Equality has become the mantra of the day: no one is willing to declare that it is not one’s goal or practice. We know, however, that our world in general, and Guyana in particular, is far away from this goal and we must ask ourselves, “Why?” The reasons are legion, but one is inherent in the protean nature of the word itself. For instance, almost everyone will agree with the statement, “we are all equally human”, but what does that mean? Isn’t it a tautology?
We are not equally tall, strong, intelligent or beautiful. So whither equality? Equality, from this perspective, has therefore to be contingent on the context or criteria wherein we speak. We can choose any area of endeavour or personal attribute and then discuss whether or not we are all equal.
For instance, the proposed Commission on Ethnic Relations or any other government-sponsored initiative promoting equality will be concerned with all the citizens of our country. Thus we are concerned with their equality as citizens of the State: equality in reference to all that the state offers its citizens. The state was founded to secure the rights of all citizens, so when discussing equality from a national perspective we should ask in which way are the citizens of a country equal. Here I think there would be broad agreement that if we are all citizens, we are all equal, or we should be equal in the possession of the rights guaranteed by the state. Ideally, it follows then that if particular citizens do not have rights or equal rights, then no citizen has rights. It also follows that if some citizens have rights, all citizens have rights.
From a group standpoint this equality of rights by each citizen, translates into a proportionate share of the power in a society. This is a very important connection because ultimately it is the power exercised by the competing groups that shape the contours of the political and other struggles in the country. Power is ultimately grounded in the possession of rights.
What this means is that since for purposes of analysis we can group humans, as any other object, by whatever criteria we choose, we can classify Guyanese by gender, class, ethnicity, etc. If rights were equally distributed to all citizens then no matter how we categorize groups, each group would have equal rights and thus equal power. However, if the rights were denied to members of a particular classification while other enjoyed those rights, the deprived group is said to be oppressed in that it does not have an equality of power.
In human societies, oppression has been perpetuated on all fronts: thus a poor woman may be oppressed simultaneously on the basis of her gender, class, ethnicity, age, religion, and race. Each of these forms of oppression is ultimately debilitating, in that they cause pain, and suffering and stifle the humanity of the victims; societies have to prioritize their activities since resources are limited. In Guyana there is a general consensus that the racial cleavage is the most salient in terms of actual potential demand of rights of groups. It is for this reason that while we support efforts to eliminate all forms of oppression we believe that we must get a jump start on the goal of racial equality.
Discrimination is the selection of an individual or a group for treatment not accorded others equally situated. It is commonly described as a form of oppression … however, there are instances when society may decide to correct a historical wrong, let’s say exclusion of Amerindians from the Bureaucracy, by selecting them at a rate more favourable than other groups. This form of discrimination, also labeled less tendentiously “affirmative action” is seen as positive because its intent and effect is not to oppress others. Non-oppression, rather than non-discrimination is probably a better term for us to struggle for in Guyana.
Even if we are to limit our field of endeavour to the rights of all citizens to have equality of rights this leads us to other problems. For instance, since men are not factually equal, equality of rights will lead to material inequalities as those who are better endowed with the badges of societies’ success forge ahead. This dilemma has led many to extend their definition of equality to mean, additionally, equality of results. Now while this may be desirable we have to concede that this goal implies a distribution which is based on some notion of distributive justice, but will impinge upon the liberty of many citizens. Equality from this perspective demands a more extensive and intrusive state and this can open its own can of worms.
Marxists are one group that strives for equality of results. They hold that social equality can only be achieved by the abolition of private property and “bourgeois” family structure. If this is achieved then their two-staged formulation of equality may be achieved. Firstly, the Socialist credo, “from each according to his ability: to each according to his contribution”. And then subsequently, the Communist nirvana, “from each according to is ability to each according to his need”.
One of the major problems with this stress on equality of results by the state is that it ignores the fact that only a part of the relevant circumstances depend on governmental action. For example, ‘equality in education’ is not only contingent on having equal access to the best schools but also just as importantly, or maybe even more importantly, requires a cultural acceptance of the demand and discipline to inculcate education. And so for material wealth.
In Guyana there are expectations that “equality” means equality of results. In addition to the need for an intrusive state that because of our history, we know will fail, there is also the hegemonic Creole culture that will consign many of our citizens far behind others in one way or another because of some of the debilitations of that culture. There is the inevitability of group comparison. Are we prepared for five years down the line when some groups own “all the big houses and big cars and big businesses”? How equal is equal?
(The above was first offered in 1993, following the victory of the PPP. We have always wondered why those groups that cry “discrimination” have never supported our calls for an “Ethnic Impact Statement” to accompany state initiatives)
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