Mon | Dec 11, 2017

Martin Henry | Low trust, high smarts

Published:Sunday | August 20, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Some very interesting snapshot data have been rolled out by the most recent Gleaner-Bill Johnson polls. It's not quite election time yet, with three parliamentary seats now vacant from retirement and death, so the polls can focus on how the nation feels about issues and about areas of cultural and economic life.

The usual national angst broke out again over the usual finding that a significant number of young Jamaicans want to migrate to greener pastures (52% of ages 18-24), and that many Jamaicans (49%) continue to feel that the country would have been better off if it hadn't become independent from Britain.

They just need to point to Jamaica's former dependencies, The Cayman Islands and the Turks & Caicos Islands, which reverted to British control shortly after Jamaica gained independence. Not to mention Bermuda, which is stubbornly refusing to let go of its dependency status under which it flourishes.

Opinion polls ask pointed questions and are only as good as the questions asked. And they collect only checklist answers. They don't get around to asking, "Why do you think so?" So the interpreters have to be called in.

It seems clear to me as an 'interpreter' that the migration itch and the anti-independence stance have very little to do with lack of commitment to, and love for, Jamaica. Another question in the same poll showed that people had many things of which they were proud of about Jamaica. Some of the most patriotic Jamaicans live abroad, including second- and third-generation 'Jamaicans'. Some of these Jamlovers were just home for the Diaspora Conference. The Gleaner can report, 'Most within J'can diaspora eye return to homeland'. And the people stuck here or choosing to stay here generally love their country as an independent sovereign state flying the green, black and gold, and taking sports, music and culture to di worl', loud and bold. It's the hardship, the suffering, the poverty, the violence, completely unnecessary, that people want to get rid of. By fleeing. Or having a supervisor. It's a statement about the failure of the politics to build a country in which Jamaicans will want to live, work and raise families, as Vision 2030 puts it. Nearly three-quarters of respondents (74%) listed crime, violence, bad-mindedness and corruption as the things that made them most ashamed to be Jamaicans, with poverty, unemployment and ineffective government added to the list, for 92 per cent of the reasons persons don't like living in this country.

But it's the trust factor and how smart we see ourselves that I really want to pick on today. The Gleaner-Johnson polls found high levels of distrust of various institutions and groups when it asked the 1,500 respondents, "Can you trust the following [named] groups to tell you what is happening?"

I am puzzled by the last part of the question since not all the listed institutions and groups are 'telling' institutions or groups. But there is no surprise in the responses, which closely reflect the ones given to the trust question in the LAPOP (Latin American Public Opinion Project) 2014 survey. Which telling institution or group was left off the list? Civil-society advocacy and 'telling' entities like the powerful, rising star National Integrity Action, with which I am connected, and the weakened Jamaicans for Justice certainly didn't make it on. Nor was there made that crucial distinction between traditional media and new social media. Although social media has no organising centre or identifiable manager/master, it is really open citizens' media.

 

DISTRUST FOR POLICE AND POLITICIANS

 

Bringing up the rear in the trust deficit, which plagues the society and holds it back, is the distrust of the police and of politicians. Perhaps the only surprise here is that the police are more trusted than the politicians! While only 10 per cent of the population believes the police can be trusted, it's down at six per cent for the politicians!

Politicians are not highly trusted anywhere, but six per cent trust here is a disaster for leadership and governance. And I suggest that this is not just a factor of overpromising and underdelivering, or even of the perceived high levels of corruption in government and among politicians. But Jamaicans have locked in their memories the destructive political violence nurtured by political tribalism and the rampant victimisation along party lines which have taken place.

The long-haul solution is developing rules-bound, transparent and accountable governance with visible and functional checks and balances on the exercise of political power. But even then, trending with the rest of the world, trust in politicians isn't about to gain any high score.

Before looking at some other categories, we should note and draw a fat red line under the fact that many Jamaicans honestly believe that they are not trustworthy. All of 43 per cent of us believe that Jamaicans are less honest than persons in the rest of the world! Does that include responding to poll questions? Veteran media and theatre practitioner and media educator Fae Ellington perceptively nailed it when called upon to be poll interpreter. "If we cannot trust ourselves, then how will we trust others?" she asked. "It could be because so many Jamaicans know they are not being as trustworthy as they could be, or should be", that they don't trust others.

Fae's home-base institution, the media, does two and a half times better than the police and four times better than politicians in having the trust of the people; 24% say they can trust the media.

I suspect that if media were to be disaggregated into talk shows and news, and even down to personalities, some of the stars of talk, like Dionne Jackson-Miller and Cliff Hughes, would register high levels of trust, as would the late Motty Perkins in his time. Talk media has long played the role of trustworthy alternative government in Jamaica.

Running neck and neck in the trust line-up are artistes and entertainers (25%), the Church (26%), and business leaders (22%). One reading of the data is the decline in the status and influence of the Church and the spectacular rise of music and entertainment as a centre of power and influence in the society. The consequences of this shift of power and influence are worth the most serious analysis. But oddly, in this conflicted society, a whopping 71% of those polled believe that Jamaicans are more religious than persons in the rest of the world!

The military fared best in a bad lot; 39 per cent of the population feel they can trust the Jamaica Defence Force. Nowhere is the trust contrast between soldiers and police and politicians sharper than in the Tivoli Gardens incursion, the findings of the West Kingston Commission of Enquiry which investigated the incursion six years later. The Jamaica Constabulary Force has done further damage to its trust quotient by absolving itself and its members fingered by the commission of all blame in its own recently released internal review.

 

HOW SMART ARE J'CANS?

 

I found really fascinating this smart question put to the poll respondents: "Do you think Jamaicans are smarter or not as smart as persons in the rest of the world?" Well, what else do you expect? Two-thirds of respondents said we Jamaicans are smarter!

But I have a sneaky suspicion that questioner and answerers had different things in mind. I don't know if Bill Johnson, an American-turned-Jamaican, wrote the question himself. But even if he didn't, there is a huge risk of a culture clash of understandings. By 'smart', Jamaicans more usually mean Anancy smart, deceitfully clever, cunningly tricky, manipulatively sharp. Although we do know and use 'smart' to mean intelligent or bright, especially in a practical way.

And 'bright' itself is another word with double-barrelled Jamaican meaning. Rude and out of order. Or intellectually sharp. The tone in which bright is spoken is all-important for its intended meaning.

This overweening confidence in how smart we are, Anancy smart or otherwise, could be turned to good advantage. Marcus (Last Thursday, August 17, was the 130th anniversary of his birth) told us: "If you have no confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life." But "with confidence, you have won before you have started."

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.