In an interview earlier this month on CCNTV6 Roman Catholic priest Fr Clyde Harvey stated that Trinidad and Tobago is developing a "culture of sound-bites''. The discussion focused primarily on the recent Tobago House of Assembly elections and the formal debate between the leaders of the various political parties. Both events have since come and gone and the results of the elections suggest that population may not be as naive and gullible as some may believe.
At the time, Fr Harvey was speaking in defence of the debate and he insisted that the society needed to move beyond quips and one-liners in considering the major issues of the day. He is absolutely correct. Unfortunately important discussions are often reduced to a series of personal attacks filled with wild and even obscene accusations. It is not always inadvertent since clever politicians know how to use personal attacks to deflect attention from a serious issue and avoid a difficult question.
A good friend of mine has consistently maintained that the biggest problem facing T&T today is the shallow and superficial approach to dealing with serious matters. He points to the seemingly intractable problems like flooding, crime and vagrancy that continue to plague the society despite the millions of dollars spent to alleviate them. He argues that instead of thorough research and systematic implementation the money is wasted on PR events and colourful advertising campaigns that have little or no effect in the long run.
The impact of the "sound-bite'' culture extends beyond politics and its tentacles can be seen in many other aspects of life including our music. Some believe for instance, that a lot of modern soca music has been reduced to "riding a riddim'' with limited lyrical content, "soca sound-bites'' so to speak.
Fortunately a new crop of calypsonians are emerging to continue the important tradition of social commentary. Among these are 2011 Calypso Monarch, Karene Asche, Michelle Henry, Mr Shak and Independence Monarch Roderick "Chucky'' Gordon. Ms Asche has a particularly insightful composition on the so-called "Eat ah Food'' mentality which contains the line that "if you play by the book, they will call you a mook''.
It's a sad day indeed when those who follow the rules and try to maintain some level of integrity become sources of ridicule and derision. But I have digressed.
A popular dictionary defines a sound-bite as "a clip of speech or music extracted from a longer piece of audio, often used to promote or exemplify the full length piece". The definition goes further and adds ominously that "due to its brevity, the sound-bite often overshadows the broader context in which it was spoken, and can be misleading or inaccurate". Therein lies the danger of the "sound-bite culture'' where a cheap wisecrack receives more attention than a profound insight and where the national penchant for "commess'' keeps the public focusing on trivia and "dotishness''. In a culture of sound-bites, event management becomes more important than strategic planning and the search for photo-opportunities is far more intensive than the pursuit of sustainable solutions. Its all about the 'quick-fix'.
In a recent television interview, Ambassador Adam Blackwell of the OAS indicated that his organisation had completed "a well thought-out, detailed, analytic report" on the drug trade in the Americas. In order to implement the findings of such a report there would have to be an equally "well thought-out, detailed, analytic'' action plan that would require months if not years to succeed. That would be the serious approach. The alternative would be frivolous, ad-hoc interventions like the highly-publicised but ineffective "Fix Me First''campaign some years ago.
Times are changing however and citizens are getting increasingly fed up with the "smoke and mirrors'' and they want more than sound-bites and slogans. They are tired of the PR gimmicks that underestimate their intelligence and assume that they can be easily manipulated and misled. They know the difference between cutting a ribbon or erecting a billboard and consistent, tangible achievement.
Congratulations therefore to the organisers of the THA debate and kudos to the leaders who participated. It was understandably tame but a welcome relief from the vulgar mud-slinging and character assassination that has become the norm in local politics.
A recent Express editorial reflected on the debate noting that "this is a huge development for politics in this country where parties and their leaders invest in creating an atmosphere of campaign frenzy in which facts and logic are drummed into irrelevance leaving behind the phenomenon known as rum and roti politics, complete with wine and jam". Political campaigning needs to move beyond the carefully stage-managed rallies "where political leaders feel safest before adoring crowds".
Hopefully the trend towards more open and honest dialogue will continue and the politics of distraction will decrease. Political parties must not be allowed to hide behind jingles, slogans and advertising campaigns while their plans and policies escape scrutiny. Express columnist Sunity Maharaj wrote recently that "there is no message more powerful than the truth, even if it suits us to go along and delude ourselves with something more convenient to our needs". She continued, "advertising and profiling do not change the messages received. The only way to do this is to change the message itself and anchor it in the truth of reality". In the final analysis it is the truth, not sound-bites, that will set us free.
• Richard Braithwate is a