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A deficit of compassion


by Dr Garrey Michael Dennie

Carnival season is here with us again, ushering in an explosion of mas, song, and dance, as Vincentians engage in the annual rituals of bacchanal. And there is genuine virtue in this, if only because carnival in general, and calypso in particular, do provide a powerful platform through which our society gets to construct and critique an image of itself in a way that is public, visible, and very, very, audible.{{more}} Indeed, the sounds of carnival would ultimately overwhelm our senses providing no escape from its insistence that our carnival lays bare the soul of the nation in all of its beauty; and indeed in all of its misery.

These two duelling sensibilities have always characterized St Vincent carnivals. For example, in 1976 Vibrating Scakes sang the first and certainly one of the greatest of his calpysoes, “I want to revive carnival, bring back the old bachannal.” But even as he exulted in the glory of long-time carnival, Scakes insisted that he wanted “the fighting cancelled.” The root cause of the violence both then and now, however, was not to be found within the carnival itself. Rather, the violence was much more a manifestation of the social stresses, economic inequities, and moral crises within our society. In essence, carnival held up a mirror to Vincentian society, showing both the wonder and the warts in striking colours.

Unsurprisingly, Vincentians are much more comfortable paying tribute to the wonder of our artistes, who through sheer creative genius make pans sing, revellers dance, and masqueraders transform their bodies into a kaleidoscope of colours craved by any painter. But the warts, of course, do not simply go away. And carnival, of course, retains the capacity to bring these to the forefront of our consciousness. And in this carnival season, no wart has, perhaps, been more fully exposed than Vincentians’ sheer willingness to publicly humiliate gays and lesbians in what one might call “a song of shame.”

Sung by an up and coming calypsonian, the song functions on the premise that West Indies cricket are in need of “bowlers” and that here in St Vincent we have plenty “bowlers” who can play for the West Indies. Within the On Tour Tent, the song succeeds because, first, it possesses a melodic structure that entices its audience and second, the singer exercises complete command over its rendition. Every syllable is heard; nothing about the song is unclear. But above all, the song succeeds because it completely identifies with and exploits the homophobia of the Vincentian population. No one is fooled by the semantic difference between “bowlers” and a term popularly used in St Vincent for male homosexuals. Both the singer and his audience had a shared understanding that this was not a song of cricket, but a song designed to “out” the gays. Nowhere is this better captured than in the moments where the song purports to identify individual gays (bowlers) working within specific departments in St Vincent. At these points, the tent erupted in a paroxysm of joy, unmatched by the audience’s response to any other song.

In St Vincent, our willingness to name, shame, and hold up gays and lesbians to public embarrassment clearly dehumanizes a segment of our population whose romantic choices are not our own. In lacking compassion towards gays and lesbians we walk the perilous path of dehumanization, a path that always leads to greater violence in any society. To be compassionate towards gays and lesbians does not mean sacrificing or compromising the values we place on heterosexual relationships. But it does mean recognizing that consenting adults may have to resolve the dilemmas of constructing meaningful romantic relationships in ways that are not necessarily familiar to most of us. In this instance, according gays and lesbians the right of privacy is the humane thing to do. We have suffered from a compassion deficit in this country. And as always, carnival has provided us with a looking glass to see our strengths, and of course our continued failings on the meter of compassion.