Lawrence Lessig is a professor of law at the Harvard Law School and the director of the Edmond J Safra Center for Ethics. He is a political activist who takes on both sides of the political aisle...
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How We Got Here: Carnival and Social Death
Think about it: you slow down the civil service, schools, and government for weeks; you encourage the production and dissemination of songs which are at best harmless and loutish, at worst, feed racial paranoia, encourage promiscuity, a disregard for common decency, private property and civic responsibility; you sprinkle the country with noisy, disruptive events which are accompanied by a significant increase in crime. You call these phenomena “national culture.” Then you wonder why productivity is comatose, criminality endemic, why the HIV rate is increasing, as are unwanted pregnancies, and why the de facto social compact seems to have become “do whatever you can get away with”—practised by politicians, teachers, doctors, lawyers, ditch-diggers, union leaders, and street vendors. Are there reasons to do this that outweigh all those negatives? Oh, yeah: Tourism; is ah eggs-pressh-an of we cultyere; and it makes a profit.
Briefly (because this was all dealt with last year in this space): The “tourists” are mainly returning Trinis who would come anyway, and they don’t spend that much, they send much more in remittances; Carnival is not “we” culture, it is PNM culture, and only survived because the PNM was in power from 1956-1986; and finally, calculations of cost-benefit do not account for the costs of Aids, stress on the judicial, protective, health and educational systems, and the erosion of productivity, work ethic, and social relations. But there’s more. To repeat the first paragraph (because it can’t be repeated enough): during the Carnival “season,” Carnival is pushed to the centre of national life. Several negative urges, sociopathic tendencies, and anti-productive practices are cultivated and promoted with the imprimatur of the State. (In fact, it’s the one consistent message from the State.) Chaos results when the population does as instructed: mash up de place and get orn bad. This is predictable.
But there are other consequences which have to do with the national capacity for innovation and the development of human capital—that is, our ability to produce viable citizens, and therefore a viable “developed” society. In “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” an article in the NY Times on January 13, Susan Cain examined some of the factors necessary for creativity and innovation. She wrote: “Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.” She contrasts this knowledge with the “group” or “cluster” phenomenon in academic and corporate culture. Such situations create stress, decrease productivity, and worsen health. Think of this on the scale of a nation. Mob behaviour, and the consequent banishment of the individual and privacy, are latent dynamics of the Carnival complex which have filtered into the national culture. Group interaction has merits and is socially desirable, but without the group experience being balanced by individ- ual privacy, a perversion of this group/mob mentality evolves, affecting the way we behave and see the world. In brief, there are a lot of terribly unhappy, stressed-out people in sweet T&T.
This is largely because solitude and quiet are alien concepts. There are few, if any, institutionally sanctioned spaces and occasions of quiet and solitude. The very ideas seem to generate hostility. The epicentre of the praxis is Carnival, but there are other sources. In bars, street vendor booths, private homes and churches (of all denominations), a significant part of the proceedings seems to involve violent noise. Interestingly, once Trinidadians go abroad, they understand that this is unacceptable. The US carnivals are restricted to one day, or one weekend, and events have to work around the schedule of the society—not the other way around. You can wine down to the ground, just don’t disturb the neighbours, make sure you go to work, and make sure your children go to school. In Trinidad, it’s the opposite. The society is dragged into the chaos, which only ebbs at points of the year, but never really disappears. This has generated a whole range of behaviour and, indeed, a culture. We do things routinely which would get you arrested in a real country (like Barbados): reckless driving; verbal assault; sociopathic behaviour, especially to- ward women; and that Trini tradition of drinking while driving, followed by public urination.
In an article in the Express last Thursday, Vaneisa Baksh wrote about the types of behaviour that have become common in the society: the violence, murder, thievery, and so on. She proposed that the cause is a mental health crisis that no one has diagnosed, and which we can’t treat, so we just ignore. Whether or not Carnival causes insanity is debatable, but that permanent Carnival allows psychopathology to flourish and hide is unquestionable. The behaviour manifests at the personal and individual levels as well. Some people, for no reason at all, will tor- ture their neighbours with hours, days, weeks of noise, and astoundingly, no one—not the police, not the EMA, not the neigh- bours—seems to understand that this is a form of assault which disrupts family and community life, and children’s psychosocial development. Or at the very least, that condoning it institutionalises contempt for the very notions of privacy and personal space, and, you might say, the notion of a society.
And there are other, unmapped and unconsidered effects. How does this culture of noise, public displays of sexual crudity and general disrespect for the law affect children’s worldviews, academic performance, attitudes to authority, and young boys’ attitudes to women? No one at UWI dares to do the research to find this out, because we all know the answers. Remember the earthquake everyone ignored: the Soca Storm riot of February 2003, where thousands of school children rioted and attacked police at a schools’ Carnival event. The riot never stopped, but we continue to pretend it’s a parade.
• To be continued
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