively argued that one of the more anticipated outcomes of any future general election may be an ascertainment of that percentage of the electorate that chooses not to exercise its franchise, as much as that who decides to do so in favour of either of the major groupings.
That having been said, the proposal of substantially unpopular policy is still likely to evoke some discontent, even though the innate passivity of the Barbadian citizen would restrict evidence of its disapproval to the expression of dissenting views under the secure cloak of anonymity afforded by the ballot box, the radio talk shows, the popular blogs, letters to the editor or other similar fora provided for the ventilation of popular opinion.
In this regard, we might contrast this relatively useless form of civic dissent with its seemingly more effective incarnation in other parts of the world. For instance, it is reported in this morning’s [Saturday] issue of the Barbados Advocate that the South African government has been forced to rule out increases in university tuition fees for students that it had proposed for the next academic year after a week of partially violent protests by students, who claimed that the increases would have prevented the immediate continuation of their studies.
It will be recalled that a similar local policy was effected last year with only minimal shows of dissent, albeit peaceful, by those whom it might directly have disadvantaged. It is just not in our nature to be violently aggressive in opposition to governmental measures or, indeed, any policy that meets with our distaste.
Clearly, this makes for a more tranquil and more secure existence; one to which we have become acculturated and are thus not prepared to change in spite of its immediate ineffective-ness. It might be submitted that this constitutes an integral aspect of the idea of Barbados. We prefer to abide by the ancient Greek dictum that the mills of the gods grind slowly -one that we have managed to convert in local parlance to “God’s corn mill grinds slow but sure”. It bears reminder that this essay is not at all to suggest that we change our current philosophy.
At the same time however, it should be necessary to commend the courage of instituting a policy that is reasonably foreseeable to meet with substantial dissent, especially when that policy reverses an earlier one that had met with popular approval; when it permits a guarantee of privilege in an environment that is generally hostile to an assertion of rights; and that does so in favour of a sector of society that is generally considered to be undeserving of any licence and best subjected to the nature of discipline that according to the idle boast of some, has kept earlier generations firmly on the straight and narrow path of existence.
I refer of course to the recently announced policy of the Ministry of Education, Science, Technology and Innovation that there should be a controlled permission for the use of mobile or cell phones in schools by pupils, according to the Minister, “not in any wanton way, but to ensure the use of technology with a sensible set of policies…”.
Of course, given the formidable title of this Ministry, especially its last-mentioned portfolio, the notion that many of its policies under that head should meet with universal local approval is an unlikely phenomenon. After all, innovation scarcely seems compatible with the DNA of the ordinary Barbadian who is more likely to be comforted by the latter-day Panglossian belief that things are for the best as they currently are and that any innovation may only invoke unnecessary trouble. Again, this is expressed locally and perhaps irreverently in the oft-cited saw, “Better to trust the devil you know than the one that you don’t” or something similar.
Hence, any suggestion of a reform, especially of one of the legal status quo, is likely to be met with an incantation of the extreme nightmare scenario as a form of dissent in rebuttal. Decriminalise marijuana? -A certain way of ensuring the actualisation of the images of drug-crazed, wild-eyed hooligans running amok in our streets or pickled-brain ne’er-do-wells slouching in some psychiatric ward.
Decriminalise homosexual acts between consenting adults in private? -Why that is likely to turn everyone into a homosexual and ensure the inevitable demise of the species! Reform the laws on prostitution? ¨Do you want this nation to become now a haven for immorality? The more discerning reader might note that the degree of horror expressed at the proposal bears little or no relation to the official efforts expended in enforcing the current rule.
Hence officially to permit cell phones in schools is likely to conjure up phantasms of children indulging in all kinds of deviant conduct, purely for the purpose of recording them on film for subsequent exhibition and public consumption on social media; and none at all of the supervised reference to reliable sources for information of any kind; none of permitting readier accessibility to concerned parents in an era when the mysterious disappearance of especially young females and unprovoked violence against those from other schools appears to be de rigueur; and none of the possible stultifying effects of having a future generation regard technology not as a useful tool but rather as one to be feared or demonised because of its possible misuse.
In my view, what we need now is to craft an appropriate protocol to regulate the use of the cell phone in the school environment. Of course, as there is now with the school rules against certain hairstyles, and with those against breaches of common sense, short skirts, jewellery and low-waist trousers for males, there can be no guarantee of total compliance. The best that might be hoped for is to trust to the common sense of our youth not to use the phones at unauthorised times and in prohibited places; to recognise that misuse of the phones is an unavoidable consequence of their existence; and that these devices are not likely to disappear from our lives anytime soon.
I wish the policy well.
PS: My sincere condolences to two of my current students who, amazingly and tragically, became widows this week within a mere two days of each other. May both husbands, coincidentally also sometime students, and one a former schoolmate, rest in peace.