Tue | May 21, 2019

Gordon Robinson | Danger! Danger! Attack on freedom of expression

Published:Tuesday | March 5, 2019 | 12:13 AM

Recently, freedom of expression has come under sustained, insidious attack in Jamaica.

Apparently, the Mona Law Society (MLS), an organisation representing Mona campus law students at The University of the West Indies, planned a Mr and Miss Law competition with a dancehall theme. As promotion, photos of students in skimpy costumes and dancehall poses were posted on its Instagram page.

All hell broke loose.

One “senior member of the legal fraternity” (The Gleaner), who accepted an invitation to an associated event, withdrew his participation in a widely published letter to MLS that was beyond scathing.

The photos were described as “vulgar, disgraceful and reprehensible”.

The Gleaner reported:

“ [The lawyer] rejected assertions his comments were an attack on dancehall: ‘I enjoy all genres of music … . It’s not to be interpreted as such, but there’s a time and a place for everything. What’s particularly offensive about it is that it’s for public display. It’s not a private-viewing page, and it’s associated with persons who would wish to join what I still consider a noble and respectable profession,’ the attorney said, pointing out that he has two young daughters.”

Sigh.

I hope he allows his daughters to form independent views on dancehall, the legal profession and Beyoncé.

My immediate response (on Twitter) was:

“Law students are just college students. Nothing more. Nothing less. They’re learning and growing in an environment that should encourage self-expression. Some lawyers take themselves and their profession too seriously.”

Among hundreds of responses, my favourite came from Tony ‘Paleface’ Hendriks:

“You’d think the legal fraternity would be more concerned with the fact so many of their members are corrupt, thieving criminals, setting appalling examples to the general public, than a millennial student posting pictures.”

Yes, you would.

ELITISM IS JUST PLAIN WRONG

The lawyer was accused of and condemned for expressing elitist views, but he also had defenders, including one Lipton Matthews, who, in a letter to the editor, characterised dancehall as “a shallow art form” and defended elitism, writing that the opprobrium attached to the lawyer came about only “because Jamaica has evolved into a lowbrow society. There’s nothing wrong with expressing elitist sentiments … .’”

Double sigh.

A legal defence like that could get the accused hanged. Fifty years ago, when Lipton would probably call Jamaica ‘highbrow’, ska, rock steady, and reggae were demeaned as ‘boogooyagga’ music. Social commentators like ‘Toots’, Desmond Dekker and Bob Marley were dismissed as ‘hooligans’. Some of the now revered Prince Buster’s popular recordings were as ‘vulgar’ as you’d want. Heptones’ Fatty Fatty was banned from radio.

Sorry, Lipton, elitism is just plain wrong. The Oxford Dictionary defines elitism as “the feeling of being better than other people that being part of an elite encourages”. Being part of an elite isn’t anybody’s fault. Elitism is. There’s a difference between elitism and having/maintaining standards. Your standards are yours. Imposing them on others is elitism.

Lipton accused dancehall of contributing to Jamaica’s social problems and glorifying the worst aspects of our culture. Wrong again. All art, including music, only reflects society as the artist sees it. The chicken came first. The music is the consequently unsatisfied egg.

So I applaud those students who insisted on expressing themselves creatively, including on MLS’s website. MLS’ subsequent caving to elitist pressure was, however, disappointing.

Next came our own Mr Bumble, whose education ministry proposed a raft of new regulations gagging teachers’ critique.

One clause:

“[Politically active] teachers or principals are restricted from criticising the [Ministry of Education’s] programmes and policies in any media, including social media, unless it’s in the context of a…non-political forum.”

Seriously?

Who isn’t “politically active”?

Jamaica’s Charter of Rights (including freedom of expression) has been in effect for only seven years, so maybe many don’t understand the new paradigm. No ‘regulation’ or ‘code’ can affect these rights, no matter who considers you ‘vulgar’ or overly critical.

What next? Will Government ban columnists from making fun of bumbling, bungling, boring buffoons in Cabinet clothing?

As the Lost in Space robot would say, “Danger! Danger!”

Peace and love!

Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com