Just the other day, a miseducated online troll on Twitter described me as being one of a number of “personal responsibility evangelists” seemingly set on blaming regular folks for a possible statistical uptick in the pandemic figures because of their misbehaviour.
I kind of liked the description, so I decided to leave the poor guy alone. What attracted the compliment—initially intended by him as hurtful, disrespectful insult directed at a stranger—was a simple question:
“Why is it so difficult for #TrinidadandTobago people to grasp the key role of personal responsibility in managing #COVID-19?”
The fact of the matter is that there is a collective ailment that often erupts like an otherwise latent boil on the body politic here. It is the belief that we need not accept a high level of personal and communal responsibility for much (not all) of our difficulties. Lloyd Best had a much more nuanced and extreme way of describing this as a state of “unresponsiblity.”
CCJ Justice Winston Anderson invoked a similar sense of what we’re dealing with during a remarkable presentation on Monday when he invoked Immanuel Kant’s notion of “personal autonomy.”
I wrote a poem when I was about 19 called, “Sguvament Fawlt.” It’s in my collection entitled Lost in The City (1993). The poem was inspired by a news story I’d read about a guy who killed a man during the course of a robbery and went on to rape the murder victim’s daughter:
“sguvament fault/he pulldee job/no tendays/no tendays/zwy he ting dee gyul … and kill deeman/an ting dee gyul/znot he fawlt … zyaws!”
Yes, there are lines in between I’ve omitted in the interest of keeping the sub-editor happy, but it is a painful read for a number of intended reasons.
It is not his fault. It is yours! It is the ultimate challenge of our society to appropriately locate personal responsibility. The level of specificity and precision is honed by education, experience and the disposition of the social environment.
The young guy killed and raped. At that time, the rough equivalent of CEPEP was something we loosely called “a 10 days.” But he didn’t have the opportunity to find space in “a 10 days” you see. So he killed and he raped.
So, all of this is not his fault, “zyaws”! It is “yours.” Ours. Mine. I found even then, as a “personal responsibility evangelist” the unidentified narrator in the poem was, at minimum, being unreasonable in asserting a role for the rest of us. So, he argues, he had no choice but to “kill de man” and to “ting dee gyul.”
Even then, I had concluded then that poverty does not have an essentially inelastic relationship with violent crime.
But I think now about the wearing of masks. And I had thought recently, on Twitter, that whatever the objective circumstances of the official response to the pandemic, the relatively simple task of wearing a mask – symbolic of taking responsibility for yourself – was my way of saying “znot your fawlt (responsibility) … iz mine!”
Instead, I received a lecture on the “fact (that) government have been lying on their laurels hoping ‘God is a Trini,’ privatising needed public services for years and gaslighting the entire nation in a false sense of security while not doing enough testing.”
In other words, I was being told “Sguvament Fawlt”—that declaration expressed in my poem as awkward, exaggerated illiteracy to signal a state of under, if not, mis-educated self-serving illogic.
Nobody cites that poem among those they like. This, to me, means it has achieved its objective of conveying the uncomfortable requirement of people in their personal and communal spaces to be responsible for their own actions—including those meant to protect themselves and others from illness.
The current period offers conditions to test our sense of responsibility toward ourselves and others. I am not sure if the Twitter troll is among the COVID-deniers or conspiracy theorists and he, therefore, resists the wearing of a mask.
But he sure sounds like it would be found to have been “guvament fawlt” if he finds himself inconveniently self-quarantined with nothing but a keyboard, a menu of insults, and a collection of unused face masks.