Sep 15, 2020 Letters
Stabroek News in its editorial of 13th September, titled “Race Relations”, concluded that with respect to the one-people ideal of our country’s motto One People, One Nation, One Destiny, “we’re not there yet.” This conclusion forces us to define what should we mean when we say “one people” and how we should measure progress towards or attainment of that ideal.
While “one nation” and “one destiny” are concepts external to our mental and emotional state, “one people” could only be truly and meaningfully defined within that state; meaning, the notion depends on how we feel in our hearts and minds about it.
To unpack “one people”, we should address four issues: (i) identifying the parts that have to come together as one, (ii) what “one people” should not mean as a general upfront matter, (iii) what should one people therefore mean for us, (iv) how do we measure progress, and (v) how to know Guyana is there.
(i) In Guyana, the parts that must come together are, of course, our celebrated six races. As class and other identities are less socially or politically ignitable, they pose less a threat to our oneness. That said, a race can encompass several ethnic groups as, for example, the Amerindian tribes in Guyana. The idea of “one people” therefore should be more broadly conceptualized than six races.
(ii) As a general matter, it helps if upfront we reject what “one people” should not mean. Firstly, we have rightly never considered it to mean melting-pot assimilation, where later-arriving ethnicities would be baked into an earlier-existing dominant culture. Also, “one people” should not mean, given our ethnic diversity, that the politics of ethnic difference (and any likely conflict) have to disappear. Our ethnic politics should be managed, but for it to disappear would be an unreachable demand. Further, one people should not mean, in the lyrics of Bob Marley, “One Love”. Nor should it be superficially equated to the sharing of the same citizenship, physical space, and national destiny.
(iii) Affirmatively, what then should it mean? First, it should mean mutual respect of each other’s ethnic identity by individual citizens and the state. Two, it must mean a shared sense of belonging to a greater concept, namely the idea of Guyana and the Guyanese identity. Three, oneness must mean equality of opportunity and treatment for all, as inequalities will fragment oneness. Four, oneness must include our other social identities such as class, gender, and national origin (the last, in light of the growing presence of refugees and migrants).
(iv) How should we measure the status and variation of one people-ness? We have to conduct national surveys of what people say of their feelings and beliefs, and how they behave. Such surveys can provide three key benefits. One is to reliably detect trends over the course of time. Two is to be able to judge whether incidents of inter-ethnic animus are symptomatic or merely anomalous. Three is to guide policy formulation on improving race relations and national unity.
As regards feelings and beliefs, the main survey instrument should be the interview. Typical questions could include: how strong is your sense of belonging to Guyana? To what extent do you feel your culture or ethnicity is respected?
As regards actual behaviours, the most informative would be those that could be mapped on a social-distance scale, such as frequency and type of inter-ethnic social contacts, residential patterns, and inter-ethnic marriages and households. The assumption is that the shorter the social distance, the greater the oneness. The Ethnic Relations Commission should spearhead such surveys.
As an indicator, the spewing of hate speech on social media deserves attention. That persons can use the forum to incite racial hostility cannot be over-emphasized. The extent, however, to which hate speech on social media actually reflects race relations or oneness in Guyana requires a deeper analysis. That analysis would have to, for instance, distinguish between hate speech and lawful frankness, between genuine opinions and hyperbolic excesses, and between extremists/ provocateurs and decent folks.
(v) Finally, measuring one people-ness would not tell us when we are there (as in SN’s “not there yet”). Is “there” a pure ideal or an optimal realistic position? Human shortcomings being what they are, we have to aim for the realistic. This should be defined as the state of affairs where a critical mass of citizens feel strongly attached to the national project and believe (it’s all about people’s mental states) that their identities do not disadvantage them in terms of recognition, prosperity and safety.
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