To the manner born

Kingston, Ash Wednesday, looking like a Sunday

Jamaica is not somewhere to stop pondering how life can be made better. Lent begins today, and it is a season of reflection in the Christian calendar. It began as a quiet day–a holiday here–and I want to keep it that way.

However, my mind remains active. So, I think I will put down some place holders for topics to pursue during coming days.

Many observers and commentators about Jamaica’s social problems have focused on the breakdown of certain types of social behaviour: The country has “gone to the dogs”. No one has any respect, anymore; it’s all about the individual not about the group, etc. Let’s simplify that by saying that people believe manners are worse now that at some time in the recent past (living memory being the line drawn, and that can be extended with the help of memories of grandparents or pictorial artefacts. However, it’s not easy to extract from how the world has changed and how Jamaican attitudes and behaviours have changed within that context. I’ve heard similar comments wherever I’ve lived.

Windrush passengers
1950s-60s men’s wear had a more formal look

Without undertaking a deep sociological study, I’ll take as a break point for Jamaica, 1962, the year of Independence, when the country could be said to be ‘on its own road’. Many older people in any society talk about the ‘good old days’, and for many Jamaicans that means when the British were in charge. (I sometimes wonder if in the 1860s people harked back to the days before the abolition of slavery, but let me not go down that slippery path.) For Jamaicans, it was during the preceding years that a mass exodus had begun to the ‘mother land’, seeking better fortunes.

During the 1950s/early 1960s, dress styles were more formal when people were ‘going out’ or ‘on show’: for men, jackets, pleated serge trousers, fancy shoes, hats, ties; for women, dresses that went below the knee, high-heeled shoes, hats, gloves. Nowadays, it is hard to distinguish between formal and informal wear: jeans and tee-shirts/polo shirts, with sneakers/sports shoes may be de rigeur for men, but trappings of formality (like bow ties and waistcoats) get merged casually; for women, hemlines have risen a lot, tight short pants can be the wear of choice, with low-cut blouses or other ‘revealing’ styles.

Modern mens wear is more casual for almost all occasions
Modern men’s wear is more casual for almost all occasions

I cite these as indicative of what people may see as suggestive that attitudes have changed.

However, a friend reminded me, that in the 1960s the view held by some then too was that things were not formal enough.

But, Jamaica has moved like most places of the world. Modern behaviour has left behind much formality. New forms of communication also mean that ideas spread almost instantaneously, and copying or borrowing from other cultures is now almost impossible to stop.

Likewise, we have issues when it comes to how young people function in society. If we simplify and say that in the 1950s/60s, the principle was that children should be seen and not heard. Nowadays, many believe that children have too much say in the lives of households, maybe ‘ruling’ their parents in some sense. My parents always encouraged me to speak up for myself and not to be afraid to challenge someone just because they were older or bigger. Maybe, my parents were abnormal. However, we know that society has many variations around the average.

The truth is that society is always out of kilter with itself, often seeing the past as some kind of Halcyon days. My friend, who just came to pick up her daughter after an impromptu sleepover, also reminded me of the wisdom shared by one of the world’s foremost philosophers, Socrates (circa 5th century BC): “Children nowadays are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannise their teachers.”

The world turns and turns and yet may not change that much. Nearly 3000 years and we’ve moved so far.