No man is an island.
–– John Donne, 17th century English poet.
Speaking to the media last Sunday, following a church service at the Cathedral Of St Michael And All Angels to mark the 74th anniversary of the founding of the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU), general secretary Toni Moore lamented that Barbadians were inclined to be individualistic and seemed not to fully appreciate the advantage of working together to advance common interests, instead of doing so alone.
Ms Moore’s comments were specifically in relation to the adverse effect of such tendencies on the work of the trade union movement, especially at this critical time in the nation’s development. To advance and achieve their agenda, unions have always relied on the unity and solidarity of workers, given expression in such well-known slogans as Solidarity Forever and the Workers Of The World, Unite! call of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
According to Ms Moore, the Barbadian tendency of individualism was mentioned as an issue of concern as far back as 1946 by the BWU’s first president general The Right Excellent Sir Grantley Adams, who theorized it was a carry-over from slavery.
“It really showed itself in the attitude towards working together as a collective –– and in 2015 workers still show similar traits,” she observed.
This Barbadian tendency, which appears to be on the rise today, applies to so many other aspects of national life. Barbadians, however, are not alone in this regard. Similar attitudes exist in just about every country today
because the dominant value system, to which all countries are exposed, emphasizes individualism over collectivism.
Going it alone, instead of together, is celebrated as the “cool” thing to do. “Me” matters the most in the culture of today and it is always about the triumph of “me” over everybody else.
Human beings were not made to live in such fashion. Although every person enters the world alone at birth and leaves alone at death, people are meant to collaborate with each other in the intervening period and build a strong sense of community in collective pursuit of the common good. Such tendencies defined traditional Barbadian village life up to about 30 or so years ago before we were transformed by modernization.
People did not live for themselves. They lived for neighbour and community.
As a result, our communities were safe and strong. The rearing of children, including the enforcement of discipline, was seen as not only the responsibility of individual parents but also of the community.
Crime was almost non-existent. It was quite normal for someone to leave his or her home fully open, travel toThe City, for example, to transact business, and return to find everything intact. The neighbour, sometimes criticized for being a bit too “gypsy” (nosy), would keep an eye out to ensure everything was all right.
Youth groups, which today are almost non-existent, thrived back then. Young people happily engaged each other in worthwhile pursuits and built healthy relationships, instead of indulging in individualistic pursuits like video games or, worse yet, gunfights. Schoolchildren took pride in the uniform they wore because it was more about the dignity of the school than the honour of the individual student which we hear so much about today. These are but a few examples that speak to the negative impact which rampant individualism is having on our society.
Ms Moore indicated the dislocation suffered by individuals in recent years as a result of the economic crisis was rekindling interest in collectivism. An important lesson from this experience for workers is that containing the forces at play is beyond the capacity of the individual, and the best hope lies in collective action.
If Barbadians were only to extend this approach to other areas, such as consumer rights for example, they might be surprised at the beneficial results which could come their way. Disunity is often the source of our vulnerability.
The world today is telling us that it is better to go it alone, but history convincingly shows that it is always better to go it together. When “me” becomes the focus and only “me” matters, it is a prescription for trouble.
Recapturing that old spirit of togetherness and cooperation could very well be the formula for bringing back the good aspects of traditional Barbadian life which many nostalgically yearn for.
It is always so much better together than standing alone.