Front Porch | Sociology, plastic bags, throw me out
The brouhaha over the single-use plastics ban and the corresponding government-mandated fees for plastic bags has been alternatingly comical and frustrating, at times inducing laughter and at other times staccato sighing.
Lecturers in various courses at the University of The Bahamas (UB) may consider using the ban episode as a sociological tool to interrogate and investigate certain Bahamas mores and attitudes.
Put aside the mindlessly reflexive and knee-jerk responses from the reliably unimpressive leader of the opposition Philip Brave Davis, who criticized the fee, though he previously voted for the ban.
As reported in this journal under the headline “PLP reverses course on plastics ban”, in typical pandering mode, the party, which voted in favor of the Environmental Protection (Control of Plastic Pollution) Bill, 2019, now says it does not support what it fairly recently voted for: “We were for it before we were against it.” Really?!
This is a mixture of Comedy Central and pandering on an entirely new level. But if a policy or legislation by the current government is popular, Davis and his party will likely rush to take credit. See for easy reference: the decriminalization of marijuana and expungement of records.
If the government decided to give every Bahamian $1 million, Davis would likely say that the idea was already in his mind, that the PLP had a plan and that the government should really give every Bahamian $2 million.
Public spaces like grocery stores and service stations; and public venues like Boxing Day and New Year’s Junkanoo and sporting events and bazaars, are ideal places for sociological observation, including the social psychology of various groups.
In the parking lot of a popular grocery store, a mature woman with the bearing of a body builder eased herself back into her vehicle, illegally and selfishly parked in a handicapped reserved parking space.
She complained loudly about the plastic bag fee designed to help eliminate the use of such bags as she placed her groceries in her car.
The fee and the reserved spot both offended her indolence and self-absorbed annoyance at public policies designed respectively to assist the physically impaired and to reduce pollution.
How dare anyone impose on her supposed right to do as she damn well pleased, including in a public space? She seemingly would prefer a country in which such progressive norms did not exist.
While most Bahamians seem willing to comply with the ban and to make adjustments, there are those who are apoplectic and frothing at the supposedly grave injustice of being asked to change a behavior and to pay a slight fee for a plastic bag.
One of these included another lady at a grocery store who, while sporting an expensive Michael Kors handbag, which must have cost at minimum in her case over $200, exclaimed, “I’m not giving anyone 25 cents for no bag!” Irony is clearly not her strongest suit.
Of course, the annoyance, and at times anger, is not about the small fee.
It is about a certain mindset.
Had someone given her a free tote bag for her groceries she would have beamed. It should be noted that, over the last year, thousands of bags have been distributed free of charge.
A part of the comedy included a wealthy grocery storeowner, better known for curmudgeonly off-color remarks and not for his outsized generosity, who is stuck with scores of plastic bags, complaining about the fee. Few have sympathy for his predicament.
The ban brouhaha is reminiscent of, though different from, the furious fuss by some when the seatbelt laws were instituted by the Christie administration and shepherded to her credit by then-Minister of Transport Glenys Hanna-Martin.
The social psychology of individuals and groups change depending on the setting.
We tend to behave as we perceive others are behaving or would want us to behave.
The very same people who might complain bitterly about various laws here at home will happily comply with and behave in the same manner as an American in a grocery store in the United States.
They will not park in a handicapped spot or throw garbage out the window of a moving vehicle in the U.S. But once back in The Bahamas, the behavior quickly reverts.
We are an indolent society, easily becoming angry if our slack, rude and uncivil behavior is called into question.
Quite a number of people regularly park in a manner inconvenient to others, with the self-centered explanation, “I’ll be right back.”
The message: my needs, no matter how boorish my behavior, are more important than your needs or rights.
Even if the person poorly parked is asked to move the vehicle for the convenience of others, there is very often an angry or defensive response and a failure to comply.
Two other sociological traits the ban exposed are our “throw me out” society and dependency culture, particularly dependency on government.
If you give me free bags everything is okay, but do not expect me to get my own bags. The government should give me all the bags I need.
A friend recalls working at an upscale resort. On the rounds in housekeeping, he observed a co-worker going into a room and taking an item from the mini bar. The co-worker asked if he wanted something from the bar, which he declined.
The explanation for purloining the item from the mini bar: “Daddy wants us to have this.” When asked who Daddy was, the reply was simple and clear: “The white owner of the hotel.”
Hotel management and owners often report that the security issue they deal with most in The Bahamas is employee theft. Many Bahamians see nothing wrong with such theft because, in their minds, there is plenty to go around and the owners can afford it.
Similar to a number of other cultures, many Bahamians view business owners and the government as sugar daddies or sugar mommies who are supposed to take care of us or throw us out something.
A friend who runs a successful retail business recalls one of her foreign suppliers who regularly complained that he was constantly being asked for money, favors, breakfast and various goods from the employees of the businesses he supplied.
He found the practice of constantly being asked for something rampant in The Bahamas. Arguably, most Bahamians view government as the ultimate sugar daddy. The “throw me out” culture is endemic.
Another friend recalls taking a pan of cooked chicken to a fellowship event at a church populated mostly by middle class families. She noticed that during the course of the evening, the chicken never made its way outside of the kitchen. Someone, or a small group, took the food home for themselves.
This sort of story is often repeated. Food items intended for others are often taken by those who can afford to buy the food but who often enviously decide that they want something for nothing.
Our dependency culture became entrenched by former Prime Minister Sir Lynden Pindling and his court.
Bahamians were often told by the dons and dames of the court: “We gave you your freedom and independence. We gave you education and jobs. Now, no matter what else we do, you owe us your votes.”
This dependency syndrome in the political realm is still highly operative and effective in The Bahamas. We live in a highly transactional society in which money, sex, political support, jobs and other items are constantly traded.
Of course, this is not solely a Bahamian phenomenon. But it has its particular Bahamian characteristics and became even more severe during the notorious drugs era when just about everything was for sale.
The notions of the common good, of personal responsibility and other such values preached by members of the clergy and promoted in the political sphere, are exemplary ideals practiced by some.
But as often, these are ideals which have little genuine currency in a social culture, especially in the urban center of New Providence, characterized by an entrenched self-absorption, toleration for indolence and disregard for personal responsibility.
The social psychology of a society concerns how people tend to publicly behave and act in accord with what is tolerated or expected by others. Because most Bahamians do not smoke cigarettes, we frown on smoking in public.
Yet, we openly tolerate a range of negative and often crass behavior in public because we have largely accepted such behavior as normative and okay.
In doing so, we are creating norms or new behavior that may further add to social decline and a poorer, cruder and more uncivil public culture.