- The Guardy and the ShameThe idea of shame is ingrained in Jamaican culture. The mark of HIV/AIDS and homophobia only complicates this cultural legacy.
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Jamaicans are primed to contend with all who speak ill of their country. As someone who grew up and lived in Jamaica until my midtwenties—although I now live in the US—I understand how the culture reacts to criticism. Anyone who visits Jamaica learns quickly that while it is fine for Jamaicans to lambast their country, to question its leaders, and to complain about all the things that might be wrong there, it is certainly not acceptable for a visitor or an outsider to do so. Perhaps that explains why a siege mentality has overtaken many Jamaicans. They are fiercely proud of their nation and their identity and intensely committed to a culture of individualism rooted in the resistance of even a hint of external control and pressure. Moreover, they are deeply sensitive to any effort to disrespect or shame them because of their history of having to resist systematic efforts to control its people.
The legacy of slavery and colonial control has also left its mark. The impact moves even beyond slavery, to the period after colonialism when the consuming impositions of the Cold War attempted to dismiss national identities and agendas to ensure lockstep adherence to the polarized view of the world that characterized that era. This was never a casual matter of gentle influence, but actually came with the teeth of political infiltration, violence, instability, and economic bullying. Jamaicans clearly did not like what this looked and felt like in the 1970s and the 1980s, given the manner in which the country calculated and switched sides on such matters. This is what Jamaicans call “national pride.” But what is talked about less is the psychological nature of this pride. It is, at least according to some commentators and psychologists in Jamaica, predicated on the idea of shame.
To explore homophobia and HIV/AIDS in Jamaica, I had to delve into the Jamaican idea of shame and its cultural origins. To do that, I interviewed a practicing psychologist and pastoral counselor, Andre H. C. Davis, who has years of experience dealing with the complex psychological impulses of Jamaicans. As a Christian and a longstanding member of the church, Davis has developed positions about Christianity and its influence on the Jamaican psyche. It was Davis who drew my attention to this concept of shame as a defining and critical element in any discussion of homophobia and HIV/AIDS in Jamaica. He was not merely talking about the victims of these two realities, but the broader ways in which Jamaicans contend with aggression and any form of coercion or attack. As Davis noted, “I see shame as being an emotion that shuts down people. How we deal with each other I think this is part of our legacy from slavery.” Shame has its roots in Jamaican self-preservation, but Davis thinks it goes even deeper:
We’re driving on a highway, something traumatic or something significant happens, either some kind of public demonstration of shame, whether the person is called a name, or whether the person is treated a certain way, and the red light comes on. When the red light comes on you are not supposed to move, you have to wait before the green light comes on, and a lot of times in the experience of our people the green light never comes on, so they are almost stuck in this place emotionally, and they are not able to move on.
For Davis, the red light is essentially the condition of tension, conflict, and the lack of resolution. In the face of abuse or attack, he sees that the long history of shaming has made Jamaicans especially prone to flare-ups that emerge as a way to deal with shame.
The effort to promulgate the idea that Jamaica is a homophobic country is viewed by Jamaicans as a way for outsiders to shame Jamaica and Jamaicans. When criticized for its cultural...