Q: Archbishop J, why “exaggerated responsibility for the common good”?
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 T&T 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 the 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.
A Picaroon Society
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.
VS Naipaul, in The Middle Passage, 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.
The inconstancy of set standards has contributed to the widening class gap, racial intolerance, and the underdevelopment of a whole segment of the society—the poor, black woman amongst others.
Naipaul, exploring the roots of the picaroon society, says:
Slavery, the mixed population, the absence of national pride and the closed colonial system have to a remarkable degree recreated the attitudes of the Spanish picaroon world. This was an ugly world, a jungle, where the picaroon hero starved unless he stole, was beaten almost to death when found out, and had, therefore, to get in his blows first whenever possible; where the weak was humiliated; where the powerful never appeared and were beyond reach; where no one was allowed any dignity and everyone had to impose himself. (79)
This is a very sombre view of Trinidad. Naipaul at his best or worst. 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 can not immediately become responsible, but it can be reeducated only through responsibility. Change must come from the top. (80)
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.
This is the meaning of ‘exaggerated responsibility for the common good’. Doing the right thing, because it is the right thing, regardless of who sees it, who acknowledges it, or who applauds it, while ensuring fairness and respect to all regardless of station in life!
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.
Key Message: To move from picaroon to real development in Trinidad and Tobago, we need to freely embrace exaggerated responsibility for the common good. This is our path to redemption.
Action Step: Reflect on the way you approach responsibility as a citizen —driving, littering, paying your fair share of taxes, support for the migrant and the poor. In each area what would exaggerated responsibility look like? Let us strive towards it.
Scripture reading: Matthew 5:21–48