Every civilisation has its unconscious assumptions, driving forces that motivate and at the same time act as the unseen glue holding the civilisation together. Here we find both the genius of a society and its deepest pain, crying out for redemption.
In the social sciences, this might be called a “social structure”. It exerts energy and even exerts force on all social actors. To understand these social structures is to understand the society. It is to understand the actors who make up society’s institutions. It is to understand ultimately our cry for redemption.
Race, class and gender are such social structures. They act on us whether we like it or not. It takes great courage and clarity of mind to operate in Trinidad and Tobago without being caught up by one or other of these forces.
To be a poor, black woman is to receive the least validation from society. To be a rich, white man is to receive the highest validation. Both are equally human beings of worth and dignity but society is skewed towards one being validated and the other being devalued. Laws and institutions benefit the rich, white male. They often act against the poor, black woman. This is a social structure at work. There is a social structure that has been our deepest limitation from early in our colonial history. It is the ‘picaroon’. The picaroon is the modern-day pirate—the street hustler, the conman, the gang leader, the so-called businessman, the politician, the priest, the pundit, the imam who seeks to benefit himself rather than to contribute to building up society and its people and the common good.
In The Middle Passage, VS Naipaul described Trinidad as a picaroon society. The picaroon, the ‘Trickidadian’ is at the heart of the national psyche. Psychologically, the picaroon is incapable of accepting boundaries and limits.
At best he sees boundaries and limits as negotiable; at worst as oppressive or to be avoided or dismantled. So many examples of Naipaul from the 1960s are current today: the leakage of exam papers, the disrespect that we display to each other; the societal inclination to violence and brutality; corruption at all levels of society; the public scams that smart men will pull off, and the community that admires the smart man and his con.
At the heart of our crisis are a lack of values, lack of respect and an enduring need to try to outwit the system. He gives us a prescription. It is a bitter pill: To bring political organisation to the picaroon society with its taste for corruption and violence and its lack of respect for the person, has its dangers. Such a society cannot immediately become responsible, but it can be re-educated only through responsibility. Change must come from the top.
To build responsibility in this picaroon society will require a multi-pronged approach. On the one hand, it will require a sustained appeal to the broad mass of the population to be responsible.
On the other, it will require that we fundamentally rework the education system to ensure the development of character at a personal level and development of the character of the nation as whole.
The golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, needs to be our national watchword. I believe Naipaul is right; those at the top—privileged by education, family inheritance, social position—need to lead. We need to become the change we want to see for Trinidad and Tobago.
Privilege carries with it great responsibility.
To lead, we must define and enforce moral boundaries on ourselves first: pay our taxes, contribute to the development of the country, take responsibility for a poor family. Each area, I believe, is an invitation to build character—doing the right thing because it is the right thing. And those who lead must go out of their way to demonstrate, even exaggerate, fairness and respect to everyone in our society.
We are still in the adolescent stage of national development. We sometimes believe that if we mess it up, someone will come and fix it for us. Look around. No one is coming. These 5,131 sq km belong to us. Every one of us needs to take responsibility, exaggerated responsibility, till we understand that we all serve a higher good—the common good.
• Rev Charles J Gordon is
archbishop of Port of Spain