By Kieron Murdoch
“Conceited self-righteous sophomaniacs” is how Prime Minister Gaston Browne described Sunday’s guests for The Big Issues, one of whom is a stalwart of the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP), and all of whom were critical of his recent “pretty young ladies” comment on Facebook.
The “sophomaniacs” who joined the panel on Sunday were Dr Oswald Thomas, political analysist and long-time member of the ABLP; Carlon Knight, commentator and student; and Dr Kristina Hinds, Senior Lecturer in Political Science and International Relations at The University of the West Indies (UWI) Cavehill. The host was Kieron Murdoch. You can listen to the episode here.
They discussed a Facebook comment Browne made likely between Friday, April 9, and Saturday, April 10, which some have since called inappropriate, in bad taste, and even sexist, but which the Prime Minister has said he only intended to be humorous.
“Me done tell Comrade Ralph to send all the young pretty ladies. We need to expand our population.” the Prime Minister wrote in response to a female constituent who posted, “Bring all old woman that soon reach 100… and bring all young strong back man between the ages of 20 and 30… [You] can bring 1 or 2 sugar daddies too”.
They were referencing the possibility of evacuees from St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) coming to shelter in Antigua and Barbuda, fleeing the wrath of the La Soufrière volcano eruption on Friday, April 9, which has wreaked havoc across that country.
Dr Hinds was the strongest in her reaction, saying it was “highly inappropriate, insensitive and sexist” and disappointing coming from a Caribbean leader. She added that when the Prime Minister defended the statement against critics in the opposition telling them to “get a life”, it was “just as bad”.
“It’s a crisis. Women are very vulnerable in natural disasters…and to make this sort of joke is inappropriate,” the senior politics lecturer said. As she spoke, the Prime Minister was again on Facebook lashing out, accusing persons of pursuing “a narrative of moral superiority…in support of their insatiable appetite for attention”.
The second guest, Knight, said the Prime Minister’s comment on Vincentian women was “ill-timed and quite crass”, especially in the context of a disaster, where affected women and girls are at a frighteningly greater risk of sexual abuse, having lost the security of their homes.
Knight said that Browne’s use of the phrase “expand the population” even if uttered jokingly, could easily be interpreted as a sexual innuendo, and that “the last thing people are thinking about is finding a man” in such a crisis situation.
“If you and I have to be responsible about our social media use because what we say is monitored and it could be harmful to our career, then I can’t imagine that anybody who holds the highest office in the land should not also exercise the same level, if not more diligence, in so far as how they utilise social media,” the graduate student added.
The Prime Minister seemed to take particular objection to Knight’s commentary, and yesterday, singled him out on Facebook by name, accusing the Antiguan student of “posing as an expert in sexual psychology” and “conceitedly…presenting himself as a psychic” who could “interpret my thoughts and the meaning of my words”.
“Just imagine, this self-righteous sophomaniac, felt emboldened enough to publicly accuse me of sexism,” Browne said. Knight later noted that he did not call Browne sexist, but only said that the original comment could well be interpreted as an innuendo.
Finally, the third guest Dr Thomas, offered some defense of the Prime Minister, saying that more consideration should be given to the fact that Browne “meant no offense” by his original comment “nor [sought] to objectify women”, but noted that “it’s a lesson for the Prime Minister to learn” that he cannot separate himself from his office, and should act accordingly.
The ABLP stalwart said, “there is no difference with you speaking in your own persona – because you have none – as well as you speaking as a public official”. The same sentiments were echoed by Knight. Dr Thomas also said the Prime Minister “certainly is not above” apologising – a call made by both Knight and Dr Hinds.
Dr Hinds said, “I think the prime minister should apologise but…there’s been no recognition [from him] that anything was wrong. His comments in response indicated that people such as me who have an issue with it, need to get a life and lighten up”.
Knight remarked, “If only for quelling debate and making the issue go away so to speak, then I think you should apologize. Sometimes the diplomatic route is to say…’to the extent that my comments have caused offense, I apologise.’ It takes nothing off of you to say sorry”.
In what appears to be a direct response to the calls for an apology, Browne posted on to Facebook on Sunday afternoon, “These self-righteous sophomaniacs conceitedly accused me of sexism. Here is my apology: (eight laughing emojis).”
Both Knight and Dr Hinds also discussed the broader issue of the nature of political commentary in the Caribbean. They noted that it often is an attempt to entertain or to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, but often by slander, innuendo, rumour and gossip.
“People go to political meetings to hear…who’s gonna talk whose name,” Dr Hinds lamented. She asserted that Caribbean politicians “need to start illustrating that [higher] level of political maturity” as opposed to “playing to the crowd all the time”.
Knight, too, lamented that “rather than seeking to reform the culture so that it gets better”, politicians “allow people to remain in the same condition and pander”.
The reaction to the Prime Minister’s original comment has been far and wide, as the stories out of Antigua and Barbuda have been carried in the regional press in outlets such as the Jamaica Gleaner and the Trinidad Newsday.
Browne’s first reaction was to the condemnation by the opposition United progressive Party (UPP) which came on Sunday, April 11, swiftly after his original comment. Since then, he’s held his stance that his original comment was made with “levity” and without profanity and could not seriously be considered offensive, insisting that critics should “get a life”.