Wed | Aug 23, 2017

Annie Paul | Our lives matter

Published:Wednesday | January 18, 2017 | 1:00 AM
Anthropologist Herbert Gayle.

When the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement started picking up steam in the United States after the death of a number of black Americans at the hands of hostile police and citizens, along came its corollary, ALL Lives Matter. Proponents of the latter movement were quick to point out, in a slightly moralistic manner, that ALL lives are important, not just black ones, a sine qua non we can all agree with.

The fallacy in thinking that this assertion is an appropriate response to the idea that black lives matter has been ably articulated by many writers. When the world periodically decides to focus on a particular epidemic - Ebola - for instance, it doesn't mean that no other disease is important anymore, just that if we don't do something about Ebola right now, it will rage out of control and destroy us all.

Thus, assuming that the statement 'black lives matter' implies that other lives don't matter is a non sequitur - that is, it doesn't logically follow from the original assertion. The goal of the BLM slogan is to highlight the vulnerability of black people in a society dominated by whites or non-black people, not to deny that other people may be vulnerable, too. It is the epidemic rate at which black people are being killed or treated violently that necessitates an alarm call for society to recognise and do something about this.

'Black lives matter' is a call for help, a cry for equity and equality, a fundamental plea for black people's right to exist and flourish in a society their forefathers' suffering helped build. To respond to that by shrugging your shoulders and saying, "All lives matter," is an act of churlishness, of denial, of asserting the status quo in the face of overwhelming evidence of its inadequacies.

It is in this context that I want to examine local responses to the notion that women are at a higher risk of 'gender-based' violence than men. In recent months, both Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago have been horrified by the number of women violently attacked and killed by the men in their lives. Yet calls for Caribbean societies to take note of this phenomenon and arrest it have been rather cavalierly dispatched by those claiming to be 'experts' on violence.

 

A LOT TO ANSWER FOR

 

"A violent act is a violent act, regardless of whom it is committed against," University of the West Indies anthropologist Herbert Gayle is said to have argued. "There is nothing in this world called violence against women ... . In every country I have worked, if the murder rate goes up, as in men killing men, the attack on women will also go up."

Gayle, who heads an organisation called Fathers Inc, is articulating views that are commonly held in Jamaica. For example, the same kind of thinking governs the recording of murders of gay people here. Why differentiate them from the general population? A murder is a murder. What is the international community talking about? Our statistics show no increase in gay murders per se.

No, of course, they wouldn't, because in Jamaica, murders are apparently not disaggregated by variables such as sexuality, class, race, etc. And from what Gayle is saying, they ought not to be differentiated by gender either. This kind of reasoning argues in favour of the status quo, dismissing the claims of women in the same way that All Lives Matter dismisses the claims of black people in the United States.

I don't doubt that Gayle is earnest in his beliefs and the soundness of his research. But could he be a victim of confirmation bias? Confirmation bias is "the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one's pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consider-ation to alternative possibilities ... . People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs."

Gayle is a fervent believer that Jamaican men have been misrepresented as negligent fathers and feels that women have a lot to answer for in the generation of violence through abusive mothering practices. He could be right, but perhaps he needs to take stock of his personal biases and the effect these might be having on his research. As sociologists have observed:

"Confirmation biases contribute to overconfidence in personal beliefs and can maintain or strengthen beliefs in the face of contrary evidence. Poor decisions due to these biases have been found in political and organisational contexts." How true this is.

Let us not forget that in the last election, Gayle's research led him to believe the PNP would win. Herbert Gayle is, therefore, not the infallible expert he might think he is and in future might exert a little more caution in making authoritative statements, for regardless of his 'findings', our lives do matter.

- Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice (anniepaul.net). Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com or tweet @anniepaul.