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It’s time to answer some questions

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Senator Lynne Woolridge, chairwoman of the One Bermuda Alliance (File photograph by Jonathan Bell)

I suspect there are many people in the community who may have missed the significance of the recent court case involving the One Bermuda Alliance’s Toni Daniels and the Leader of the Opposition, Marc Bean.

I’m sure some will see it as a purely political incident, driven by my party’s desire to score points over the Opposition. Some will see it as a minor event blown out of proportion by Ms Daniels and the Police.

It certainly was an incident that involved two politicians. Perhaps no one can be criticised for focusing on its political aspect at this turbulent time in our political history.

But it was much more than a minor political event. So much more that I believe that it would be wrong of me, as a woman and as a leader in the political world, to fail to point out its real significance to the people of Bermuda.

It is a significance that caused me, as the chairwoman of the OBA, to insist in the first place that it should pursued through the Police and the courts.

It was an incident that posed two highly significant questions for Bermuda.

First, is it correct that this community should tolerate the abuse of women as an everyday, unremarkable event?

Second, is it correct that this community should tolerate its politicians abusing each other, often in language we would hopefully discipline our children for using? The answer to both those questions must be a loud, resounding, “No, it is not correct”.

Anyone who doubts that is, ethically, a throwback to bad old days that most of the world — the US, Canada and countries in Europe, among others — long ago outgrew and abandoned.

That attitude is one that Bermuda — and I want to shout this from the rooftops — should no longer be prepared to tolerate, not under any circumstance.

If we want to be one of the world’s leading countries, we have to learn to understand and adapt to the way the world is changing, not just in the obvious things such as using computers, but in our understanding of what is correct and what is incorrect behaviour as well.

The status of women in the world is changing. Once, we were second-class citizens. We served our masters. We cooked, we cleaned and we took care of children. That has changed.

During the past few decades, women have established that we can perform in many arenas just as well as men. We are proud to have confirmed for the world that we are better at some things than men. Are we the same as men? Are we exactly equal? No, we are not. Some things we can’t do, or can’t do as well as men can. Sometimes there is a physical or a genetic reason for that, which probably will never change. Some differences are cultural and will change only over time. This kind of evolutionary change is a complex process.

But at this stage of women’s progress away from second-class citizenship, we think we have earned the right not to be treated as if we have made no progress at all.

Toni Daniels was spoken to as if she counted for nothing in the world ... as if she were just a sexual object available to men for a few cents.

There were many more witnesses to the incident than appeared in court, but none of them tried to intervene and most of them seemed to feel that what happened was merely amusing.

Minor political incident? No, the politics of it were incidental. At its heart, this was a disgusting, reprehensible encounter between a man and a woman, one that should make responsible Bermudians cringe with shame; an incident that should make parents want to take their children aside to explain why they should never behave in that way.

I, for one, will not put up with this kind of behaviour. I don’t think any enlightened person in Bermuda, man or woman, should be prepared to put up with it, either.

I am going to speak up when it happens, and I hope others will as well. We must make it clear that — forget about politics — it is simply not acceptable behaviour for anyone in this place, in this day and age.

The second question is very much like the first. We watch and laugh at pictures on television of parliamentarians in some countries having fistfights on the floor of their assemblies. But how far away from that are we? If you sit in the House of Assembly and listen to the debate, sometimes you have to wonder who will be the first Bermudian MP to try to make his point by throwing a punch on the floor of the House.

Let me be clear: I don’t really think that’s going to happen. I have faith in the good sense of Bermudians. But we have reached the stage at which we must acknowledge that it is a possibility, and we have to talk about that. Unless we wake up and change our attitudes, that’s where we’re heading.

I understand that because of the nature of political life, politicians should be prepared to tolerate criticism that is harsher than private citizens would expect to have to endure. But it seems to me that some politicians have taken that as licence to do or say almost anything, no matter how offensive or hurtful and, often, no matter how little truth there is in what they say.

The damage being done is not so much to thick-skinned politicians, who can take the blows. The real damage is to the country, and to our people. In the world, it makes us look as if we have only recently come to democracy and don’t yet understand democracy’s great lesson: that disagreement need not result in violence, either physical or verbal.

Intolerant, insulting, profane and bad political language and conduct make ordinary citizens wonder if they, too, should behave like politicians to get on in life.

It makes our children think that there’s nothing wrong with emulating that kind of behaviour — after all, politicians are the leaders they should follow, are they not? Maybe not so much any more.

Bermuda, we have to sort this out. We are much better than this.

• Senator Lynne Woolridge is the chairwoman of the One Bermuda Alliance