Mon | Apr 6, 2020

Chaka-chaka social behaviour

Published:Sunday | January 31, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Jamaica has become too much of a coarse, vulgar and rambunctious place. The country is awash with non-criminal social violence. The nation is extraordinarily disorderly and 'chaka-chaka' in social relations.

This coarseness, vulgarity and violence has its defenders, in university, media and at the roadblock street dance, as harmless expressions of the culture. It is a destructive and anti-human and antisocial element of the culture.

For several reasons, I was caught up with public advertisements nearly a year ago that national standards of public behaviour were to be developed. The first surprise was that the task was assigned to the Bureau of Standards Jamaica (BSJ). I know the BSJ to be good at setting and monitoring product standards, but when did they get into behaviour standards? I suppose a standard is a standard.

The next matter of concern was that the Behaviour Standard Committee seemed to be relying on 'whosoever-will' public consultation to arrive at the standard. But perhaps my biggest concern of all was how would any standard of behaviour be implemented?

A news item in the middle of last week, which I first heard on RJR 94 FM, said the first draft of a national standard for improving public behaviour in Jamaica is now ready. The story went on to say, "When the final draft is handed over to Parliament, it will provide a framework for guiding how Jamaicans conduct themselves in society."

correct negative behaviour

The technical committee, comprising a team of volunteers, was set up in March last year at the behest of the Government and under the watchful eyes of the BSJ. It will try to correct negative behaviour in the way Jamaicans dress, the music they listen to and how they do business."

It would have been much easier to arrest the slide in public behaviour than to reverse it. The horse is not just out through the gate but is well down the road.

A big part of the problem is not just the fact of poor behaviour but the normalisation of poor behaviour. UWI Professor of Criminology Anthony Harriott made the same point in Understanding Crime in Jamaica with respect to crime, certain "activities of the political elites have profound implications for ordinary criminality, especially the normalisation of crime which is reflected in the view that criminality has become conformist behaviour, or, as cynically expressed in Creole, 'all a wi a thief'."

Committee chair Dr J.D. Robertson recognises that the greatest challenge the Public Behaviour Standard will face will be to resocialise citizens. "I think these standards in implementing them the challenge will be to debunk the years of socialisation that has told them that this is right when, in fact, it is wrong and I realise that some of it is basically a lack of education," Dr Robertson said.

And just who is Dr Robertson to be labelling some entrenched and widely accepted behavioural practices 'wrong'? That's going to be a big fight.

The prevailing situation is not without identifiable historical causation. The Observer began taking us there in its last Monday [January 25] editorial, "Politicians should say sorry", which the paper began by saying, "It is not often mentioned, but among the awful legacies of decades-old political tribalism in Jamaica is the 'roadblock' demonstration involving the use of fire and debris to block the streets."

The paper is prepared to date this behaviourally destructive practice to 1979. "Jamaica first became acquainted at close quarters with this highly antisocial form in 1979" with the gas price protests of that year. That is bad history and selective short-term memory. As I have been pointing out, and will continue to do, the party politics of this country and its associated trade unionism was born in the sin and shaped in the iniquity of social and criminal violence from the 1940s.

Even without invoking the associated gang violence, election campaigns progressively became coarse and socially violent affairs - and also more and more lawless. Jamaica's first 'roadblocks' were for political meetings.

From the sound clashes of the 1960s, the popular music has become louder and louder and more and more aggressive. The sound clashes spilled out of lawns and on to the streets, copying the political-campaign roadblock which played the music, legitimising and normalising its volume and aggression.

music culture significant

The music culture is a significant contributor to the growth of antisocial behaviour in Jamaica. I am writing to the sound of a distant neighbour's 'music' who, in all likelihood, would be taken aback that I am offended by hearing his not-so-loud music 200 metres away in my house, and hostile to any request to have it turned down. "Ah so music play. Everybody ah do it."

The 1970s was a watershed for the deterioration of public behaviour. The government of the day lionised the ragamuffin and his behaviour and happily presided over the acceleration of the normalisation of coarseness. John F. Kennedy, as president of the United States, it is said, destroyed the hat industry by refusing to wear one. It certainly would be interesting - and useful as well - to assess how the tam and the kareba, as sartorial metaphors of rebellion against conventional social norms, might have upped antisocial behaviour in Jamaica. Before John Maxwell and others of his kind attack me on the point, it would be useful to explain both the sartorial and ideological retrofitting for re-election in 1989.

After allowing, and even encouraging, a massive deterioration of public behaviour, the Government of Jamaica is now attempting what must turn out to be a painful and resisted reversal. Previous efforts like P.J. Patterson's Values and Attitudes Campaign and Mr Seaga's earlier Character Education Programme were allowed to go limp early as the authorities wrestled with macro-economic problems. But as speaker at the presentation of the National Standard for Improving Public Behaviour in Jamaica, High Commissioner Burchell Whiteman [welcome home, Burchell] pointed out, Jamaica's economic development prospects are being put at risk by the country's reputation for violent behaviour.

And it is not just criminally violent behaviour and its impact on that grand macroeconomic pillar, 'foreign direct investment'. Poor behaviour and poor work attitudes are seriously hampering the performance of an entire society. Just take three examples: What is the cost of hoggish driving to the country in lost time and accidents? What is the impact of sleep deprivation from violently loud music on student and worker performance? What is the individual cost and social cost of poor student behaviour now rampantly out of hand in schools across the country?

Interestingly, the National Standard for Improving Public Behaviour in Jamaica is being presented just when the Government has launched the Debt-Exchange Programme and is about to sign a deal with the International Monetary Fund. Economic transformation cannot and will not take hold and progress on the platform of antisocial behaviour in all spheres which is now a defining characteristic of Jamaica.

underemphasising the social

I have repeatedly argued, and let me do so again now, that we overemphasise the economic and seriously underemphasise the social in dealing with the challenges of nation-building and we do so with serious consequences. Economies can only flourish when social order flourishes.

I advised Prime Minister Patterson when he launched the Values and Attitudes Campaign in 1994, a programme in which I poured a great deal of time and effort with later great disappointment at its flopping, preaching at people and cajoling them to change behaviour won't cut it. As a lawyer and politician, he was to use the tools of law and public policy at his disposal to re-engineer behaviour.

I offer the same advice today to the people behind the National Standard for Improving Public Behaviour in Jamaica. Leave the preaching to the churches. And the greatest instrument for positive behaviour change in our context is Christian revival and reformation. I wish I had the space to walk readers through examples from history.

While we are busy enacting new laws which will not be rigorously enforced, like the Noise Abatement Act, there is an elegant old law from horse and buggy days called the Towns and Communities Act (TCA). This old Act is perhaps the finest, and certainly the most comprehensive piece of quality of life legislation in the corpus of Jamaican law. The spirit of the TCA is, do not be a nuisance to your neighbour, otherwise we will lock you up.

The National Standard for Improving Public Behaviour could run into serious problems over what is 'wrong' behaviour. We should not allow ourselves to be trapped in a moral conundrum. We can very widely agree that public behaviour which is evidently obstructive and offensive to others and intrusive upon their rights should not be tolerated.

The "restriction on the opening of places of business on certain days [Sunday, Good Friday, and Christmas Day] in the Towns and Communities Act does not qualify. But beyond that provision, which should be repealed, there are excellent provisions against nuisances and dangerous practices on public thoroughfares including dangerous driving, animals as nuisances, posters on other people's property, indecent exposure, using threatening, abusive and calumnious language to any other person publicly, discharging firearms or setting off fireworks in public, disturbing people in their houses, loitering, street vending, improper waste disposal, pigsties in towns, improper use of fire, noisy and disorderly conduct.

The Noise Abatement Act replaced Section 12 of the TCA. The law needs to be modernised from horse-and-buggy wording and upgraded from now ridiculously low fines and then rigorously enforced as a powerful legal instrument to help turn around the rotten behaviour which is impeding the country and giving our fellow citizens hell in a generally hostile, antisocial environment.

Martin Henry is a communications consultant. Feedback may be sent to

A woman gets wild at a recent Passa Passa event. The weekly street dance usually ends way past the 2 a.m. lock-off time for entertainment events. - Nathaniel Stewart Photo