Friday, January 27, 2012

Principals and Principalities: Lessons in principle we can learn from Barbados
So, finally we're back to school. It may seem a routine statement, but there was nothing routine about what transpired at the Alexandra School in Barbados during the first three weeks of the new term. If you look at the front page of local papers since the beginning of the year, there was virtually no other story. Thirty teachers from the school went on a strike led by the Barbados Secondary Teachers' Union (BSTU), as a result of a dispute with the principal of the school, Jeff Broomes. It seems the fracas was between Broomes and a teacher in the science department, where clearly there was a lack of chemistry. Nonetheless, given what had transpired behind the scenes and over the years it seemed reactions were bound to get out of hand sooner or later.

What was the most worrying thing to me, was that from the beginning, the court of public opinion painted the striking teachers as the villains in the piece. There were some who stood behind the teachers but they appeared to be relatively few. All this without a great deal of facts to go on in the public domain. This type of thing is not atypical for Barbados in such situations. Facts tend not to matter that much, it's all about personalities.You jump on the bandwagon of the one you like and paint those on the other side as devils incarnate. Your guy can do no wrong and theirs can do no right. You forget your own principles and just support the principal in your corner. And I don't mean only the principals that wield the authority in the school compound. By principals, I mean the 'main players' in society, those that hold leadership positions and tend to be the face of the organisations or groups they represent. The principals in governments,  businesses, social groups, churches, media, sports, music or culture. These are the principals that we are often eager to blindly follow.

When we throw our weight behind our principals, we commit ourselves to opposing whoever our principals find themselves in conflict with.These become like Satans to our Gods. We can say that we see them as principalities fighting against our principals.  According to the bible, principalities are evil demonic forces within the spirit world that need to be fought against at all costs. This is how the book of Ephesians puts it in the King James Version

"For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." (Ephesians 6:12)

Trinity of Principals: BSTU, Ministry of Education. Principal of Alexandra

In newer versions of the bible these principalities are described as 'evil rulers'. Principals within their own satanic domains. So one man's principal is the other man's principality. That's just the way it goes. It seems in the Alexandra School dispute the striking teachers were deemed to be those on the dark side. Mary Anne Redman, Presient of the BSTU, became seen as the principal principality in a demonic realm. Lest my friends who are not familiar with Barbados consider that I am just speaking metaphorically, let me put you straight. Demons have been identified as being present in Barbadian schools. I kid you not, some children in Barbados have been classified as  'demon possessed.' The claim is on record as having been said by a person of no less authority than the Minister of Education, Ronald Jones, another one of the key principals in this whole affair. We hear from Christians all the time that as a building needs a builder, and a painting needs a painter, every creation needs a creator. So, I suppose a demon in a child needs a child demoniser. Yes, as far as Barbados is concerned these supernatural forces are very real and need to be taken seriously. Who knows? We may one day have a class exorcise replacing a class exercise on the teachers' timetable.

Things did get rather ugly in this principal versus principality fight. Even as punches and counter punches were being thrown, people were shouting from the sidelines asking for a referee to come and stop the bout." Stop it for the children's sake!" was the cry. "It doesn't matter who is right or wrong, the teachers must get back to work immediately for the sake of the children!" This made me stop in my tracks. It didn't matter who is  right or wrong? Were these people implying that there is no circumstance in which industrial action is justified? If the idea is not to inconvenience those not involved, it would mean workers could never take action if they felt they were being unfairly treated. I mean, if the teachers were being beaten every morning before going to class, would it be right for them to grin, bear it and then go teach for the children's sake?

This is typical of how we deal with disputes in Barbados and perhaps even in the Caribbean on the whole. When controversy raises its head we want to quash it as quickly as possible. It's this type of attitude that makes  our cause as atheists such a challenge. Even those who identify with our position are quick to say, "Shhhh, you don't want to rock the boat!" But conflict need not be seen like that. It is not something that should be feared. In any social system, conflicts will come up from time to time. It doesn't mean that either of the persons involved is bad or even that the persons do not have the interest of all parties at heart. People have differences in management styles and personalities and may have objectives that will not always square with those around them. This means that there will be arguments and disputes from time to time. In fact, the disputes and differences are a sign that there is openness and freedom of expression and that people are at least not afraid to speak out. Recognising these differences and taking the time to thrash out the issues is worth it and will often lead to a far better scenario afterwards, but the thing to remember is that the process takes time. Sending children back to school in an environment filled with tension would be counterproductive to all. You just can't expect to coerce people into saying 'yes'.  .

It is also important to respect all of the parties, especially the party that considers that it has been hurt, whether you personally see that party as a principal or a principality. It was sad to see the teachers being looked at as demons. Telling them everyday in the press that they should be fired, or that they must come back to school immediately or else, is not the way to show a valued stakeholder respect. You are treating the teachers in a manner that you would not accept from those same people towards your own children. That is why I think the dispute was prolonged, the rhetoric just added fuel to the fire. Ironically, the attempt to wrap things up quickly, ultimately made the process much longer. The lack of respect has not ended yet either. The screaming headline,"Teachers Paid!"  in the Nation newspaper said a lot. The words appeared to be suggesting that this was some kind of national scandal, as if Allen Stanford  were coolly walking up to a commercial bank to collect his investment dividend cheque.

These educators were not on a beach somewhere, sipping martinis for the last two weeks. They were engaging in industrial action, to fight for what they consider was their right. I am not saying that their action was called for, maybe it was frivolous, but the important thing is that it was merited in their judgement. And in general, the judgement of teachers is something we consider to be reasonable. If we didn't feel that way we would not put our children in their hands for six hours a day, five days a week. So, we at least have to give some weight to the possibility that their judgement with respect to the evaluation of their own situation was also correct. In their opinion they were fighting for a principle, setting a precedent that could have long term implications. They did it through the channel of the BSTU which is an approved body set up to represent their interests. As far as I can tell, there were no laws broken here.Why the implication that they should now not get their due? It's as if paying the teachers what they are contractually due was like entering in to a pact with the devil. If we want our society to progress, we badly need to move away from the battles between principals and principalities and see ourselves as being a team. A team including parents, teachers, children and the wider society.Trying to slam your team mate is no way to get corporation.

No faith in negotiation

It is unfortunate that in times like these a society cannot turn to the faith on which it has built its foundation. Not that the parties involved were loathe to try to invoke it. At least twice pictures of groups in prayer circles were shown in the press. Parents or teachers holding hands aloft, asking God to lead them. But what does the Good Book have to tell us about negotiation? When it comes to dealing with conflict you either submit as Jesus advises in the New Testament and 'turn the other cheek,' 'or follow the Old Testament God's methods and look to subdue all that stand in your way. There really is not a lot in Christianity that prescribes a response that lies between the two testamental extremes. It would be great if we could go to the bible and read a passage that said something like this.

" Take heed of the teachings contained in thy holy texts but listen to thy brethren who may have ideas contrary to the revelation that thou believeth.  If the evidence and justification for thy neighbour's position is better than that of thine, adjust thy thinking, for logic and reason are of the Lord. It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for an irrational man to enter the kingdom of heaven."

But no, unfortunately that verse did not make it into the Canon. Yes, when you use faith as your guide you tend to simply dig your heels in. Meanwhile you worship the overriding principal, God himself, who by definition is always on your side. He is the one whose word is the law, whose very nature dictates good and evil. With such a foundational belief it is easy to go into the world and look towards authority figures, seeing everything as good versus evil, black versus white, principal versus principality. Through all this we forget the principles.The principle that everyone deserves a chance to work, live and play in reasonable conditions. The principle that everyone deserves to be treated fairly. The principle of " Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Yes, that last one is a great principle. I know that  many people believe in this principally because Jesus said it. For me, a great principle is a great principle regardless of the mouth it emanates from. It is sad that the principal people in society that we would expect to uphold these principles do not. That is the principal reason why we have huge disputes which, in principle, should not be that difficult to resolve.

So, where did the teacher resolution finally come? Of course it was through  a principal. None other than the Prime Minister of Barbados, Freundel Stuart, the principal principal in the land.  What principles did Stuart use to reach a resolution? We may never know. What we do know, is that when in comes to understanding the principles of negotiation, we in Barbados have much still to learn.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

No one true New Year: But a lot to look forward to and reflect upon

It's 2012!

Yes, there is always something exciting about a new year. Although, I must admit, that a bit of the gloss of the midnight countdown has been removed for me in recent years. Now that I live in Calgary, I am among the later set of  people to get to the New Year. With satellite TV, online radio and family and friends living in different parts of the globe,  I have often 'seen in' the new year four or five times before it finally gets to me. It is hard to be excited when you know that in many parts of the world the champagne cork has long been popped, while a few to the west of you have it on ice waiting for their 'moment.' Not to mention our Chinese friends, who start the year at a totally different time.Still, this seems to be a completely irrelevant to those who wrap up in four layers of clothing, shivering head to toe, to countdown from 10 and kiss loved ones on the stroke of a Big Ben chime or a Big Ball drop. This reminds me so much of how it is with religion. It's like everybody in every part of the world believes that their New Year is the one true New Year. They celebrate the moment as if it is a universal cosmic event, setting off  fireworks as if there was no tomorrow. Yet, for most of the world that is NOT the New Year moment. Whichever time zone you live in, there are more people that don't share your midnight celebration than those who do. But it doesn't matter at that time. You don't hear people say , " Happy New Year Mountain Time People!" No, there is nothing said by the MC to suggest that the countdown only applies to a certain group.You hear, " It's 2012!" or an all embracing " Happy New Year!"  It feels as if the whole world is celebrating at that second. At least, that's what it used to feel like when I was celebrating as a kid in Barbados. Perhaps, that's why even today the Barbados New Year feels the most meaningful of all to me.

On New Year's morning I realised how similar time zones are to religions. When people get together to celebrate their God, they are well aware that there are many people from far flung places for whom that particular God is not real. But that doesn't stop them, they still pull out the music, the pomp,the ceremony and the parties as if there was no other faith in the world. Their friends from abroad who tell them about celebrations of their deities at different times and in different ways doesn't strike them as a contradiction to their own beliefs and it doesn't make their own celebrations any less true. It's almost like we human beings have some capacity to take our little community and make ourselves believe that the world is just US, even if it is for a few seconds before midnight or a couple of hours on a Saturday or Sunday morning.

The truth of the matter is that the New Year moment  is simply an illusion. It doesn't really exist. The year changes over a 24 hour period, and the whole thing is arbitrary, totally man made . This was illustrated clearly this year when the government of the island of Western Samoa decided to 'cross the dateline' and set their clocks to coincide with their neighbours in the Pacific and Oceania. Friday December 30th, was skipped as a date on their calendar as a result. I hear people are still wondering what Seventh Day Adventists and other Sabbath keepers will do about that one, but that's another story.Yes, it's clear that the way we designate time is of our own doing. But at the same time we know that time itself,  is something that exists. We can track earth's movement around the sun and recognise the axial tilt during this movement through seasons. We can see birth, growth and decay in nature that tells us that that time is passing, however we choose to measure it. The existence of time is not proven by the fact that we have New Year's parties, fireworks, hour glasses, sundials, clocks or watches. Nor from the fact that we have history books that tell us of events thousands of years past. We don't need to read and understand Stephen Hawking's , " A Brief History of Time" to let us know that time is real.

It so happens that just as we have many devices constructed to record and measure the passing of time , we have many inventions  that are designed to record, designate and even influence the activities of  gods. We have houses for them, books attributed to them, writings documenting their activities, statues of  them, incantations used to communicate with them, paintings of them, countries that claim to be guided by them and people that wear symbols to represent them. There are perhaps as many man made artifacts designed with God in mind as they are products designed to make sense of time.However, there's one huge difference. Unlike our evidence for the passage of time, no passages we have that speak of a god can be counted as evidence. Unfortunately, neither can statues, monuments, souvenirs or trinkets. Neither can we consider the elaborate yearly, monthly or weekly celebrations with music, costumes or pageantry that are undertaken in their name. To say that any of these count as evidence would be like saying that the tradition of having  a New Year's Eve Party every December 31st  is evidence that  the earth takes 365 and a quarter days  to orbit the sun. It would be like throwing a  party for someone every December 25th and saying it proves they were born on that day.

I think there is the feeling out there, that having a lot of  representations and activities devoted to something means that the 'something' is real. Even if  there is an admission that we human beings have made up many things about it.  Millions reason that the fact that an idea has captured the imagination of the masses, means some real thing must lie underneath. They concede that many humans may have mistaken the smoke signals, but the puffs billowing  all around just can't be a smokescreen. Surely, there must be fire somewhere beneath it all, even if only just a spark. Well, maybe there is, but we haven't found it yet and we have been looking for a long time. In my opinion, if we ever discover a god, it won't be through kneeling inside buildings that humans have built, reading books that humans have wrote or examining the art that humans have expertly crafted. It will be by looking out there in the nature which surrounds us. The external  universal laboratory in which we can all share, observe and experience things together in the same time and space.

Reflecting and Looking Ahead

I have to say, that even though I recognise there is no true New Year, I want to reflect on some things that happened during the most recent 360 degree journey that the earth made around the sun. It has been a great year for me as far as my own secular journey is concerned. I have been thrilled to share some of the highlights with you my readers, although there is no way that I could capture all the feelings. I  will always  remember that day when I  realised I was included on Greta Christina's blog as a 'prominent atheist of colour' that spurred me to push ahead as an activist and to make the decision to come out publicly as an atheist. I have not for a moment regretted either.The post ' Oh What A Week' that I wrote speaking of that experience was another memorable one in itself. It was great to see it highlighted on the 'A Week" Facebook group. The 500 hits, I  got on the day I posted it was overwhelming as were the stories I received  from people from various parts of the world who were going through the same journey I was. Indeed, I thank all of you who have read and supported this blog in 2011.

In 2011  we also saw  the growth of 'Caribbean Atheists'. Travelling through the Caribbean and meeting a few isolated atheist souls and being able to write about it was certainly a great part of my year. Since then, I have met many more online through Atheist Nexus and Facebook. The Facebook page has been a great refuge of reason, with  lively engagement in debate and sharing of resources and knowledge. I have been impressed at how well informed many of  the members there are and how skilled they are at putting forward arguments and critiquing others. When I was in church I was often dumbfounded at how few people could even explain the basic principles of their faith. People that come to 'Caribbean Atheists,' in contrast seem to have given much thought to their position and most have taken the initiative to educate themselves on various topics. So, the quality of debate is generally high. But don't take what I am saying on faith, I encourage you to go to the Caribbean Atheists Facebook page  and see for yourself. I am happy to report that the group reached 100 members just minutes before I started writing this post. It's very encouraging, but we need to keep building.We have started this year with a lot of interesting plans and have a small steering committee in place to try to get the ball rolling. Once again, I urge any of you out there from the Caribbean or with Caribbean roots to join us. We really need your support.

I cannot reflect on 2011 without mentioning my visit to New York and the brunch with the New York Atheists featuring Ayanna Watson of Black Atheists of America. On that day, in addition to hearing the great work Black Atheists of America is doing,  I had  my first experience of being in a room with a group of black atheists .Indeed, there were  more than 15 other black atheists present that day. It was an exciting moment for me, very difficult to put in to words. Just meeting so many like minds in one place, sharing many similar backgrounds and stories.  That was Perhaps my most memorable moment of the year as far as being an atheist is concerned. I am still to write about this experience on the blog. You can look out for more on that story in  2012.

Indeed the area of race and atheism has been one that has occupied my mind somewhat over the last year. It is a sensitive one, but I think it is one that needs to be tackled more. I have had the pleasure of reading two insightful books from Adebowale Ojowuro in 2011, " Crisis of Religion" and " Echoes of Common Sense." Ade is one of the leading voices out there speaking of the negative impact religion has had on the African continent and his material is well worth reading. It is interesting to compare these with my own Caribbean experience, there are quite a few parallels . Ade and I have had some interaction online and he has made reference to my work on occasion and graciously acknowledged my contribution to his writing. I have learnt a lot from him through our communication. In addition, I am in the process of reading Sikivu Hutchinson's "Moral Combat" which looks at black atheism and feminism as it plays out in the US. There is also a very interesting perspective of Guy P Harrison that I am reading in " Race and Reality." I have also looked at the writing of Norm Allen Jr. that speaks to some of these issues. So, there is definitely a lot of work to draw upon. I can't thank these people and many others enough for the work that they are doing in their various areas. I can only hope to follow them the best that I can.

So, as we start on another journey around the sun on the year we have designated as 2012, I wish all of you a happy ride. I look forward, from my part, to making it another atheist revolution.