I was an idealistic teenager when I first paid the price of speaking my mind. Considering that the backdrop was religion class in a prestigious, all-girls Catholic school, I suppose I should not have been surprised. Long story short, I was playing devil's advocate on issues like divorce, abortion and pre-marital sex. The teacher didn't appreciate it. My classmates did, but usually only told me so once the teacher was well out of earshot.
Soon, I noticed my grades dropping in another subject that she happened to teach me. I didn't want to believe I was actually being victimised, so for a while, I doubted myself and went along with the extra lessons – aka the conversion attempt – that the teacher thought would help. What did help was my eventual decision to walk into the principal's office armed with proof, in the form of comparative test papers, that my outspokenness in religion class was costing me elsewhere. The principal's decision to remove the teacher from religion class restored my faith in justice, the value of independent thought and the importance of speaking out.
Fast forward (quite) a few years. We've got the Internet. And social networks. And microblogging services. These tools should make activism easier; take it into a limitless online space – but in Trinidad and Tobago, it has mostly amplified what people discuss in their living rooms. So we know all about what folks are eating for dinner and what their Carnival costumes looked like, but the serious discussions are more difficult to find, and even when Trinidadians do share their opinions on weighty issues, they tend to do it in the perceived safety of the virtual world – usually, on someone's “private” Facebook wall.
Trinidadians are often described as Carnival people, but in reality, we're bystanders. Spectators. Very few of us leave the stands to actually play a ‘mas – and the ones who do end up in a bacchanal, usually involving some level of vilification, for bucking the status quo. Back in the 1960s, Gene Miles shot to notoriety as a whistleblower about widespread corruption in what became known as the Gas Station Racket. She lost her job, her reputation and eventually died, betrayed and alone. More recently, Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh, who went on hunger strike to protest the construction of a billion dollar highway project in southeastern Trinidad, which threatened rural communities and the neighbouring environment, was publicly ridiculed by politicians.
Yet, as Trinidad and Tobago grapples with more brazen instances of corruption, Miles’ story is being retold – truthfully, this time – in the theatre and in Carnival. Dr. Kublalsingh and the Highway Re-Route Movement have been winning the battle through the actions of civil society and the workings of the legal system. So I wonder, in an age where citizen media has proven that it can help return the reins of power to actual citizens, why are Trinidadians still so reticent to take a stand?
I think it begins with the way we are socialised. Rather than encourage individuality, schools reinforce the outdated notion that children are empty vessels waiting to be filled and more disturbingly, that they must toe the line. We have an entrance examination to secondary school that has worsened over the years – even the Minister of Education calls it “dreadful” – yet, parents continue to accept the anachronistic teaching approach, relentless standardised testing and “learning” that quicker resembles regurgitation than a satisfaction of curiosity or a feeding of interest.
And should students dare to be different – or even ordinary, in the case of several teens who recently got sent home from school for sporting (gasp!) facial hair – they risk getting penalised at the whim and fancy of those in authority. The real story, of course, and the one that should be directing the narrative, is the outstanding show of solidarity from one clean-shaven student, who drew a beard on his face in permanent marker to make the point that the decision was coercive and that the student body wasn't prepared to stand for it.
Good for him. As Activized says, “if [young people] are not first standing for their own identities in the communities that they are actively a part of, then how are they expected to stand for anyone else? It might not be a march or hunger strike, and it might not be against rising crime rates or an evil capitalist structure, but it’s just as meaningful in my view. It’s about people owning their identities and feeling like credited parts of their communities. It’s an example of camaraderie, unity and willpower in a place where it made sense to sit down and shut up. And that’s where true revolution begins.”
That statement gives me hope that young voices, rational voices, measured voices, intelligent voices will begin to drown out the cacophony of those who seem to be doing all the talking, getting all the media attention and making as if they are speaking on behalf of the majority.
In response to Trindadian visual artist LeRoy Clarke's ludicrous, non-factual connection between homosexuality and everything that plagues Trinbagonian society, Activized calls out the ignorance of the dialogue, saying: “We empower certain opinion leaders to make [statements] regardless of evidence. It’s what the voting public want to hear. The nation’s right-wing politics is one of socially acceptable ignorance; saying things than run counter to reason and information, as a tool to maintain a group of people. It’s a form of societal growth-stunting that ensures that people don’t spend enough time analyzing issues to come to any real truth.”
To me, that's what the right to speak out affords us – the opportunity to arrive at the truth. And I wonder when Trinidadians are going to come to the realisation, like Dorothy in the Land of Oz, that we always had the power, but were relinquishing it out of fear and ignorance. I'm clicking my heels together.