Barbados is an inherently conservative society. So conservative, to the point that the environment for personal development can be stifling sometimes, especially for persons whose thinking happens to be outside the box. Hence, the reason why some of our sharpest brains choose to go and remain abroad.
In Barbados, there’s a resistance to exploring new ideas that challenge traditional boundaries, to embracing change that offers the possibility of bringing overall improvement to the society, and to seeing issues from other than the mainstream perspective.
Generally speaking, the average Barbadian is unconscious of this reality, especially if he or she happens to have spent their entire life here. It often requires the liberating experience of living abroad, thus becoming detached from day-to-day Barbadian society, in order to see the situation for what it is.
Barbadians have been conditioned from birth, through a form of socialization grounded in our British colonial past, to place limits on ourselves and to accept being conservative as
a defining Barbadian characteristic which others recognize.
Our socialization, which begins during the formative years when a person is easily most impressionable, places everyone into a ready-made mental straitjacket that shapes our thinking, behaviour, outlook and general attitude towards life.
The process involves instilling fear during childhood, demanding obedience without answering searching questions, sometimes enforcing harshly the rules in cases of perceived waywardness, and quoting liberally from The Bible to justify and give legitimacy to the approach.
Effected primarily through the family, the education system and our practice of religion, our socialization ensures that the average person learns from early to take his or her place –– which also explains the inherently passive nature of Barbadians.
We are hesitant to stand up publicly for what is right, even though our own interests may be at stake. We have been conditioned to grin and bear it, and play it safe, because we understand at a subconscious level that compliance determines whether society will consider us a good boy or girl.
The influence of the Bajan straitjacket was seen in the harsh criticism and condemnation, by some Barbadians, of the student and mother at the centre of the recent Springer Memorial School issue. What mattered to the critics was obedience. The rights of the child in particular did not matter.
Compared with our Caribbean neighbours who have had the same colonial experience, the British did a more thorough job in moulding us, in many ways, in their image. Which explains, for example, the pride we have traditionally taken in Barbados being described as “Little England”.
During the colonial period, it gave us a sense of importance and told us at a psychological level that we were special and different, especially in relation to our neighbours. The effects, which linger despite Independence, have influenced our relationship with our neighbours and how they see us.
From the colonial period, education has served as a primary tool of socialization. We became “Little England” as a result of being taught the British way. Whereas illiteracy was a problem in some neighbouring islands, it never really was in Barbados. We boasted a remarkable 99 per cent literacy rate.
While the straitjacket has been beneficial in the sense of ensuring social stability which supported our remarkable development, it has had obvious drawbacks. One relates to the relevance of our model of education, considering that education is supposed to liberate the mind. Many Barbadians pass through the system without developing an ability to think critically.
From primary school, even up to Cave Hill, from what I am told, we are essentially spoon-fed and are then expected to regurgitate whatever we are taught in the classroom, or read in a textbook, on an exam paper to pass. If your ideas do not reflect what you were spoon-fed, you simply may not make it.
I will share the story of a Barbadian who went to a foreign university and initially used this same approach. He was given a term paper assignment and was shocked, on its return, to find that even though the professor had said it was well written, all he could muster was a Grade C.
Naturally concerned, he went to see the professor. He wanted to know why he did not get at least a B+ or, better yet, an A-, as would have most likely happened in Barbados, seeing that the professor had remarked that the paper was “well written”.
“Yes, it was well written,” the professor explained, “but all you have done basically was to show me how well you have read the literature. I was looking for more, especially evidence that the readings had triggered you to think critically about the problem. If you had demonstrated such, and all the points were logically argued, you could have got an A.”
This weakness of our education system is impeding Barbados’ development potential. New ideas, the product of being able to think outside the box, lead to the development of innovative products and services which excite the global market, creating strong demand and building economic success.
We are talking a lot about entrepreneurship as the centerpiece for revitalizing our economy. But even here the limiting effect of the straitjacket is evident. Our concept of entrepreneurship is someone baking and selling sweet bread, opening a barber shop, or a store and selling imported items.
Such business activities, though important in providing an income for the owner and maybe one or two employees, cannot take Barbados to the next level. Export-oriented entrepreneurship is what matters. What is preventing us from striving to produce another Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, for example? We are thinking small instead of thinking big.
I refuse to believe or accept that extraordinary talent resides only in developed countries. We were born with the same basic ability. The problem with us, however, is that whereas the straitjacket limits us, developed countries provide the enabling environment for people like Bill Gates to emerge.
There is hope for change, however, through our young people. Globalization, which is exposing them to new concepts and ideas, is breaking the stranglehold of the straitjacket. As a result, our young people are seeing the world in a fundamentally different way from most adults who have not grasped the extent of the revolution in thinking which has taken place. They grew up in a different world which is almost gone. Instead of criticizing our young people, as happens so often, adults need to come to terms with the fact that the world has changed fundamentally in the last 25 years and, as much as they may protest, the change is irreversible. A better option is to support our young people and encourage them to positively apply their energy and ideas for the betterment of society.
The conservative Barbadian side is naturally resistant to change. But change, more so than at any other time in world history, is very much a part of everyday life today. The hard choice which we face as a society is whether we will continue to resist or adapt. Pursuing the first option, which is our traditional inclination, will be to our eventual detriment.
Freeing ourselves from the mental shackles of the straitjacket is indispensable if we, as a people, are to come up with a new, exciting and realistic vision for Barbados which is informed by and is relevant to the reality of the 21st century.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and long-standing journalist.