This week’s response by the nation’s leader to the racist diatribe of Water and Sewerage board member Bennett Minnis sets a troubling precedent for the tolerance of hate speech in The Bahamas.
When questioned by reporters on Bennett Minnis’ viral utterances doubled down by him in a national daily, the prime minister said he saw no need to address the matter, citing his belief that the matter had been “dealt with” by many members of his party.
Statutory board posts are not FNM or PLP party offices; they are government-appointed posts financed by all Bahamians to do the business of all Bahamians.
Whether or not FNM party officers spoke to the board member in private, his utterances and his post are both public, and governance in the public interest demands that the matter be addressed publicly with the consequence for denigrating one’s office meted out in the sunshine — not sheltered in the bunker of Cabinet secrecy or concealed in closed-door political party meetings.
Hate speech is generally regarded as statements that attack or disparage an individual or group on the basis of attributes such as race, gender, sexual identity, ethnicity or religion. It is a form of violence that threatens cohesion in a democracy.
When a public official degrades and reviles Bahamians on the basis of their skin tone, demeans individuals for their sexual orientation and suggests that confrontational action against another individual or group is warranted based on political affiliation with no action taken by government, it sends a message that hatred and aggression on the basis of race, sexual identity or politics is acceptable in The Bahamas.
When a public official openly states an intention to engage in disorderly conduct (obstructing a public roadway), goes further to challenge the authority of law enforcement in that regard and the government takes no action, it sends a message that lawlessness is acceptable so long as the right political connections are in play or the targets are political opponents.
That Bennett Minnis was not relieved of his post even after unapologetically repeating his offensive comments to the press, and that the prime minister did not seek to repudiate or distance himself and his administration from this hate speech is a disservice to all Bahamians and represents a stark departure from the standard of leadership the country associates with an FNM administration.
Moreover, it sends a signal that the current administration is reluctant to vigorously defend the right of all Bahamians — including that of opposition legislators and supporters — to live in a society where malice and rancor on the basis of one’s individuality or politics is not seen to be cloaked or supported by the government of the day.
The Bahamas, not unlike many nations, has a complicated history with race, colorism and politics that remains a source of hurt, consternation and resentment for many. The divisions created by these constructs continue to imbrue the fabric of our nation.
Cognizant of these realities, a government desirous of advancing The Bahamas ought to push citizens toward their higher selves, inspiring each individual to rise above division and to respect one another’s humanity.
Each time we sing our national anthem, we herald “see how the world marks the manner of our bearing”. A nation is first and foremost its people. It is how we the people treat one another and allow one another to be treated that signals to the world the true manner of our bearing.
It is regrettable that in this circumstance, the prime minister and his administration failed to do the right thing.