Monday 15th September,2008

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Reflections on our moral crisis

It’s difficult at times to evaluate what is meant by the view that we live in a state of moral crisis, or, more seriously (and ominously), amid a state of moral collapse. Of these two positions, I think we can safely discount the latter.

I say this not because I have my head in the sand, but because whatever one may adduce as evidence of collapse, a shared moral consensus of some sort appears latently operative in our ability to keep things together in spite of all the decline.

Crisis, however, is another matter, and as far as I can observe, when the topic comes up, in print or discussion, several candidates vie for consideration as eminent causes. Let me list a few:

n Endemic corruption, both institutional and personal. This is considered impossible to fight. You either have to go along or opt out of the system altogether.

n Society has become routinely indifferent to law, as evidenced in the lawlessness on the roads and disregard of all rules.

n We have too many “children making children,” too much irresponsible sexual activity at younger and younger ages.

n Too much greed and unashamed self-seeking among the professional classes.

n The scarcity of obvious examples of integrity among our leaders and elites.

n Breakdown in the family.

Readers may add to the above or replace any of them. They don’t all have the same weight, and it’s arguable whether some of them could constitute (or engender) a crisis of great gravity. Taken together, however, they make such a possibility quite real.

The different “causes” suggest different modes of address. One may thus ask: as we look around, what do we see as countervailing measures against any or all of them?

As far as corruption goes, I think it’s Naipaul who notes in The Middle Passage somewhere that “bobol” was  once viewed in Trinidad as a widespread local pastime. What one hears of corruption today, however, makes “bobol” sound like child’s play.

People who claim to know what they talk about will tell you things like: the Police Service is 50 per cent corrupt, 30 per cent “small corruption,” and 20 per cent “serious stuff.” I am sure I am not alone in having heard remarks like this, reportedly made by senior officers.

When I go on to ask: isn’t there such a thing as the Police Authority, I am looked at as if I were soft in the head. How could I not know that the Police Authority is a toothless institution?

Again, people supposedly in the know will tell you that the Government knows who the big drug lords are. Hearing this, I ask the obvious question: and what are they doing about it? The major drug lords, I am told, are untouchable. The obvious rejoinder to this, of course, is: then what’s the point of elaborating “crime plans?” What is there for the overseeing blimps to see?

One may dilate further about corruption, but it seems to me that it’s up to the central sectors of society (if a different moral environment is really desired) to identity its presence in their context and address it. Regeneration is everyone’s responsibility, and not everyone, vaguely speaking, but concretely the urgent responsibility of every one of our important social sectors.

In respect of traffic chaos, it’s hard to imagine what levels of carnage will make us drive more responsibly or make the authorities put measures in place to stem the tide of death.

One wonders why, for instance, apart from measures like the greater visibility of traffic police, a connection can’t be established, as in the US, between accidents, traffic tickets, and higher insurance premiums via a points system. This is surely not something beyond our technological competence.

Meanwhile, the carnage is as routine as tomorrow morning. We sit up and take notice only when it exceeds the bounds of real gruesomeness.

Regarding sexual activity at younger and younger ages, my observation is this: it’s a contradiction to expect that we can, on the one hand, treat sexuality as purely a matter of individual freedom (which has come to mean more and more freedom without limits or discipline), and on the other hand expect children, who unconsciously reflect the social tenor, to do differently. The surprise in this matter is that we are surprised; that without a trace of irony, we register shock.

When exemplariness, integrity, and professionalism are mentioned together, I often wonder why it’s so easy to recall people like headmasters of yesterday, individual teachers, village (not regional) doctors and nurses, who stand out easily in the mind as models. It is often said—defensively—that theirs was a simpler time, and that society has grown increasingly more complex. If this is meant to excuse our scarcity, the argument is not persuasive. Indeed, it’s close to condescension.

As the historian Ranke once said, every age is equidistant from eternity. It has its own response, not any other, to its own  challenges. Thus, the only standard for measuring ourselves cannot be drawn from some simpler time, if such a time ever existed, but from our own.

Where family breakdown is concerned, what gives me serious cause to reflect is the fact that it is from instruction in the family that we receive our primary lessons and later reinforcements in morality. How then does one explain the utter disregard for the value of life displayed today particularly by the young? It has gone beyond any connection with the drug culture.

Many perpetrators of the most awful murder today have nothing to do with drugs. They just brutally dispatch people in their homes, in the streets, and in their taxis. Where did the culture of moral instruction break down?

Philosophers say that “crisis” is a word, a reality, with a double meaning, negatively as danger, positively as opportunity. It’s hard to believe that some of the things we witness or hear about can be remotely positive. Opportunity must lie in the challenge they represent, something similar to what Moses famously put before his people: death or life; life and prosperity, or death and doom. Everything depended then, as it does now, on what direction the people decided to take.

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