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Defining disrespect

By Martin Daly

Despite our considerable differences about his remarks on the alleged death threat to television journalist, Mark Bassant, I am happy to acknowledge one positive thing about the acting Commissioner of Police, Mr Stephen Williams. We had a robust exchange on the issues as we respectively saw them but without the animosity so unfortunately shown to Bassant.


I acknowledge this because I have been listening to the noise concerning Dominic Kalipersad’s telephone exchange with the Prime Minister. Kalipersad has been accused of disrespect, or to keep it real, “disrespek”—a word now in everyday use.


Defining disrespect in our society is complicated and in many ways typifies how the Trini personality is a split one. A majority dislike cursing but a certain word isused as an adjective and for emphasis when “flicking” would do.


We mamaguy our peers but sometimes have a straight-laced view about authority. On the other hand, in calypso and comedy routines, personal and sometimes biting remarks and portrayals of Government officials, including Prime Ministers, are accepted norms. So where does the journalist fit into this confusing scheme of things? More specifically should a broadcast journalist mock or mamaguy a Minister of Government, or is it only the President and Prime Minister that are off limits?


Another complicating factor is whether a Prime Minister can remain off limits, when in his or her presence other members of Cabinet behave obnoxiously.


Probably there can be no general answers to these questions and, in each case of friction, public opinion will determine what, if anything, constitutes disrespect. One thing is sure: None of our public officials would survive a wisecrack from David Letterman or Jimmy Kimmel or a portrayal on Saturday Night Live on US network television.


In the heyday of Margaret Thatcher there was a group of puppets on a British television show called Spitting Image. The satirical magazine Private Eye made a habit of altering the normal spelling of the surname of public officials in order to mock them.


I mention these satirists so that our politicians will be reminded that first world status has some things that they may not like because in their self centred opinion such satire would be disrespect.


As part of this exploration of some of the parameters of disrespect, I would like to refer to a disrespect that is bothering me greatly. When will powerful persons of either gender hold a vigil for Sarah Headley, the four-year-old girl lying in the hospital with a bullet dangerously lodged in her neck having been caught in crossfire while in a vehicle in Carenage? Do you have to belong inside the gates of privilege to be the object of a vigil?


I sought solace at the shocking contrast in vigil making from a fellow columnist. She expressed the view that the powerful, real or self-appointed, only bestir themselves when the invader gets inside the gates or lays a hand on those thought to be untouchable. I suppose that is why the quest for justice for Akiel Chambers never got support from the elites.


I also take solace from the fact that it is unlikely the current Prime Minister will utter the disrespect that Sarah Headley is collateral damage. I am hoping that the PNM is now in a position to apologise for that remark, which we all recall was made when a young woman was killed outside MovieTowne.


I consider that remark at the height of disrespect, far more worthy of a strong reaction than the mamaguy of a public official. At equal height of disrespect is the state of the hospital that compelled Sarah Headley to have to wait for further attention until the specialist returned from vacation.


Perhaps our public officials have become more thin-skinned as we have sheepishly become pawns in the adulation game. We have gone from standing when the President, the official head of State, enters a room to doing the same when the Prime Minister enters. On two occasions I witnessed standing for a mere Cabinet member.


I refer to the adulation game because the making of special arrangements to accommodate public officials seems constantly to be on the increase.


We have moved far away from the days when Mr Butler described himself as the Chief Servant. We now have celebrity type entourages constantly feeding and watering public officials and vigorously clearing their paths.


Perhaps that kind of thing is mistakenly believed to be a showing of respect, but perhaps what it does is swell the head as well as swell the belly with the result that the Akiels and Sarahs become less deserving of respect when looked down upon from lofty heights.


Despite my acknowledgement that the acting Commissioner and I did not get away on a personal basis, I closed the week still wanting to know when the disrespect to justice of the pitiably low detection rate of crimes committed will cease.

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