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The principle of speaking up should never be abandoned

The year 1975 for me was a re-entry point from pure social activism to include politics. I remember shortly thereafter going to a political meeting at the old Masonic Lodge on Khyber Pass where MP Lois Browne-Evans was speaking in a political campaign for an upcoming election. I recall a young female university student standing after her speech, asking what to me was a reasonable question, seeking an answer to why she should vote for any party. She wasn't being negative; just seeking an answer affirming a rational basis for party support.

I remember the eyes of a supporter whose head snapped around to hear this young lady's questions. If eyes could tear someone apart, the look in his would sure have done the job. He looked at her as if to say or, better, to retort: “you have a question” — as if questioning a politician was a mortal sin worthy of punishment, especially after hearing a speech. Needless to say, I left that meeting truly disappointed, feeling sorry for the young lady and, frankly, anyone who had a question. I remember saying: “Can't we just ask a question.”

That same week I went to City Hall and there was another political meeting; this time it was Jim Woolridge who was the speaker at a United Bermuda Party campaign rally. He gave a story of a being introduced to a black female parishioner by his white outgoing colleague. I remember him saying that the former MP told this lady: “Don't worry miss, he is a good man” — and her looking at Jim rather suspiciously. The story goes that he helped her to get a loan for her student child, who was attending university, and recalls the day of the election when she jokingly said “when you go behind the booth, no one knows what you do”. Then Mr Woolridge said to the audience, which was 90 per cent white: “You see, there are plenty of good folks like Ms ...”. Again, I left a political meeting very sad and disappointed.

Here I was with a choice: either follow a party that celebrated a black woman who had to be told that the black MP was OK by an outgoing white MP, and that black MP is going to say to the audience, don't worry there are plenty of “good people like her”, or join a party where a university student asks a basic question and gets ratted and humiliated for having done so.

So, you ask, what did I do? I took the latter of two evils and joined the group that humiliated the questioner.

The episode has long passed and the question may be: what's the relevance today? The seemingly only difference is the racial element has died down where I don't expect anyone looking at each other for the approval to accept one's own, but unfortunately the issue of questioning authority is still taboo. The big “but” is that it is no longer associated with just the Progressive Labour Party; it's across the board. I take a recent article I wrote about the 35th America's Cup, which the Editor rightly headlined “Room for improvement in selling AC35”.

It was meant to be healthy dose of criticism to do better next time around.

Today, any talk, even of reform to make things better, will be greeted by hostile supporters whose postures could kill for daring to suggest or pass on a helpful critique. It doesn't seem to matter what the issue is: whether it's the airport, a sailboat race, or any matter, every knee must bow and every tongue must confess support or be deemed as the enemy.

The principle of speaking up and offering a point of view is too essential to any democracy and should never be abandoned out of fear of reprisal or loss of favour. One of my social-media friends calls me an equal-opportunity critic and firmly advises that I choose an ally. Unfortunately, I am not cut from that kind of cloth; I would just find it hard to live inside my own skin if I were to pat one side on the back hoping to gain favour, while I drive the knife into the other

I guess we have figured through experience that no party is perfect and they can each fail. It does come down to what effect they have on you personally. How do they affect your gut? How do they affect your worldview? At the end of the day, they are the questions.

What's best for the country may sound like a good rhetorical question, but very few, if any, actually vote that way, and as time moves on, the answer becomes more and more personal and there is concern over whether a government truly understands you.

Bearing the raft of political scorn of one kind or another is part of normal stress, but to bear the raft of both is another story. Nevertheless, truth will ultimately triumph and is the only thing eternal worth standing for.

Dame Lois Browne-Evans

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Published May 31, 2017 at 9:00 am (Updated May 31, 2017 at 12:46 am)

The principle of speaking up should never be abandoned

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