Honour is respectable

Vanuatu’s first prime minister Walter Lini famously said, ‘respect is honourable.’ The phrase is often quoted today by people from all walks of life as a means of recalling the best aspects of Vanuatu society: its use of deference and respect as an integral part of community peace-making. Modern influences have transformed kastom in many ways, but respect is still held tightly to the national breast.

We might do well, though, to turn the phrase around.

It must be said that traditional life in Vanuatu is indeed happy… for those men who survive their first five years in comparatively good health. And some women may be content living within the confines of their village roles. But like it or not, that life is no longer available to a growing number of people.

If we include people living in peri-urban areas around Port Vila and Santo, census figures show nearly a 10% change in the urban/rural population ratio between 1999 and the last complete census in 2009. Much of this change is composed of the so-called youth bulge – a growing number of young adults with limited opportunities both in the modern economy and in traditional life.

These are not the only source of discontent. Household dynamics are increasingly complex. Domestic relationships, both formal and informal, are more fluid –and generally more violent– than they were. This is largely a result of the clash between the de facto status of women as chattels, and women’s increased economic independence, and thence mobility, in the modern economy.

Men and women both are no longer subject to the social and geographical confines of village life. Mobility and distance undermine traditions that have sustained Melanesian societies since time immemorial. The coercive or corrective power of community scrutiny recedes once it becomes possible to evade the villagers’ gaze. The village’s role as collective conscience has been eroded and, to date, nothing has arisen to take its place.

At all levels of society, the dwindling power of social pressure leads to behaviour that once might have been unconscionable. Legal and regulatory checks go unheeded and national institutions teeter on the edge of dissolution.

But kastom is a resilient term. It has survived thousands of years of challenge and changing circumstance; it has managed to remain a viable idea throughout even the last two centuries of transformation. There is no reason to believe it won’t survive the changing economic and social conditions of the present day.

An appeal to tradition is an argument for conservatism, for restraint and for mitigating the effects of change. This may lead the more progressive-minded members of the development community to reject kastom in favour of utilitarian liberalism. But just as a banyan’s strength comes from a multitude of roots and branches, counterbalanced and pulling in a variety of directions, we would do well to allow the pull of kastom even as we move ahead.

In a keynote speech last week at the State of the Pacific conference in Canberra, director of the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement Virisila Buadromo candidly discussed how she had been characterised as self-centred and ‘bossy’. She might justifiably have rejected the labels, or even worn them as a badge of pride. Instead, she used the accusations as an opportunity for frank and honest introspection. The result, she said, was a richer, more nuanced understanding of how to function as an agent of change in a society that spends much of its time looking backward.

It is far too easy to indulge only in token inclusiveness when we address both conservative and liberal responses to the drastic changes currently besetting Melanesian societies. As the power of the chiefs erodes, it is still widely, often implicitly, assumed that the frame of kastom cannot be altered to incorporate other models of chieftainship, other means of allocating respect.

Much of the social disruption that has happened, from the household level on up, springs in one way or another from the tension between arbitrary adherence to the old and the equally arbitrary imposition of the new.

We would do well to follow Ms Buadromo’s example and to pursue a reflective, more inclusive path to understanding. Above all, we must not be complicit in allowing Melanesian societies to descend into a dialectical maelstrom pitting ‘development’ against kastom, making each the enemy of the other.

Part of doing so involves finding ways to buttress the restraining forces of social approval & opprobrium which play such an integral role in governing behaviour in the village. As external restraints erode, we need to find new ways, new motivations, to guide our actions, and to curb our worst inclinations.

An Ambae chief once said that respect and shame form the heart of kastom. Reflexive, institutionalised respect for those with social status equips them with the moral weight to protect not just themselves, but others under their care. The ability to instil shame in others is therefore an important tool in ensuring a peaceful society. But as respect diminishes with distance and a shifting balance of power, so too does its ability impose shame or remorse. As collective conscience diminishes in force, individual conscience must fill the void.

Monetisation of traditional land without meaningful and enduring moral and ethical constraints is a tragedy for all concerned. Innovation and change without regard for tradition can uproot even the strongest cultures. And equally important, the other side of the coin: mobility and plenitude of choice too must have reasonable restraints placed upon them.

None of this is new. European societies roiled –and often bled– in the transition between inherited and earned authority, between collective and individual conscience. But framing the Melanesian experience in Western terms is not useful. An ethos is organic, not imposed.

Father Lini might have said it thus: ‘Honour is respectable.’

If we honour our contracts, be they social, legal or economic, we become worthy of respect. The respectable in the community can then acquire and appropriate the power to shame, applying it in familiar, useful ways while showing by example how to internalise the exercise of honour.

Likewise, a more reflective society is more able to innovate, moving more smoothly from acquisition of new ideas to acceptance to appropriation.

How to apply these principles to development and aid? The first step is easy: adjust development planning and implementation processes to incorporate –and invest in– respect for those who, like Virisila, bestride the cusp between change and tradition. Give them the means to gain respect in society by allowing them pride of place in their own work.

Second: allow more space for conservative voices in the transition between traditional and cash economies. It may seem counterintuitive to share power with your most vocal opponents, but social & political settlement, and the mutual accommodation that results, is the least worst available means of building and leveraging respect for the process itself.

And most difficult of all: Quit pretending that the imposition of Western-inspired legislative, regulatory and contractual obligations will suffice to curb the worst excesses of societies with fundamentally different moral and ethical levers.