In the Books and Arts section of The Economist magazine of April 27, 2019 there is an article entitled The Psychology of Nations. It is really a review of a book by Jared Diamond entitled Upheaval. The reviewer notes that the text sets out to ‘construct a diagnostic framework for political systems in turmoil.’ The central question posed is what enables some societies to cope with crisis, but ‘condemns others to mayhem.’ One couldn’t help but wonder whether the collective ‘psychology’ of Barbados at this time is likely to lead to positive recovery and transformation or alternatively, to persistent crisis and even collapse.
The main assumption in the text is that the insights that help individuals overcome personal crises like crushing disappointments, painful divorce and bereavement can also be applied to societies and nations. The Economist writer admits that the notion that individual psychology can be projected onto nations is ‘fanciful.’ However, as the author Jared Diamond suggests, some parallels between individuals and societies can be instructive.
The first imperative for real transformation for individuals, as for nations, is honest introspection. We Barbadians must look at ourselves without that squint of conceit. That refers to the capacity to acknowledge the trouble one is in, to identify the things that need to change and exercise the will to make those changes.
It seems to me that the major indictment against the DLP administration is that it took too long to accept existential economic reality and failed to act expeditiously and appropriately to deal with it. The signs of economic fragility and psycho-social decline were evident for some time, but we continued to flatter ourselves that like the annual tropical storms and hurricanes, they would blow north or north-west.
The Economist article notes that the notion of ‘national character’ is ‘a slippery metaphor that leads to cartoonish over-simplification.’ Yet, historians and sociologists still cling to the concept. Over time, we Barbadians have developed some comforting myths about ourselves. There was the so-called ‘Idea’ of Barbados, of a people who saw themselves as very religious, most highly educated, (98 per cent literate), conservative, socially peaceful and industrious.
Some of this was undoubtedly true; we could not have achieved as much as we did otherwise. However, there were some inconvenient truths. If we were observant and observing, we might have realised that the ‘Idea’ of Barbados, of an ostensibly positive national value consensus, had begun to dissipate. Culture is neither monolithic nor static and the culture, that is, the prevailing attitudes, values and sensibilities, has significantly changed, and not always for the better.
While we were congratulating ourselves with platitudes like the idea that we were ‘approaching first world status’ and ‘punching above our weight,’ the reality was that we were becoming more indebted, less industrious and more undisciplined. A celebrated master of the calypso genre long ago proclaimed that the country was ‘not well.’ We seemed to have listened to the beat, but the message escaped us. Truth be told, Barbados was becoming a less religious and more secular, materialistic and hedonistic society. We were becoming more certified and credentialed but less educated, less conservative and cautious and more mindless and thoughtless, more consuming and less thrifty, less community conscious and more atomistic, with everybody looking out for himself or herself.
What then is the collective mindset and what are the coping strategies needed to avoid the ‘upheaval’ that overtakes individuals and societies gazing into the contemporary abyss? In Barbados, everything is politics and politics is everything. It behoves us to stop the partisan bickering and admit the national faults which require an in-depth bipartisan discourse.
The second coping strategy is to stop the partisan blame game. There is enough blame to go around. The former administration failed in much of its governance and it was severely scolded. But history is a continuum, not all aspects of our collective failure began suddenly in 2008. An interesting statement on the UWI website attributed to an Anthony Bouza stated that behind every seemingly simple problem is a more complex reality. What we need now is to get the country going again, to get a regularised transport system, an improved water supply system and a proper garbage collection detail.
In addition, there are long-term fundamental problems that must be corrected. Gravitas, high seriousness, related to academic and behavioural discipline must return to our schools which must again become agents of socialisation. This must apply to the fabric of Barbadian society as a whole. We have to address the number of young people, particularly boys, falling through the cracks. The Court system and indeed the whole justice system must be seen to function promptly and effectively. Failure to solve these issues can only lead to the mayhem that the author of Upheaval says has overtaken some nations.
Ralph Jemmott is a respected retired educator.