By LENNOX FARRELL
Even now, it is difficult to remember a time when humans, if they had reasons to, could blush. And the primary reason was, still is and hopefully will remain, self-explanatory: that is, humans blush when we have a sense of consequence for our actions. By comparison, machines don’t. Not yet. In the meantime, it appears that the reasons why we once could blush have been greatly diminished under the acute pressures, vast changes and unpredictable expectations of present life and living.
In the time of blushing, forgiveness and forgetting were more expected, if not easier. Also, there were no electronic systems by which even the most innocuous indiscretions could go viral, global and eternal. It is as difficult to imagine real life before the Internet and derivatives as tweeting and texting, as it is difficult to imagine life without them; twittering, up, up in our Facebook!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. And I might appear to be some kind of Luddite; someone casting sand and debris into machinery to prevent any possibility of making the present obsolete before it arrived.
One of the prime reasons why we blush(ed) was also our having a sense of shame. Shame is now, I know, anathema. I empathize. As students, we’d read novels like ‘The Scarlet Letter’ (acclaimed as the first American novel of note). Its portrayals had occurred in a time of patriarchy. Naturally, it was about a woman who had ‘sinned'; had been the temptress; had been thereby publicly vilified. Meanwhile, the man with whom she had been indiscreet is not questioned nor ‘shamed’.
The times of the past, those of my generation had its challenges. Among these was a rank injustice readily committed against women. Such novels, then, were narratives echoing real life under absolute abuse and double standards. Then, any woman rumoured as having men friends was a slu*; a Hester to be avoided. However, a man who had many, many women friends was a hero, a Don Juan.
I recall one fellow who’d become the toast of every rum shop in Port of Spain. This was because two women of his, living far apart: one in the country, one in the town, had given birth on the same day to his babies; within minutes of each other.
There were other challenges we and our parents faced. These included growing up in a Caribbean then divided into several European spheres of influence. Some were British, like British Guiana; others were French, like French Guiana; and others Dutch, like Dutch Guiana. There was even a Bajan Guiana. I was born in Trinidad; previously Spanish before being seized by Britain more on opportunistic whim than strategic Realpolitik.
In our time, we had also faced circumstances foisted on us by racism, classism etc. We had been denied such rights as that of voting. For example, my spouse and I are the first in our generation since slavery to attend university. Also, our children are likewise the first to be born having the automatic right to vote. They have not known what it is to have to agitate for such elemental rights. They have other challenges; not least, going forward, trying with their offspring, to remain irrevocably human.
To consider how we had eventually coped, many of us left home for foreign parts. For example, we exchanged a tropical salt-water Caribbean Sea for a frigid fresh-water Lake Ontario. Here, we are still trying to get our sea-legs, balancing between nostalgia for home, and expectations of being citizens in a land where even to White newcomers, we ever remain non-citizens.
I am not understating what Canada has come to mean to many of us. Generally speaking, here, in a White country, we were easier able to attend institutions of higher learning than we might have in our Black homelands. Of course things have changed here, and there. And not in small part from our successes abroad affecting, and bringing changes there; and even more, of those who remained, doing the heavy lifting of building nationhood, from dependent colony to independent republic.
But what might all this have to do with one’s capacity to blush? Are there negative aspects to this characteristic? Social? Biological? One author, Gary Ambrose, in ‘Blushing Free’, describes his griefs of blushing beet red, from earlobe to toehold; unable to go out on dates; embarrassed even to the point of not quitting his bathroom. Others even tried hypnosis, drugs, etc., to be rid of this ‘social disease.’
By comparison, blushing in our time was a socially-desired attribute. It spoke to character, to upbringing, to decorum. Thus, anyone caught innocently in the presence of immorality – usually of cuss-words, vulgar and foul language – but still able to valiantly preserve their integrity in pristine condition, was as greatly esteemed as were Biblical characters.
On the admirable point of decorum, a word that in current conditions is as abstruse as the Latin declensions of verbs, decorum went with one wherever one went. It was in one’s family name. It was a child meeting an adult, and saying ‘good morning’ first. Failing here would be considered uncouth, boorish; the word reaching home before the offender did … in times without cell-phones and texting.
Decorum was also expected in drawing clear lines between being a parent and being a child. Parents were parents, not ‘buddy buddies’. Children did not first-name their parents. Only in private and away from the hearing of adults, one might whisper imprecations under one’s breath. In addition, other adults, family or other, were addressed as ‘aunty or uncle’, etc.
Children, too, didn’t have a sense of entitlement, expecting parents to bear them beyond nine months. In fact, a good child was one who, from a sense of responsibility, would study hard, working towards when they could assist in relieving stresses, financial and otherwise, on parents. Thus, my mom opened my first pay envelope, my first bank account, insurance policy and purchased my ticket to Canada.
It is obvious that the world which I describe occurred at least 500 years ago. In that time, too, changes in technology have in turn mightily altered our lives, livelihoods, certainties and futures.
For sure, one thing we as youngsters then had, regardless of opportunity and circumstance, was hope in the future. We studied, proud to be educated, not merely certificated. We were taught to value honour; that is doing what is right even when no one else knows you are. We read. We had pages on which we could make notes. We prided ourselves in having libraries at home and encyclopaedias on bookshelves.
We knew the differences between gerunds and present participles, and the rules governing uses of the verb, ‘To Be’. And ‘fear’ was not the primary factor going forward into a future in which the time of humans is ending.
Once upon a time, we had created tools as extensions of our abilities. Inventions, for example, that of the wheel, enlarged the reach of our feet. Today, these tools, technologies; these cyborgs and robots are more than extensions. They have become our masters and we their extensions. Thus, we spend more time in cyberspace with them than in time with real humans. We worship before them, these gods of metal, plastics and tubing.
Finally, as they out-perform and master us, were they to attribute unto themselves the gift of blushing, it would mark their evolving into having a sense of compassion; ironically making the enslavement of our progeny more tolerable but also more vast.