At the PNP's 75th Anniversary Conference last month, when P.J. Patterson was listing the various accomplishments through the decades, he paused on the Status of Children Act of 1976.
I believe he quoted the Neville 'Struggle' Martin tune that a recent Gleaner story noted still causes the crowd to rail:
No bastard nuh deh again!
No bastard nuh deh again!
And the crowd did rail.
But there's something that bothers me a little about it. Something important was achieved by that piece of legislation, but what exactly was it?
Let's not confuse the issue. There's no question that the previous regime had to go. A system that simply disinherited children born to unwed parents and treated them as second-class citizens was repulsive. Children inevitably suffer the consequences of, or benefit from, their parents' choices. But that law effectively added an additional and unnecessary burden.
What has happened since then? In 2009, The Gleaner reported that, "at least five out of six births in Jamaica are to unmarried mothers". Unwed parenting has boomed, and when the legal impediments against bastardy were lifted, the social sanction against it lifted as well. After all, one major imperative against perpetuating bastardy was now gone.
So why the celebration that 'nuh bastard nuh deh again' if we also look at a statistic like that with alarm?
This leaves us in a quandary. For I have no doubt whatsoever that children reared in the arms of a stable, committed relationship between adults (of the opposite sex - I'm old-fashioned and conservative like that) are better placed to reap the fruits of life. They are less likely to become necessitous of state and social intervention, more likely to perform well in school, and more likely to be socially and psychologically stable and well-adjusted.
Are we trying to have our cake and eat it too? So we don't like encouraging unstable relationships, and we recognise that the children from those liaisons are, in general, at more risk, but we also don't want the law to be a shackle on the children.
In my own extended family, where a generation ago there was an expectation, and at least an attempt, to convene stable familial relationships before (or sometimes after) children were born, nowadays people feel little or no social pressure to do that. Get married? Why bother? As 'cordin' to Shabba:
One jook, one wash, den yuh tun it dung
Open yuh foot a next man welcome
My question can be reframed as follows: Can the Jamaican State afford to be completely morally neutral regarding a distinction between wed and unwed mothers?
What happens when people get the message that 'it nuh mek nuh difference'? And what happens to a society when the young people do not feel any pressure whatsoever to impose traditional order on their personal lives? When it becomes the cultural norm and habit to expect little discipline in this most crucial and intimate aspect of our lives?
With all the imperfections of marriage, it does have significant advantages as a social institution geared towards protecting society's most vulnerable: children. It also is a stable, reasonably predictable avenue through which society reproduces itself, transmits values, trains future members, etc. It forces men to channel social and material resources to their offspring. When the family disintegrates or is weakened, it is the State that fills the breach. If the father scurries off and refuses to contribute to the child's upkeep, tax dollars must flow through PATH or other social-welfare mechanisms to upkeep and protect the child.
Politicians, eager to pander, generally avoid these issues, or tell people to 'do as yuh feel'. There is also a line of thinking, endemic among academic types, but by no means limited to them, that sees the family as an instrument for the repression of women, children and pets. However, a little common sense will tell you that the encouragement and protection of family life would seem to be a rational priority for any society.
Let's step offshore for a little perspective. New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg found himself in hot water recently when he began a campaign against teenage pregnancy. Graphic billboards were erected which stated bluntly the statistics about teenage pregnancy and poor social and economic outcomes for the resultant children.
Some felt the advertising campaign would undermine the self-esteem of teenagers who had already got pregnant, and truthfully, it probably would do that. One does have to consider that their self-esteem wasn't so intact in the first place, or else they wouldn't be pregnant, but that's a different matter. Anyway, the idea was that teenage mothers would be reminded by the advertisements that their children were statistically less likely to do as well as they might have done had the mother waited to have children. They will be told, in effect, that 'you made a mistake'. Naturally, they are unlikely to feel good about that, although, who knows, they may become determined to improve their lot by first accepting that the odds are against them.
Bloomberg persisted with the campaign. Was he right to do it? The issue is that statement and enforcement of a social standard means that some people, those who fall afoul of the accepted measure, may be hurt. Should this prevent one from stating the standard, setting the rule, being clear about expectations? I don't think so.
It would appear that Jamaica has suffered horrifically because, one way or another, the message has been sent that it's quite OK to have children without first contemplating how you're going to look after them. The humane attempt to rescue the vulnerable (in this case, bastards) from evil and irrational discrimination can very easily misfire, and perhaps it has.
Does the PNP have the wherewithal to think about the unintended consequences of good intentions? I don't know. Of course, we are treated to bromides about 'strong families' in the advertising brochures prior to elections, and the catchy and wonderful song by Neville Martin is a staple. But what is 'The Message' now?
It's one thing to say 'nuh bastard nuh deh again' when it was removing an oppressive colonial law, but what happens when the colonial devils are gone? Now we have to wrestle with our own demons, really without anyone else to blame. We have to ask and answer for ourselves, not the Englishmen, what kind of society do we want to emerge? Is it one where 'nuh marriage and legitimacy nuh deh again'? Maybe this is a question for the next 75 years.
Daniel Thwaites is a partner of Thwaites Law Firm in Jamaica, and Thwaites, Lundgren & D'Arcy in New York. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.