Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Friday, August 07, 2009

I Can See Clearly Now

My little five year old daughter often points out things that I should have realised a long time ago. Such is the viewpoint of a child, that is valuable, yet often ignored. I often let her use my camera. Her favourite subject? Herself. Why? “Well, Daddy, I don't know how I look most of the time. But I know how I feel. I want to see if I look like I feel.” She will be brilliant.

Stepping away from an object allows you see it in perspective. Artists know this and so do photographers, but with some important differences. When you look at yourself, even those features that you think you know so well look very different. Step away too far, however, and you can barely see well enough to give any kind of description of the object, even if you feel you know it well. For both artists and photographers, a feature that also plays tricks is the effect of light. When fully in front of a subject, light really illuminates. Yet, when shining from behind, light obscures and can obliterate details, sometimes leaving a mere silhouette; a main object becomes black. So, when the metaphor 'shining light on a subject' is used it can be very helpful to know from what direction it is shining. You may be able to see clearer or worse.

The positioning of an observer can be important too, when it comes to issues. One of the great criticisms that is levelled at commentators is that “You are not close to the topic”, or “You cannot see wood for trees”. So, you get confused by the details you see and know and have a harder time seeing the 'big picture'. Managers are often encouraged to not get too involved in details so that they can be more strategic.

On the matter of immigration (and to some extent, nationhood), I have wondered about the impact of perspective. Those of us who live in Barbados see what is happening on the ground, but it's not necessarily the best viewpoint. The island looks so calm when I see it from an airplane window. Can that really be the Wildey 'triangle'? No one seems harassed. Is that really Cheapside Market? Nothing seems to be going on. Look at the cane fields, with the plants swaying. Not a blessed thing going on. For a small island like Barbados, that sense of seeing nothing going on if one looks from a distance can seem eerie. But, it's even more striking for a big city. Look at New York from the air and you have no idea that the place has anything in it but tall buildings and some patches of green and greed (note the words), surrounded by water. So, to get a better view, being closer may be better. But, as you get closer you may still see little because you are not looking in the right places. Those who maintain a distant view can, of course, let their minds see whatever they want.

But those who live nearer the subject often ask “Should I take notice of those who choose to comment from afar?” If you are a national and the commentator is a faraway foreigner, then the likelihood of that observer's views being welcome are slim. If you are a national at home and you have a foreign observer in your midst, that too may not be taken well—especially if he/she is critical. How about if you are a national at home and some of your compatriots (with different degrees of distance and time away) are the commentators? Are they out of touch? Do they carry baggage from what they see as 'the good old days'? Are they from the ruling party or the opposition? Experience tells me that views on the observers are not neutral and depend largely on whether they are supporters or opponents. That seems odd—except that as humans we seem more at ease with those who applaud than with those who jeer.

I believe that if you have a good understanding then the distance is less important, but again with caveats. A metaphor may help. A doctor given a good description can make a good diagnosis from wherever he/she is. But, would the description be better coming from the sufferer or someone seeing the sufferer? Time away from a subject is not trivial to its understanding. What can happen, of course, is that commentators speak from recollections and these can be stale relative to what is now the situation. I laugh when people tell me about England: “The smog there is so bad”. But the smog went away in the mid-1960s. Then I ask when the speaker was last there. “Oh, I studied there in the 1950s.” Well, Chummy, that half decade has seen more than a few changes. Yet, they hold onto these stale notions as if they were being constantly refreshed. After living in England for 30 years, and not having been back to live for about 20 years, so much hits me between the eyes as different whenever I visit. I once knew London's streets like a cabbie, and had walked and ridden and driven around them for years. I knew how to get almost anywhere by public transport. Now, London does not go in for changing street names, so there are no 'Mandela Highways' in place of 'Buckingham Way'. So, getting lost is not a result of not knowing the streets. But, with developments such as one-way systems, and changing landmarks, I realised that my knowledge was contextual and depended on direction of movement. As I drove around I hesitated more than I should, and put me in danger when I should have been at ease. Some areas, thank goodness, cannot change unless someone decides to raze the whole area, and the layout is as it was 200, 300 even 400 years ago.

I get that feeling about Barbados not changing on a certain level but clearly changing a lot. The road layout reflects the routes for carts and the way land was carved up for cane fields. But are people similarly little changed in their basic make up after hundreds of years? Fewer of them live in the rural areas anymore but may remember them fondly and recall a simpler more pleasant, though less varied life.You planted crops; the rain fell; the crops grew; you harvested; you took plants to market; they got sold; you turned the soil; you planted again...Nice rhythm. Clear plan. In the city, what do you have? The pattern of work is not so clear as a year winds on. Moreover, what you do may have no direct impact that you can see on what you earn. The piles of paper you have to move may not change much, but the pay comes whatever, even if you stay at home for some time. Untended, your work may not get done but you still get paid. Try that with plants.

How people respond depends a lot on what impact they think their actions will have. When it seems that the actions will make little impact, people tend to do less. It's often interesting to see which group of workers go on strike and for how long. People who work on the land often strike but for very short periods, not jeopardizing their livelihoods. Industrial workers tend to be stay out on strike longer.

But, let's look again at the observer, looking on at this landscape. Is a Bajan sitting or standing looking down from a city in the north east of the USA or in England better placed to understand what is going on here? Are constant reports and images sent going to give the same feel as actually being in contact with what is happening? Is a foreigner living in the situation better placed to see and understand? The national abroad may feel that his blood line will guide him well. But is what he has in his blood tainted? The outsider on island can be cold blooded, because he does not feel attached to all that is going on so can judge with the involvement of fewer emotions. Even though I have lived here a mere two years and he/she had lived here 30 years, but moved abroad 20 years ago, I may be a better observer. The historical context is important, but it can also obscure a good view.

So, it's a very complicated situation. Honestly, all views are valid, but they are often very different. Just think of how passengers in a car view an incident. The driver's view is conditioned by having to steer, and focused on avoiding collisions. He is mainly looking ahead and tends to see what is behind him through a mirror, often not directly. The front passenger can gaze around freely, even have eyes closed, can look ahead and behind freely. But he/she often feels partly in control of the car by being in the front, and can try to manage the driving, simulating decisions on how to tackle the route, even having many of the emotions of the driver, but without real control. The back seat passengers can similarly gaze around and even sleep, but have little interest in trying to steer, as their view is often obscured; their emotional connection with driving is usually very limited, almost care free. They can even spend a lot of their time looking backward at what has been passed. They may be too young to drive and do not understand all the circumstances around them. On arrival they will assess where they are, and that wont be affected by having looked ahead and seeing it approach. The person run over by the car is of course in a totally different situation. He had no control over the car. He could see it approaching. He hoped that it was not heading at him. But on realising that it was, tried to avoid being hit, perhaps imagining the brakes been pressed hard, and the driver steering away. He could not react fast enough before the car ploughed into him. Now, he is under the car and clinging on to life. What had he done to deserve this? The passengers are all shocked. The driver is filled with remorse. The front seat passenger is full of accusations about the driver's poor control and lack of awareness, "If I had been driving...". The back seat passengers are just waking and trying to understand what is going on, which is hard because they did not, and cannot, see the victim. The policeman arrives, and each witness to the incident tries to tell his/her tale. Makes for an interest set of views.
Do you think you see clearly?

1 comment:

Aohinds said...

Nice story telling. Dont mind my comments on BU. You make a lot of good points. I said before I think you are a non-partisan commentator.