A Tale of Three Narratives

The Problem:

Civil political discourse is dying a messy public death in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. In an increasingly partisan climate, political chatter is at its peak, but civility at its lowest ebb. People with opposing political viewpoints don’t even engage each other in conversation, much less debate. We talk past each other, we shout at each other, but rarely, if ever, talk to each other. And when we do, the conversation – if it can be called that – is polluted with personal attacks, baseless accusations, and relentlessly vicious negativism.

There is nothing new in that paragraph. Nothing unique to SVG either. This is the condition of the modern world, of the perpetual campaign, of talk radio and Internet bloggers; of spin-doctors and campaign advisors; of scarce benefits and spoils. It is the logical byproduct of competitive western electoral democracy, freedom of speech, and a sensationalist sound bite culture. Almost every country in the modern western world is afflicted with this condition. We all struggle with the side effects of increasing politicization of thought, coupled with democratization of media.

Yet, in SVG, the death of political civility seems somehow messier, its murder more vicious. Part of that reason is size: Our population is so small, our islands and villages so tiny, and our families so interconnected, that the venom engendered by political tribalism is much more personal and in-your-face.

In SVG, in the past, such proximity would mean that neighbours would only disagree once every five years over the month-long “silly season” of a General Election campaign. However, in an environment where electoral campaigns never truly end, and where each camp is constantly fanning the flames of partisan discord, this proximity, and familiarity, breeds a simmering contempt that permeates the social fabric.

Mind you, my lamentations on the disintegration of civility have nothing to do with a desire for us all to get along, or to agree with each other. Far from it. Disagreement is not only healthy, but necessary. Debate is to be desired, contrarians celebrated, viewpoints valued. But it is the tone and tenor of the discourse that is so deeply distasteful. Today, our discourse is so toxic that no two people with differing political opinions can stomach listening to each other. In an environment where a disagreement or a differing philosophy is cast as a life-or-death struggle against tyranny or backwardness, each side retreats to the comfort of its respective echo chamber. There is no exchange or cross-pollination of ideas, and we are, collectively, the poorer for it. [For a contrary view, see this opinion].

I could go on. But describing our current malaise isn’t the point of this post, nor is it particularly interesting. We all feel the deteriorating climate of civility in SVG. Let’s not belabor the point.

The aftermath of the Christmas Floods has crystalised the terms of an apparent suicide pact that exists among our political mass parties, civil society and the press. Each party to this suicide pact has committed itself to various courses of action and inaction, which, whatever their narrow individual benefits, combine to create massive impediments to a political discussion free of nastiness, name-calling and negativism. Of all the cross-cutting and overlapping narratives that define any group’s purpose and personality, let me highlight three that help to bring this point into sharper relief:

NARRATIVE #1 – The NDP’s “Bribery” Narrative

The NDP has lost the popular vote in four consecutive General Elections, but has never conceded graciously. A standard trope of NDP mythology is that the ULP is corrupt and dishonest, and that it clings to the reins of power through an unholy trinity of intimidation, victimization and bribery. (This, despite the fact that the ULP’s first two popular-vote victories were achieved while in the opposition: a position wholly unsuited to intimidation, victimization or bribery).

The results of the 2010 elections, which the NDP fully expected to win, have been particularly difficult to swallow for the party. After an initial declaration that the results were invalid and illegal, the NDP settled on a narrative that has come to define its post-2010 existence: “We had that election in the bag until Hurricane Thomas came along, then the ULP stole it from us with blatant bribery and purchasing of votes using hurricane relief supplies.”

Settling upon the “Bribery” narrative was very comforting to the leadership and core supporters of the NDP. Primarily, it allowed them to sidestep the internal soul-searching and reform that would normally accompany any major political party coming off its fourth consecutive popular defeat. If the ULP victory was due solely to the happenstance of a storm and a surge of last-minute relief supplies, it means that the NDP was defeated by bad timing, not bad strategy/leadership/candidates/message/etc. As such, no need to disturb the internal status quo of the party. Between 2005 and 2014, there has been almost no change to the upper echelons of the NDP party structure and leadership. The “Bribery” narrative also placated the party’s dispirited rank-and-file, whose ever-increasing hatred of the ULP and its leadership is impossible to reconcile with Labour’s continuing electoral triumphs.

As such, it has been instructive to witness the NDP’s near hysterical response to the heartbreaking tragedy and destruction of the Christmas Floods. After an initial, statesmanlike response in the hours immediately following the storm, the NDP is increasingly descending into a state of tone-deaf political warmongering that is out of place and ill-timed. It is, however, understandable: having conjured up and convinced itself that the bogeyman of “storm relief bribery” is real, it must be politically terrifying to see another epic disaster befall the electoral swing states one year ahead of the next polls.

However, the impact of this narrative on our civil discourse is devastating. Imagine, for a minute, that the NDP had decided instead that the reason for its multiple defeats was a failure to properly articulate its vision; or a failure to offer a sufficiently compelling alternative to the status-quo. The intervening years would have then been spent refining the articulation of a vision, or trading honestly in the marketplace of ideas. Maybe even listening to the ULP, to understand what themes and visions seem to have resonated with the electorate over the last 15 years.

But having convinced themselves that the election was “bought” with bribes, the NDP has dealt itself and political discourse a double blow. First, if the ULP is merely a crass wholesale buyer of votes, there is nothing to be gained by engaging the party in a reasoned debate. Instead, above anything else, it is imperative that the NDP be vigilant, to avoid future “purchases” of elections. Reasoned engagement, at the party or parliamentary level, becomes superfluous.

Second, if the voters themselves are simply mindless lemmings who are easily swayed by last-minute plywood deliveries, there is no need to structure a policy to engage them intellectually. Since it is difficult for an opposition party to outspend the State in a nationwide bribery campaign, and since the electorate is simply a collection of votes for hire, the logical opposition strategy is to deter the government from distributing assistance, distract from the effectiveness of such distribution, highlight any inefficiencies in the process, and embarrass individuals from accepting any such offerings.

Apart from the obvious, elitist, disrespectful view of the voting public that they aspire to represent, such a narrative and outlook reduce political discussion to a series of baseless accusations and far-fetched conspiracy theories. It ratchets up the levels of inter-party distrust and paranoia to such levels that it fatally poisons the well from which goodwill and civility normally spring.

NARRATIVE #2 – The ULP’s “Counterpunch” Narrative

Despite the ULP’s enviable string of electoral triumphs, its recent history is not without anxieties and missteps. For one, the party’s share of the popular vote, while dominant, has been slipping steadily since 2001. Left unchecked, this trend leads inexorably to a return to the opposition benches. For another, the resounding “No” vote on the constitutional reform referendum was a sobering reminder that the party is not infallible, and that trust in the political leader is far from absolute.

But those anxieties, when coupled with the pugnacious personalities of the party leader and Chairman, have themselves given birth to a civility-affecting narrative: “The ULP only ever loses a fight when it doesn’t fight back.”

Exhibit “A” in this narrative is the stinging loss in referendum campaign. While the “Yes” Vote campaign was not, strictly speaking, a ULP campaign, the major figures on either side of the debate split along party lines (with the notable exception of Parnell Campbell, QC). The inability of the “Yes” vote to cross a 50% threshold, much less the 67% required for its passage, was viewed by many at the time as the death knell of the ULP’s time in government. History proved otherwise, but one of the enduring lessons and narratives emerging from the referendum campaign was that you don’t win a political fight in SVG with one hand tied behind your back. No matter how high-minded your arguments, you can’t talk your way out of a brawl. If a guy punches you in the nose, punch him back. Harder.

During the referendum campaign, ULP leader Ralph Gonsalves forbade wearing party colours and ordered party members to avoid any attempt by the No Vote/NDP to lure them into partisan political mudslinging. Take the high road, was the instruction, and focus your comments and advocacy strictly on the merits of the proposed new constitution. The result was a mountain’s of unanswered NDP political attacks and an island flooded in yellow “no” t-shirts, with nary a red jersey to be found.

The loss cemented the “fightback” narrative, whose seeds were first sown with the creation of the ULP Radio Station, StarFM. Before StarFM, the only overtly politically-controlled radio station was NDP’s Nice Radio. The NDP, given voice by the slanderously gifted EG Lynch, was hammering the ULP with a barrage of below-the-belt potshots and ridicule. Nice Radio, then and now, wasn’t doing much exposition of issues or changing of minds. But it was effective in shoring up a wobbly NDP base, and in drawing increasing listenership from political junkies of all political stripes. Even diehard ULP supporters could ruefully quote Lynch’s most colourful attacks verbatim, because listening to Nice Radio briefly became SVG’s favourite guilty pleasure.

The answer, of course, was to fight fire with fire. StarFM took flight, providing an effective counterpoint to the NDP’s air war. While Star, on the instructions of the legally savvy ULP, took great care not to cross the line of defamation with the frequency and glee of an unconcerned and unconstrained Nice, the tone of the competing stations – from hosts to callers – were often indistinguishable. (My personal opinion is that the Star hosts are of a much higher quality, generally, than Nice – particularly since Lynch’s departure – but I concede that my view may well be a product of political bias and personal friendships).

Political radio stations, unlike nuclear weapons, have no deterrent effect. We lob partisan bombs back and forth at each other from the relative comfort and security of our respective echo chambers. ULP’s access to its own radio station, combined with the pressure to stay interesting on a daily basis, and the “counterpunch” narrative, means that no loose talk or stray comment from the other side is left unanswered. The “counterpunch” narrative compels the elevation of skirmishes to battles and battles to wars, each of which must be individually – and convincingly – won.

The result is a political divide in which one side refuses to listen, and the other side listens only to refute and ridicule. The implications are as obvious as they are unfortunate.

NARRATIVE #3 – Civil Society and the Press’ “No sellout” Narrative

Like most small island states, SVG does not have a particularly strong set of, homegrown, influential, civil society organisations. Beyond churches and labour unions, the pickings are relatively slim. Very often, the memberships of local NGOs are microcosms of Vincentian society: small and politically divided.

In many societies, Civil Society and/or the press can be counted upon to be the adults in a room full of squabbling politicians. An economic think-tank can refute this or that claim from a political party. A reputable human rights body could shine a light on victimsation or discrimination (or he absence thereof). A scientific body could settle a dispute about how a common weather system could metamorphose into a one-in-500-year event. And a courageous, opinionated, but basically impartial press could dig beyond the simple reporting of competing “he said/she said” political statements and keep the parties honest, if nothing else.

But our local NGO community has a narrative too: “in the long run, our group’s credibility is more important than any individual political dispute. So unless you want to be called a sellout, bootlicker or backward lackey, its better to be silent than weigh in on any partisan squabble.”

There are numerous NGOs that are – correctly or not – viewed as politically partisan. Their pronouncements may play well internationally, but are automatically disregarded on the local scene (more on this in another post). They are rubbished as impotent and ineffectual contributors to any civilized discourse.

Those few “non-aligned” NGOs guard perceived independence and impartiality with such jealousy that they are afraid to put it to good use. But in refusing to get their clothes dirty, Civil Society places itself in its own echo chamber: a tiny world of pseudo-intellectuals who quietly bemoan “what politicians do” or “the way people think” without doing a single thing to effect any meaningful change or expand the influence of the non-governmental sector.

In ensconcing themselves in an imaginary ivory tower of impartiality, these Civil Society actors abandon the very role that they are collectively designed to play. In their cowardly retreat from the possibility of criticism, they cede all political debate to political parties. These parties, fighting without a referee, lacking respect for their opponent, and confident in the knowledge that no third party will call them out on their excesses, slide predictably down the rabbit hole of incivility.

The Solution?

No political party will unilaterally disarm in the face of constant enemy fire. Civil society (and the press) must find a way to lead us back to civility. Such leadership will be messy. It does not mean a disdainful aloofness that places self-appointed Civil Society leaders on pedestals above those of popularly-elected politicians. It does not mean heaping scorn on the populism and pugilism that must form part of any competitive Western democracy. Nor does it entail placing genuine disagreement in a stifling straitjacket of civility that elevates style over substantive disagreement. Civil society and the press must encourage debate, while having the courage to name and shame those who depart from the bounds of decency, honesty or integrity.

The first step, therefore, is for the “non-partisan” sectors of society (assuming they exist) to abandon their “no sellout” narrative and insert themselves squarely into the local political discourse. Once engaged, they must demand a level of genuine, reasoned interaction between the political parties, while simultaneously seeking ways to chip away at the narrow narratives that stifle civil debate.

That said, let’s be real: Politicians are trying to score intellectual as well as emotional points; to harness energies and tap wells of joy, fear and discontent. Those with neither the stomach, the work ethic nor the aptitude to engage in political combat must resist the temptation to sit in the idle comfort of their armchairs and arbitrarily judge the actions and motivations of those who offer themselves in the service of their nation.

Competitive politics in a small island democracy cannot and should not be an academic debate or seminar. Nonetheless, our context, our interconnectedness, and our Caribbeanness means that our disagreements must occur against the backdrop of good faith and good-natured exchanges: substantively serious, passionately political, and geared towards producing a clear winner and loser. But, leavened always with humour, common decency, and a recognition that we will be seeing each other later in church, the rum shop, the cricket game, the fete, the beach, or at our next family gathering.

These are not the whiny pontifications of a wimpy, mealy-mouthed liberal who can’t take the heat but won’t leave the kitchen. Far from it. I am unabashedly partisan, firm in my political support and convictions, and personally invigorated by the clanging of ideological sword and shield. But even in real war, there are rules (no nuclear/chemical/biological weapons, treat POWs with respect, don’t torture, wear uniforms, etc). No less should be expected of and demanded by SVG’s political combatants.

We can lift our game. And clean up our act.

11 thoughts on “A Tale of Three Narratives

  1. You forget to mention that your father is the PM of SVG and now you are next in line hoping to continue your father’s kingdom< Where did you see the Yellow " Yellow NO" Tee Shirts. You are a great liar Camillo. It is evident that the apple does not fall far from the tree. Your article is skewed to the ULP favour as is expected. Crap!!

    • @ Urlan: Let’s see – “great liar,” “skewed,” “crap!”. I think the point of my posting was a bit lost on you. I’m sure the fault is mine…
      I didn’t think I was hiding anything about who my father is. It certainly wan’t my intention. But in the interest of full disclosure for those readers who did not know: My father is the Prime Minister of SVG.
      His position, last I checked, is not “king” of a “kingdom” that can be “continued.” The line of inheritance in this kingdom flows in England, and we have nothing to do with it. Our current and future monarchs are, in order: Elizabeth II Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and other Commonwealth Realms; Charles, Prince of Wales; Prince William, Duke of Cambridge; and George, Prince of Cambridge, (age 6 months). Those are the ones continuing a kingdom. Local politicians are democratically elected :)
      If you think I lied or misled you, I apologise. But I suspect you saw right through my subterfuge :)

  2. This isn’t only a tale of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. This is a timely reminder that we all have more to win and lose than political points should we continue along the present path. The scenario described here is visible worldwide. Without a doubt, we cherish and celebrate our freedom. We believe that being able to choose is a right to which we are entitled. What we have forgotten is that along with freedom come accountability and responsibility—accountability to each other and responsibility for the choices we make. Accountability and responsibility provide the structure within which freedom can thrive and achieve its full potential. We do not exist in a vacuum and so there are always personal and communal consequences when we act upon the freedom we cherish. Today, freedom is interpreted as the license to say and do as we please. Unfortunately, this behavior can diminish and sometimes even nullify the possibilities of that often hard-won freedom.
    At every turn, we are encouraged to demand and fight for the right and the ability to choose, but no one reminds us that freedom requires ongoing submissions to ensure its continued existence. No one reminds us, for example, that to be truly free, “old-fashioned” virtues like respect and charity must be par for the course. If I cannot allow you the freedom to exist because your views do not line up with mine, it is only a matter of time before I am denied that space, likewise. We name many threats to the freedoms we enjoy, many ending in “ism.” Maybe it isn’t one of those “isms” with which we should be concerned. Maybe the greatest threat is our incivility toward each other and our willingness to deny the existence of “the other” (anyone thinking or believing differently).
    In small societies, be they small nation-states, cities, corporations, or families, the fallout of such behavior is more visible and more tragic. The degrees of separation between and among their members are so miniscule that the effects are felt immediately and can be more deeply entrenched. So, maybe it is time to go back to those attributes upon which we initially built our families and villages and nations, and which made us the people we are today: We looked out for each other, stood in the gap for each other, celebrated and wept with each other, all while openly holding differing viewpoints. In it all, we never became carbon copies of each other. On the contrary, our vibrant and deep interaction produced strong, independent, confident, self-aware individuals at every strata of society, who could then go on to contribute to building stronger communities; regular people who were free to dream and think and choose. Maybe it is time for greater interaction and more dialogue, less separation and fewer monologues.

  3. common sense they say, always assists in reducing the size of a problem; so it has to be said (though it may never be heeded) that you can never solve a problem with the same minds that created it.

    Spitefulness is the rot that festers in this rung of the evolutionary ladder of Vincentian society. your three narratives tells the true tale of behaviour that decreases with ferocity the state of well being of both the actors and the recipients.

    but your solution is not THE solution, you have merely removed you and yours from direct responsibility by claiming defence from enemy fire and then wag a finger at a group imploring them to intervene, but they look upon the battle field and point a finger right back at you for participating in and perpetuating all out political tribal war. So you have the proverbial point your finger and find three pointing back at you with no real solution from any side.

    You cannot really expect civil society/NGOs (the few and seemingly frail in conviction) to jump into the fray at your beckoning at this stage; there are no referees in war, just casualties; and by your analysis the politicians on either side of the divide are not prepared to “unilaterally disarm in the face of constant enemy fire” so you are asking them to make the sacrifice and take a bullet in the hope of a healthier whole SVG. That’s not quite fair.

    I do appreciate the point and purpose of your post and even though it is obvious that a problem like this cannot possibly be solved in one post, one thing should be made clear, pointing fingers won’t help, sacrifices must be made by all and WE – all of us, everyone, man, woman, child – have to attempt to move beyond blame and take responsibility for where we have arrived… I’m going to try think of my own “solution” and revert.

    This is not a game, it is our very existence as a nation.

    • @ 12th tribe: Well said.
      I mixed metaphors throughout the piece. Sometimes I spoke of pugilists, and other times of wars. I’m hoping we can have more of a boxing match than a civil war, which would allow for a referee.
      A few other points on this civil society issue, though. (1) I’m not asking them to die so that politicians might live, but I am asking them to take “the first step.” Not all the steps, just the first one. (2) I’m not asking civil society to play a role that it does not play elsewhere. I’m asking it to live up to its name.
      I see the dialogue/debate on politics and “our very existence as a nation” — to quote you — as involving 3 major players (and countless others): the ruling party, the opposition party, and the press/civil society. If any one of those three parties is weak or ineffective, the discourse suffers. It is the vacuum left by civil society that allows uncivil society to flourish, imho.
      Maybe if civil society could even chip away at the narratives that govern the parties — “no, the ulp doesnt just bribe voters, maybe you should listen to them”… “no, the ndp doesn’t just hit below the belt when you’re busy governing, maybe you should talk to them”… “no, you can call a spade a spade without being a sellout, maybe you should speak out” — that would be progress too.
      It’s certainly not an easy issue (in the short term), but I await your “solution” too. Thanks for commenting.

  4. Commenters: Sorry! I’m new on this blogging site and didn’t realise that I had to “approve” comments! Sorry for the delay in putting them up! I’ll try to add a brief response in the next couple days.
    - Camillo

  5. Civil Society has a critical role to play in democratic societies. It is not expected to participate at the request of anyone. If Civil Society needs to be called upon to act, it is failing.

    It’s role has been set out elsewhere: “…civil society organizations can help to develop the other values of democratic life: tolerance, moderation, compromise, and respect for opposing points of view. Without this deeper culture of accommodation, democracy cannot be stable…A seventh way civil society can strengthen democracy is to provide new forms of interest and solidarity that cut across old forms of tribal, linguistic, religious, and other identity ties. Democracy cannot be stable if people only associate with others of the same religion or identity… Ninth, civil society can help to inform the public about important public issues. This is not only the role of the mass media, but of NGOs which can provide forums for debating public policies and disseminating information about issues before parliament that affect the interests of different groups, or of society at large.”
    http://www.stanford.edu/~ldiamond/iraq/Develop_Democracy021002.htm

    SVG’s Civil Society, as well as the media, should be at the helm of bringing sanity, balance and civility back to the political discourse. It is not by request that this should be done, it should be in fulfillment of its mandate. But, if Civil Society is not doing its job, I see nothing wrong with a citizen reminding it of its role. Good article. We are all guilty of delighting in the partisan bickering and attacks. I, for one, am tired of it.

    • Hey, @12th Tribe!!! Over Here! Read this one! THIS is what I was trying to say earlier, lol.
      @ Lora: Thank you for that stanford link. Definitely worth the click. I like this bit by you: “It is not by request that this should be done, it should be in fulfillment of its mandate.” You’re a lot clearer writer than I am. Well put.

  6. @Camillo!!! I did understand perfectly what you were “trying to say” and I appreciate @Lora’s “clearer” version as well. But I think perhaps my comments are the ones in need of clarification.

    to my mind the “no sellout” narrative is in fact indicative of a failing civil society/press. The mere fact that you have to remind them of their role is clear testament to that. So it is highly unlikely that this failing band of dare I say wannabe misfits will heed your reminder, or participate in your solution (even though that is indeed their role). Worse yet as that prompting is coming from one of the battle sides. (even though such prompting has obviously become necessary).

    And as I sit in my arm chair I appreciate very much that I cannot begin to understand “the actions and motivations of those who offer themselves in service of their nation” (it is a commendable feat of endurance and sacrifice among other heavy things) but can the same not be said for members of the press/CS? They are failing us miserably, but why? You alluded to the fact that non partisan sectors of society may not even really exist in SVG, why is that though? And what is the real influence of the “bribery” and “counterpunch” narratives on that reality?

    I think the answers to those questions may put us on a track toward some sort of solution.

    @Lora: my favourite part of your comment is that “we are all guilty…” indeed we are.

  7. The rot that I described in my previous comments, that is infecting the length and breadth of SVG is but a symptom of a greater evil, which I believe is IGNORANCE. There I typed it. No matter which of the narratives you fall into or between or outside of, it is a fact of our lives that ignorance has become our nation’s biggest enemy.

    SOLUTION:

    My solution demands that all of us (every last one of us, no one is exempt) must do our best to first identify the ignorance in ourselves then second seek knowledge to rid ourselves of the ignorance and finally do our best to spread truth to our utmost ability.

    As a nation we must never feel satisfied with our knowledge and decide to stop learning, because this is an indicator that we are not knowledgeable but in fact ignorant. We let the “powers that be” – government, opposition, the press, civil society etc – use the tool of ignorance and disinformation to garner our blind support. We rarely pay attention to the truth of an issue but instead just jump on whichever bandwagon and ride ignorance roughshod over our tongues, in print, on social media…

    The key to ignorance is being satisfied with the knowledge one possesses, and placing one’s trust in it. The key to knowledge however and thus the key to moving away from the current deplorable state of affairs is the desire to exchange one level of knowledge for a higher level.

    Being in constant pursuit of knowledge prevents us from living in the darkness of ignorance, and keeps us from making grievous errors against ourselves and others, and would lead us to dismantling those three narratives and growing a space for civil political discourse, for civility period.

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