Wed | Dec 7, 2016

Change the “normal” in 2015

Published:Friday | January 9, 2015 | 12:00 AM

What is 'normal'? For many people, 'normal' is what they have grown accustomed to. And so, for some, political violence is normal, while for others, social peace is normal. For some, depending on the police for protection is normal, while for others, it is 'normal' to fear the police for the real brutality they represent.

For some, restraining oneself (self-control) in the presence of food or drink or other sources of pleasure is the normal course of life, while for others, scratching every itch in the pursuit of self-aggrandisement is their way of life. One's socialisation defines one's 'normal'.

In statistics, a normal distribution curve presents the spectrum of behaviour, and the most frequently observed behaviour is called the 'normal', whatever it is. Statistically, stealing water and electricity could be normal; or squatting; or disposing of one's litter through the car window or in a gully. In Jamaica, maybe even diabetes and hypertension have become 'normal'.

For others, 'normal' is conformity to agreed benchmark 'norms' - formal or informal social or cultural 'laws'. A society defines the norms and values by which it wishes to be organised and governed, and 'normal' behaviour is then defined by consonance with these norms and values. Using this approach, what is 'normal' could very well be quite uncommon behaviour.

I believe that there are things which we in Jamaica consider to be 'normal' which are quite uncommon elsewhere in the world, and may be even considered to be pernicious. For example, in the United Kingdom or the United States, would needy constituents approach their members of parliament (Mops) or Congressmen to "let off a money"? Would needy parents approach politicians for money for schoolbooks or school clothes or lunch? Or money to fill a prescription or to "bury a dead"? We take this sort of thing as 'normal', but elsewhere, that kind of behaviour is considered to be the worst kind of political patronage.

Much like slavery

In bygone days, if an enslaved person wanted something, they asked their owner, or maybe the 'busha'; slavery made the enslaved dependent upon the slave master (ironically, the reverse was also true). The 'normal' way that the Jamaican political system operates today more closely resembles slavery than many would like to admit. Yet, the norm is that the MP is a legislator, not a dispenser of "scarce benefits and spoils".

Doing away with colonialism is more than replacing the Queen with a president. We must also replace the plantation system with a political economy which offers each and every Jamaican the opportunity to achieve their full potential - or close to it; and we must replace the slave master-politician with leaders who serve the people.

Fifty-odd years after Independence, we continue to waste and depreciate the vast majority of Jamaica's human capital.

Last year, I attended an environmental conference in the USA and it felt strange to be able to enter a store without first leaving my bag at the door, which is quite 'normal' in Jamaica. Clearly, shoplifting is also quite 'normal' in Jamaica, which forces merchants to adopt expensive measures to address it, which drives up the cost of doing business, and, therefore, the prices of goods.

In the USA, I saw very few homes surrounded by fences or walls, and no stray animals (except a few nocturnal wild deer) were to be seen. Where I live in Bull Bay, herds of goats and cows normally pass by every day, sent out to graze by their pasture-less owners. And this is 'normal' across Jamaica. To complain is to be called miserable and maybe an oppressor. And so the fences and walls go up, and premises are patrolled by fierce dogs.

Nowadays, there is a fierce public battle being waged over what is to be considered 'normal'. The campaign for "sexual and reproductive rights" would have us consider early sexual activity, teenage pregnancy, contraceptive use by schoolchildren, abortion and homosexuality to be 'normal'. This movement wishes to change the benchmark social norms by which we live, but, in my view, in entirely the wrong direction.

Social ills

What I would like to see in 2015 is a serious re-examination of what we consider to be 'normal' in Jamaica. Poverty and illiteracy, to which we have grown accustomed, should no longer be considered 'normal', but the aberrations that they are. Corruption among politicians and the private sector - 'normal' business practice in Jamaica - should become so frowned upon that it becomes a source of shame and scandal.

This change in the meaning of 'normal' must begin with you and me. Those who become wealthy out of the 'normal' corruption in Jamaica have no real interest in change, no matter what they say.

n Peter Espeut is a sociologist and environmentalist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.