What does Peace look like? Part 1

March 7, 2008

Its hard to tell, especially when reading the website of the Violence Prevention Alliance, a network of organizations “working together to prevent violence in Jamaica.” There was never a single definition of “violence”, nor of the “peace” that is sought as an antidote. This is a definite red flag for me.

A few days ago, the said VPA organized a Peace March that took place in Kingston. I didn’t attend, much as I wanted to. But, in listening to and reading publicity related to the event, I was not feeling encouraged at all.

Here’s why:

On one hand, the symbolism of people gathered – whether out of curiosity or in general support of the idea – can have a powerful and meaningful effect. It is a collective stance that can reinforce – and even overwhelms – the commitment of one single individual. Marches are stock strategies in a movement. They are rallying cries; there’s nothing like being surrounded by hundreds and thousands of other people who believe the same thing you do. Its visceral, euphoric and wonderfully energizing. I used to be a march junkie.

On the other hand, you can only have that feeling when you are able to connect to broader goals and definition of the “problem” that makes up the movement. What I don’t know is what constitutes *this* particular movement. The VPA’s mission is to “to create violence – free and safe Jamaica”. Its focus is on “violence prevention”, a phrase liberally sprinkled through the website. Their focus is on “interpersonal violence” and not on “collective violence”. I don’t know what the latter is, and can’t imagine. They also make reference to “sub-types of violence” (!). Again, I don’t know what this means.  But the more I read the run-on sentences filled with jargon, the more skeptical I am becoming of the entire project.

All I am saying is that it would be nice to have a clear, working definition of the problem that everybody can understand, clear strategies for how to get there, and what the ultimate goal is.

For me, the inability (or refusal?) to provide a clear definition tells us that they are already working with one.  And one that is assumed, rather than stated, and may not be as inclusive as it should be. The group clearly works in a top-down fashion – they have flow charts and what have you about who fits where and reports to who etc. etc. Nice. In fact, while I think this information is meant to make the workings of the group more visible, I am not convinced of the openness of the group.

And if VPA works the way most Jamaican organizations work, it will be hell to try to get something done that the top dogs don’t like or rubber stamp. Those who are working on “subtypes” which are not popular or defined as useful will be lucky to get any attention, resources or support. Indeed, there are several members on the “board of directors” who themselves are only there because they have a “big job” or a “big name”, and will probably learn that they were never competent for the job for which they were hired. The best example for me is Mary Clarke, the children’s advocate. And then there is John Mahfood. Why is he on this board? Because ‘im brown and ‘im last name? Could somebody tell me what the hell he knows about violence (besides what he may have participated in or turned a blind eye to?) Is he actually willing to use his connections to corporations in order to put some dollars behind the various initiatives, or is he window dressing? I want to see the research on how board membership is determined in Jamaica; I bet this is no different from what fortune 100 companies in the US do; the study of “interlocking directorates” is what my much-hated first stats prof. made his big name on. Simply put: the same smaddy dem deh pon every blasted board; dem pick dem fren and dem fren fren, and so on. That’s why all the corporations seem to think alike and act alike on big policy issues. Their decision making is done by the same people! Look where that got us so far…

Then there is the sinister ideological crap they are pushing about family. What do you learn just by a quick review of the posters and the handbooks? A happy (peaceful and violence-free?) family is made up of a man, a woman, and the two children reading together. Apparently such families don’t have pets or animal companions. Nor do the parents treat their children or each other like crap. Worthy of a post in itself.

In fact, it becomes pretty clear that the focus of the work of “violence prevention” is not on “violence” but on murders and interpersonal violence using guns, knives, etc. That is, the stuff that many young men in the inner cities are participating in, and killing themselves while at it. Not surprisingly, this is also the violence that everybody has been up in arms about – how Jamaica is getting violent; all this violence has got to stop etc.

In all the bawling and wailing, we forgot to stop and think. I’ve been tracking reports of child abuse and violence against women as they have appeared in the newspaper since 2000, and mek me tell yuh sup’m. Conditions critical.

But, these esteemed folks at the VPA, who are the experts who are supposed to at least help us to do a little better on this matter, don’t seem all that interested in making it clear what we are facing and up against. They seem to work just the way the govament bodies work, which is not to stop to ask, well, shouldn’t we be clear what we are talking about and trying to work on? They probably did this though, and came up with this idea of “subtypes” (you can tell that kind of language is pissing me off, especially since there’s no adequate explanation for their process).

The other question that is not being answered is: is it really true to say that the society has become more violent, or is it that some forms of violence (like gun-related, bodily attacks etc.) are becoming more widespread. I do think the society has become more violent, but I can assure you, dead bodies are not the data that I used to draw my conclusions. The walking wounded are far more numerous among us: the ones who have never seen a gun or a dead body, but continually wear the bruises and wounds left by the hands, language and various implements and body parts that invaded their space, and told them (ad infinitum) that they are not human and do not deserve to be treated as such. And the walking wounded – not just the children that we are called to feel sorry for in the scaremongering that is going on – are all around us; they advocate for and make social policy right ya so that says it is acceptable to deny people, food, housing, jobs, etc. because of their social circumstances. Are they going to lay out what the situation is — hello? Statistics, pie charts and bar graphs buried on website are not going to do that job for you.

And shouldn’t we ask, rather than presume, what is causing and support this increase, rather than blame the same old scapegoats – those bad parents who can’t tek care o’ dem pickney and leggo dem pon di sosyati fi terrorize we; dat dam buggo buggo music wid di gun and sex and all dat? Where is the research to support these conclusions? Where is the research that individual agencies can use to guide their programs? Where is the information that all of the rest of us can use, besides hearsay, prejudice, etc.

So, we have a clear picture of the good parents; the VPA has shown us. And we have a clear picture of the bad parent. And I can assure you that VPA and I are not talking about the same things. I definitely recognize them when I see them and interact with their children. And I can assure you, those parents are not the ones above that are the focus of public ire and this mass effort to “resocialize” and teach them “parenting skills”.

You know the type that informs the thinking of VPA, and is constantly being referenced in the news accounts and soapbox speeches: the one that has sex in front of her children — put her children out on the street to hustle — don’t supervise har pickney dem — nuh know if har pickney dem go a school — lef dem go a dance — go to school and cuss and fight off the teacher — mek her babyfather dem sex off her gal pickney. Yes, that woman. She’s the epitome of the bad parent. Men are not really bad parents; just absent and forgot that is dem suppose to run tings.

For me, there is no such thing as a bad parent. But there are parents who really shouldn’t be, and who don’t know the first thing about what it means to parent. That’s an issue about the conditions under which they are parenting. I assume that people, with the best information possible, will do the best they can with what they have. The ‘bad parents’ are the ones who cannot be an example of virtue, kindness, compassion, generosity, intelligence and courage to anyone, not even their dog. And let me tell you (this is my bias speaking out loud and clear), I’m a serious breeder; I love for the ‘right’ kind of people to have children; more! more! more! having kids forces you to be even more human. The “right kind of people” are like a woman I met last night who when asked about her son, said he was doing really well. Then stopped and said – and you could feel the love and emotion in her words: “you know, it is wonderful being a mother to adult children; to see them make their way in the world and who I consider my best friends because we share a complex history that made all of us who we are, and we love each other for all that.” Her son decided that he was sick and tired of hearing all the bullshit and media propaganda about black people in France, so he and his mother are going to make a documentary about music in African and Caribbean immigrant communities there. That’s their vacation. These people are not rich in money, but rich in ideas, energy, compassion and a general sense that people ought to be able to live freely and fully, and their responsibility to humanity is to make that happen, however they do it.

But most of de so-called high-class people dem whe’ me find myself interacting wid in Ja, I really wish they hadn’t had children. I watch what their children are doing to this society and I cry sometimes. Mean, bad-mind, cubbitch, selfish, and narrow minded. These are the words that come to mind. They would think they are the cat’s pajamas because of what they have, where they have been, but who they are – uh uh. When you have people, and the children they raise, believe that the country is their playground, and who choose to spend their time and money on making more for themselves and demanding more and more from the society rather than contributing to building and strengthening our institutions, then I believe that we are victims of bad parenting. Too many of the children produced from these families that we are supposed to hold up as a “model”, are rude, inconsiderate, self-involved and feel entitled; if you knew me, you would know how much ah cyaaaa tek pickney who nuh have mannahs and regard fi odder people. No ‘defer to adults’ kind of manners – that’s not manners really — but have acquired a sense of empathy, curiosity, basic consideration and respect for other people, regardless of their circumstances. So, unless there is evidence for what exactly qualifies Lorna Golding or many of these columnists writing for the papers as experts on “parenting” and whether they can fulfill my criteria, I will denounce the abiding elitism that is at work here, and suspend other judgements until I have enough information.

If our so-called experts and policymakers thought about the message that they are sending about ‘poor people’ and ‘broken families’, they would recognize that they are actually doing violence to socially disadvantaged groups. Oh, that’s probably the collective violence that VPA is not interested in. And, they would recognize that the less people are treated as fully human and with dignity, the less likely they are to act as if they have regard for humanity. Through our language which conveys all our prejudices, we are helping to create and reinforce the very problem we claim to be trying to solve. If we had been doing that all along, we wouldn’t be so quick to demonize those bad parents.

Rather, VPA would be saying something different, and in the clearest, most accessible language:

Here’s what a just, violence-free and peaceful society looks like
Here’s what families, communities and individuals need to have in order for that to happen
Here are the groups that are working on issues, and here’s what they are doing
Here’s how we plan to inform public policy so these things can happen
Here’s what you can do to contribute to and get involved in this movement

Is that kind of clarity really too much to ask for?

Peace is not just about the absence of violence; it is a condition that has to be created and sustained.  I don’t think that these folks really understand that difference.  I strongly support anti-violence work, but such work has to be guided by something bigger than “we’re sick of this”; it has to be guided by a vision of what a different, better society would look like.  So far, VPA hasn’t offered me a vision that I can buy into.

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