MUSINGS: Today’s morality, yesterday’s culture

It is, I suppose, inevitable in a modern developing society that previous conduct, not then expressly treated as illegal or even taboo, would come one day to be judged in the harsh light of an arguably more humane polity, one more officially respectful of the rights of each individual to dignity and autonomy. The examples of this ethical dilemma as to how we should treat past conduct that would not have complied with today’s more rigid moral standards abound. We see it in the modern regional movement for reparations to be made by those nations who profited from the practices of slavery and the slave trade that were officially condoned at the time although arguably contrary to international law. Now, the notions of slavery and a slave trade are patently contrary to international and municipal human rights norms and would not be publicly condoned by any respectable nation.

We see it too, in the relatively recent allegations of past sexual misconduct levelled at prominent figures in cosmopolitan societies, a phenomenon of seemingly global proportions, engendered principally by the #Me Too movement although, remarkably, not yet extant in the region or locally. Such instances of misconduct, apart, of course, from those that constituted an infringement of the criminal law such as rape and indecent assault or were otherwise patently egregious, would back then have been largely condoned as acceptable badinage between the sexes. Nowadays, the suggestion as to where a colleague who complains of cold hands could warm them might lead to the dismissal or the forced resignation of a senior Cabinet minister as recently occurred in Britain.

The recent removal of the name “Milner” from the eponymous students’ hall of residence at the St Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies in Trinidad as reported in yesterday’s issue of the Barbados Advocate would have also engaged this debate. The hall took the name of Lord Alfred Milner in 1927 as a result of his contribution to the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture that was established in Trinidad & Tobago. It appears to have been recently discovered, nearly a century later, however, that Milner was unfit to be celebrated as a regional icon because according to research, he was a self-proclaimed “British race supremacist”, had described Africans as “savages” and was a founder of the inhuman system of apartheid institutionalised in South Africa in 1948. In addition to this he is reputed to have been an architect of Indian indentured servitude in the colony; a proponent of military colonialism in Africa and Asia; and had also functioned as “an aggressive imperialist”, committing crimes against humanity in Africa.

Clearly, by today’s law and moral standards, Lord Milner may justifiably be regarded as an international floutlaw who, rather than having a regional university hall of residence named after him, should be sentenced to death by an international criminal court, if that were possible. Yet, the natural order of things in his day permitted him to carry out these atrocities with impunity. One instinct of the modern defence lawyer would be to argue for holding the existing system culpable rather than the man himself. However, given our powerlessness in the former regard, the easy alternative is to hold the individual solely culpable for his or her own misconduct.

The argument also presents locally in the discourse as to the aptness of the statue of Lord Nelson who, as Milner, also had a rather chequered past, occupying pride of place in our renamed Heroes Square, and the appropriateness of the nomenclature that still adorns many of our streets and institutions. Incidentally, what is the past record of Thomas Harrison, after whom our, in my view, premier boy’s secondary school is named? What if it is subsequently discovered that one of landmark institutions is titled after someone who was once a serial pedophile, a sexual predator or, as is indeed the case, after a eminent perpetrator of the international criminal offence of piracy that, as I recall from my brief and survived exposure to international law, is contrary to the “jus gentium” [law of the people] and thus regarded as inherently criminal?

The resolution appears to lie in the exercise of sovereign power, whether this is determined to be located in the people themselves or in their representatives exclusively. Clearly, the fairest solution to this dilemma in some cases would seem to be through a referendum where a prescribed majority is required for any change. After all, this is consistent with our notions of pure democracy.

There are some circumstances however where our policymakers should be expected to act in a decisive fashion and to determine, as they do with regard to both the level of taxation necessary and the mode of disbursement of the public purse, what should be the current political stance on these matters of nomenclature and its pantheon of statuary. I am mindful that such decisiveness may prove to be electorally detrimental and that a cautious administration may prefer for the matter to be dissipated in sterile recurrent public discourse.

Further, a jurisdiction such as ours that relies almost exclusively on foreign investment attributable mainly to its stability may scarcely consider itself free to tamper with well-established precedent. The question therefore begs asking, how autonomous are we really?

Barbados Advocate

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