Tue | Aug 30, 2016

Freedom and restraint

Published:Friday | November 16, 2012 | 12:00 AM

By Peter Espeut

In post-slavery societies like ours, freedom is a very emotional word, for the essence of slavery was the denial of the enslaved the right to make certain decisions.

With Emancipation came freedom and the right to choose. But no society allows its members to choose to do anything they want; freedom is never without some sort of restraint, for at the very least, people should not be free to do what hurts others. People should not be free to take each other's property, or each other's lives. And this restraint upon 'freedom' must have the force of law and be enforced by the State.

That is on the societal level, but I hope you will agree that restraint is also important and essential on the individual and personal level, too. We must eat to live, but excessive intake of food can cause physical disorders, and not all types of food are healthy. And so restraint upon our 'freedom' to eat is a necessary personal habit to develop; but it is not appropriate for it to have the force of law, or be enforced by the State.

These matters - freedom and restraint, and the role of the State in our personal lives - are important political issues, and played a role in the recent elections in the United States. I am not sure that we here in Jamaica engage these issues openly, and certainly not in these terms.


But they are there. When we debate about the age of consent, the age when a man or woman may decide or agree to have sexual intercourse, we are discussing matters which affect the freedom of other people to choose. Should lawmakers (mostly men) decide at what age young people (it's usually the young girl they have in mind) may choose or agree to have sexual intercourse? Or should the State keep out of their bedrooms (or classrooms or lavatories)?

Every country in the world prescribes an age of consent (although they disagree on the age), and that is because sexual intercourse is not just a physical, feel-good experience; emotions and the psyche are involved. And there is the possibility of disease, and pregnancy. Often sexual relations are about passion (which reduces freedom) and power (domination of one person by another). Young people are often unable to deal with either.

This is why no society can avoid the issue of proper and effective socialisation - passing on appropriate norms and values to the next generation. This is best done by families, but it also takes place at church, in school and among peers. The latter group - dancehall culture and corner gangs are examples of it - often works to negate the others, and unless family, church and school are strong, dysfunctionality will result.

In Jamaica, our families have never been very strong, our school system is weak and sends mixed messages, and the Church is under attack from the secularists. The message that we are 'free' is getting across, but the value and practice of restraint is not. High levels of crime, child abuse, environmental degradation, and corruption are the resultants of failed socialisation.


The LGBT lobby wants its lifestyle to be normative, and so fie on the church for advocating heterosexuality as the norm. Big business wants to make profit at any cost, even at the expense of the health of natural ecosystems, and so fie on the environmentalists for advocating sustainable development. Politicians have a good thing going peddling their influence, and so fie on transparency and anti-corruption lobbyists for advocating full disclosure of campaign contributions and political donations.

We cannot fix these social problems without first making more effective those institutions which socialise members of society. It is naïve to believe that we can reduce child abuse without strong families, or reduce crime without an effective education system. The family will not fix itself; the State must implement policies which strengthen the family, but I am not sure which ministry this falls under, and I can't recall seeing or hearing of any such policy document.

As a society, have we agreed to promote the family as the basic unit of society? Do we agree that we want to encourage a situation where every child is born into a family with both parents? If we do, this has implications for our sexual behaviour. And it's not about church or religion: it is about the integrity of our social fabric. Yes, we are 'free', but in sexual matters we must learn from an early age to show restraint.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist, environmentalist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.