Go BackClose WindowHomett.humanist :: forum :: articles :: solomon :: philosophy

Stay Moral and Starve

Denis Solomon • 21 November 2001 • 1,235 words

To resort to crime under the stimulus of poverty may not be praiseworthy, or in the long run sensible, but it is at least understandable. That is, as long as you define crime as an act which demonstrably damages an individual or society.

But someone who perpetrates a "victimless crime" to feed his or her family (or for any other economic motive) is not reprehensible, but merely resourceful.

Which is the same as saying that "victimless crimes", for example, prostitution, fornication, adult pornography or homosexual relations between consulting adults, are a contradiction in terms and should be expunged from the statute books. In fact, in many enlightened countries they have been.

This country is not enlightened, and as well as keeping these "offences" on the books, we have several more which in addition to being oppressive are ridiculous: "obscene language", for example. I now learn that there is another, which goes by the name of "lewd and suggestive dancing".

Twenty-year-old Cyanne Victor pleaded guilty to "dancing in a lewd and suggestive manner in a public place" in the San Fernando Fourth Court on Monday, offering as an excuse that she had been abandoned by her husband and had become a nude lap-dancer in a nightclub to feed her children, aged two and three.

Ms Victor received a light penalty. But a victimless act so trivial that it draws a fine of $300 is almost by definition a waste of the time of all concerned. If the case had to come before the magistrate at all, he should have let her off with a warning. Instead, and this is what sticks in my craw, Magistrate Melvin Daniel treated her to a pompous sermon. "If you have strong morals," he told her, "poverty will not be a problem." He went on to ask her "When your children grow up and find out that their mother danced in a nightclub, how will you feel?"

What breathtaking, disgusting, self-righteous bloody arrogance! Whatever his religious beliefs, the recipient of a stipend from the State should have enough humility, if not intelligence, to refrain from preaching to a poor person that "morals" will make destitution bearable. And when that magistrate is a man, and the recipient of the sermon is a woman whom he has just deprived of $300 of the "immoral" earnings intended for the support of her fatherless children, one wonders who is the real criminal. Re-define crime as insensitivity and lack of compassion, and there is only one answer.

And as for Ms Victor's feelings when her children grow up, with magistrates like Mr Daniel around, she can congratulate herself if they grow up at all.

The combined effect of our colonial history, with its emphasis on "good behaviour" as desirable in itself (i.e. to keep the slaves and, later, the lower orders in their place) and the spread of fundamentalist religion have made that kind of incident a frequent occurrence in our courts. This applies not only to judges and magistrates, but also to juries. In cases of serious crime, it is at the root of the savage sentences routinely handed down, despite the complete lack of evidence of their preventative effect. In trivial cases, it results in waste of police and court time at best, and at worst in manifest injustice.

Some years ago a female magistrate sentenced a woman to two weeks in jail (during International Women's Year!) for making rude remarks about Prime Minister Eric Williams during a backyard argument. The magistrate treated the woman to a discourse to the effect that as a Vincentian she had not only abused the country's hospitality by her behaviour but insulted the Prime Minister to boot. (I always thought the law was supposed to treat citizen and foreigner alike.)

More recently, a magistrate put a man in jail for refusing to stand still at Panorama while the National Anthem was being played. In 1999 a judge told a man who had just been found guilty to spend the weekend praying for a light sentence, while he, the judge, prayed for guidance in the sentencing. (I always thought that sentencing policy was determined by the severity of the offence, the offender's record, and judicial guidelines, not by divine intervention.)

Last year Chief Magistrate Sherman McNicolls, sentencing a man for robbing his homosexual partner, did not confine his comments to the theft but felt moved to inform the man that sex between males was "immoral". He then changed the man's sentence from a fine to prison, ostensibly because he had not at first realised that the man had a record. This, however, inevitably aroused the suspicion that the jail was for the sex, not the theft. By Mr McNicolls' standards of morality heterosexual relations outside marriage are also immoral, but it is doubtful that he would have given the same lecture to a person guilty of robbing a partner of the opposite sex.

Many years ago there was a brothel in St Vincent Street called the Hotel de Paris. A young prostitute working there was threatened by two men who made demands on her she was not willing to satisfy, and she stabbed one of them to death. Instead of freeing her on grounds of self-defence, the jury of 12 upright citizens found her guilty of murder. Her case was taken up by a group of prominent women, among them Ms Diana Mahabir and Ms Helen Camps, with the result that on appeal she was freed. But she still had to spend many months in jail, with the hangman's noose over her head, when she should not even have been charged, or at least not with murder.

The most recent injustice perpetrated by a jury, and in my opinion not fully atoned for by the appeal court, was that of Indrani "Pamela" Ramjattan, who was sentenced to death for the murder of her abusive husband. Her husband had repeatedly beaten her over an eight-year period, and threatened to kill her. She tried to leave him and was dragged back. Finally, she got her lover and a male friend to give her husband a beating, but they went too far and killed him. All three were convicted and sentenced to death. Senator Diana Mahabir, Working Women and the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, in collaboration with a similar group in the UK, were able to get a distinguished British forensic specialist to examine her and certify that she was suffering from "battered wife syndrome". The Privy Council ordered the Appeal Court to re-hear the case. The Chief Justice reduced the charge to manslaughter, but instead of freeing her after her ten years in jail, he gave her five more. So in effect she served a life sentence; and the two men who helped her are still under sentence of death.

I had intended to end this piece by looking at the origins of morality, drawing on an interesting work by Matt Ridley called The Origins of Virtue, and referring to an 1998 Express article by Kevin Baldeosingh called "the Ethics of Morals". But I got carried away by indignation. So I will simply end by calling on the police and courts to employ their time better by forcing Ms Victor's husband to support his children, and prosecuting the guardians of the 14-year-old girl who was found lap-dancing in the same club.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top