COLUMN – Watch your words, PM
It was my late Latin teacher at Foundation, the immortal Colin Couchie Reid, who first planted on the fertile ground of my then young and developing mind, an awareness and appreciation of the priceless value of good, effective communication.
Put another way, how to say the right thing at the right time to achieve the right results.
It so happened in class one afternoon that a youngster uttered something which did not find favour with the affable “magister” (Latin for teacher). Couchie, being a quintessential perfectionist when it came to the use of language, naturally frowned. He considered the utterance to be “crude”, an adjective he used to express revulsion, and certainly inappropriate for a Foundation boy who happened to be one of his pupils.
The encounter brought a response which went something like this: “Young lad, communication goes much deeper than the mere utterance of words. It is an art. It requires careful thought and skill. It is about winning hearts and minds, whether it is gaining the affection of a beautiful damsel or convincing the old boy to let you party and stay out late on Saturday night.”
The profoundness of this piece of advice captured my imagination. Couchie, to whom the boys of the famous 5S1 class of 1977 are eternally grateful, challenged me, for the first time, to look at communication from a fundamentally different perspective. Offering a lesson applicable to every aspect of life, the episode emphasized that words, carefully chosen and communicated, really hold the key to a person’s success which always requires the support and cooperation of others.
Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, who entered Boys’ Foundation a decade before I did, would have also come under Couchie’s influence as a keen student of Latin. Having earned from his contemporaries the acclaimed title of “Latin god” for excelling in the subject, an honour which too was bestowed on yours truly, Stuart has always displayed a flair for language both in his writing and speaking.
Reading the Bible, which he quotes from time to time, would also have exposed him to wise instruction about communication. For example, Proverbs 25:11 which states: “The right word at the right time is like precious gold set in silver”; Ecclesiastes 10: 12, which states: “If you talk sensibly, you will have friends; if you talk foolishly, you will destroy yourself.” And Sirach 20:18, found
in the Apocrypha, which states: “A slip of the tongue is worse than a slip on the pavement.”
Silence has been a defining characteristic of Stuart’s premiership. However, when he does open his lips to speak, it seems that the words which emanate somehow have the effect of rubbing Barbadians up the wrong way. The latest example involves his comments about “injecting”, which he made last weekend at a news conference at the end of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) heads of government summit over which he presided as the new CARICOM chairman.
Asked about the planned industrial action by the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW), which has since gone into effect, and whether he thought he should intervene to broker a settlement in the dispute, Stuart replied: “…I don’t know there is any obligation on my shoulders or any brand of wisdom that should guide me to inject myself anywhere. That is not my approach to public administration and I want that to be made very clear.”
Not surprisingly, he was mercilessly savaged afterwards on social media by angry Barbadians who did not mince their words. Whether Stuart accepts it or not, Barbadians, as the employers of the political directorate hired every five years in our democracy, have every right to define their expectations of leaders. And one longstanding expectation is that whenever there is an issue which threatens the political and economic stability of the country, the Prime Minister should intervene, if it becomes necessary, and provide a solution.
The “injecting” comments were the latest in a series, ranging from remarks about the Government’s “sore nipples”; the lecture on the meaning of the word “temporary” in relation to Government workers who were laid off; remarks, in the 1990s “like it or lump it” mould, in relation to Customs officers protesting their proposed absorption into the Barbados Revenue Authority; to the “making noises” comment about trade unions agitating on behalf of members in current industrial disputes with the Government.
Besides, whenever he addresses the political base of the ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP), especially in defense of draconian decisions taken by his administration that have inflicted hardship on the people, Stuart on more than occasion has made comments to the effect that the Government has nothing to apologize for. No wonder a lot of Barbadians say he comes across as “insulting”, “insensitive”, “condescending” and “uncaring”, among other adjectives.
At the root of the problem is Stuart’s style of communication. At this time of national crisis, Barbadians are looking for a leadership narrative which offers hope, compassion, encouragement, and inspiration; words which make them feel like the author of the much-loved Psalm 23, who proclaims with confidence: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me”.
In politics, good and effective communication is not so much about what is said but rather how it is said. Being well-read and with a grounding in the classics, history and Scripture, Stuart obviously has such an awareness. The question therefore arises: Why has there been such a dramatic deviation? Could it be that the weight of political office is proving a bit too heavy in the current national circumstances?
Barbadians, known for their fairness, were willing to give Stuart a chance and work with him in the national interest. However, his communication style has succeeded more in alienating them than winning their support and cooperation which are crucial if the Government is to achieve its political, economic and other objectives.
If the mood on the street is a good barometer of national public opinion, Barbadians have pretty much crossed the rubicon where Stuart and the faltering DLP administration are concerned. They will remain silent, grin and bear, and patiently wait until the next general election when their votes will speak loudly.
In some ways, the mood today is reminiscent of the pre-1986 general election period when Barbadians had had enough of the then ruling Barbados Labour Party (BLP).
The people were ominously silent but, come Election Day, they spoke loudly with their votes. When the dust had settled, the BLP was almost annihilated. Just three men were left standing after the avalanche that swept the great Errol Barrow back to office. The Dems may not be so fortunate when the next general election comes around. A watershed in our politics seems to be in the making.
Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist.