Friday, June 3, 2016

Shooting the Gorilla in the Room

Like most Trinbagonians, I appreciate the beauty and majesty of wild animals. Especially if they are curried. That’s why I, like  many this week, was disheartened at the way Cincinnati Zoo officials shot to death Harambe the gorilla when a young boy fell into his enclosure. No doubt zoo officials had a tough ethical decision to make. Either kill Harambe to save the child or watch as Harambe administered some good old fashioned corporal punishment. 

Most Trinis would argue that, had the boy been left to get pulverized by the 450 pound gorilla he would have learned the lesson of not wandering off at the zoo again. Americans though, love to spoil their children.

 However, I suspect that most Trinis took Harambe’s side, because when confronted with difficult ethical issues, we treat them like the proverbial 800 pound gorilla in the room. Take for example, Chief Justice Ivor Archie’s public plea last year for debate on the death penalty. As Trinis know, crime is a result of people not placing God at the centre of their lives. That’s why it’s important to teach convicted criminals about God’s message of tolerance, love and compassion. And then hang them high so they get to meet him.

Justice Archie has cited the death penalty’s failure to deter crime, high cost, and, with currently over 500 potential executions on the cards; its logic as a mandatory sentence for murder. Is it ethical for the state to execute over 500 people? Given the fact that countries with lower crime rates don’t use the death penalty, is there a better way to administer justice?  What right does the state have to execute someone in the first place? This is a debate Justice Archie suggests we desperately need to have. Naturally, we’ve been busy ignoring it, and instead arguing the cases of Crime Watch vs Beyond the Tape, Digicel Play vs Flow, and Messi vs Ronaldo.

Even when Trinis do acknowledge the 800 pound gorilla in the room, we confront him half-heartedly. Such as in the current controversy surrounding the Marriage Act. Most Trinis have just realized that our marriage laws make allowances for girls as young as 12 to be married to older men. It’s been legal for decades, but someone posted it on Facebook, so Trinis finally noticed. The ongoing firestorm has mostly centred on the Inter-religious Organisation’s (IRO) view that the laws are fine and not be changed versus those who feel that the IRO needs to be on an episode of NBC’s ‘To Catch a Predator’.

Yet, there has been little discussion on the larger issue of the right religious groups claim to influence public policy. As the late Christopher Hitchens once said, “the most ancient question is still Quo warranto”, Latin for “By what right?” However as Sat Maharaj once said, “Mind your own damn business”. Which happens to be the oldest Trini response to any questions put to religious groups.

If you’re not a pedophile, child marriage is an easy issue to oppose. But what about the religious objection to gay marriage or the rights of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community? Or denying women the right to a safe abortion? Should religious schools be excused from failing to teach sexual education? Or refusing, as Catholic schools did in 2013, to administer the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) Vaccine Gardasil to students. Theoretical Physicist Lawrence Krauss and Evolutionary Biologist Richard Dawkins have both suggested that teaching children to disregard the theory of evolution in favour of Creationism is tantamount to child abuse.

If we believe that it’s right to protect children from the dangers of irrational religious belief with regards to child marriage, then shouldn’t we also protect them from people peddling ideas that contraception is mass murder, that women are property to be covered up or that humans used to have pet dinosaurs?

Our dysfunctional criminal justice system and the power and influence of religious groups in our society are just two of the many 800 pound gorillas Trinis are living with.  Sooner or later we will have to confront them and wrestle with the ethical questions they raise. The alternative is of course to do nothing, and simply let nature take its course.

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