Each time we observe national religious holidays, messages to commemorate the events, issued by a variety of entities including political parties, trade unions, corporations, etc, almost invariably refer to and ask the rest of us to rejoice in Guyana as a land of diversity: religious, cultural, and ethnic. All of our Heads of State, including the present one, have never failed to emphasise this aspect of our national character.
Our National Anthem glorifies “our diverse strains,” and exalts in this “one land of six peoples, united and free”, and, far more important than any person or office, the preamble of the Constitution of Guyana, solemnly affirms, among other things, the following: “We, the Guyanese People, celebrate our cultural and racial diversity and strengthen our unity by eliminating any and every form of discrimination.”
With this universal acknowledgement and acceptance of the importance of our diversity in mind and with the current celebration of the golden jubilee of our independence, we are provided with an ideal opportunity to reflect on one of the country’s most important national symbols, its National Motto: “One People, One Nation, One Destiny”.
Independent Guyana had its genesis in a horrific ethnic conflict, unparalleled anywhere else in the Caribbean, with hundreds of Guyanese, of both of the dominant ethnicities, losing their lives and with untold damage to property. Knowing what we know now of the collusion of the Americans and the British with their local agents to remove the PPP from office by any means, some have suggested that we had a genesis in deception and betrayal.
It is possible that the fear of fragmentation and implosion was so pervasive that those in whose hands power was entrusted, being driven by the perceived need for standardisation and uniformity, dared not entertain the idea of diversity clearly evident in our society and so, produced a “One People, One Nation, One Destiny” Motto that envisaged a monolithic, homogeneous state. Instead of creating a motto based on the strength of our diversity, they fabricated one essentially against diversity.
From the very inception, then, our Motto succeeded in contravening the very spirit and vision of both the National Anthem and the Constitution. It is a mystery that the contradiction between the homogeneity of the Motto and the themes of diversity in the Anthem and Constitution has gone, as far as I am aware, unnoticed for fifty years. Our Motto sacrifices diversity for uniformity, probably with the expectation that diversity will dissolve into a uniformity and plurality disappear for the benefit of standardisation.
The heterogeneous nature of our society is a fundamental reality. Diversity for us signals an irreducible plurality rather than inner contradiction or polar otherness. It is, as many have proclaimed, our inherent strength which, if compassionately and wisely managed, can yield great benefits to the nation.
But it must be agreed that no nation can express its essence solely in terms of its internal diversities and differences. This could lead the way to anarchy and fragmentation. So, however real and rich our diversity is and whatever blessings it confers on us, the quest for a unity at the national level, the vision of the ideal, must never be abandoned.
At the same time, it must be borne in mind that unity is not mere homogeneity, not conformity, not uniformity. It is the recognition of the validity and autonomy of parts that function together in a dynamic and cooperative relationship for the benefit and welfare of the whole, in much the same way as our fingers, though different in many ways, function harmoniously together so that the purpose of the hand can be fulfilled.
Another beautiful and meaningful metaphor that shows the dynamic relationship and interdependence between parts and whole, diversity and unity, in a society, is the human body. We are made up of different parts and essential organs each of which has its own intrinsic and irreplaceable function without which the body, as a unitary and organic whole, collapses.
At one level of perception nature as a whole abounds with diversity yet we know that all its parts are interdependent and inter-related to form an entire system. All things, great and small, have their inalienable place in the system of nature. To perceive the parts without seeing the whole is the same folly as seeing the whole without recognising the parts. Unity in diversity is the language and grammar of nature. So, in addition to hands and bodies, ecology itself can serve as a useful model for our society where our diversity is our reality and unity our aspiration.
Our Motto, “One People. One Nation, One Destiny”, however, well-meaning, has failed to inspire. It suggests that with political independence we have arrived and oneness have been achieved. Fifty years of independence have shown us otherwise. We have failed to build bridges across our great ethnically inspired political divide which is becoming more exacerbated and deepened by the day, and we are no more one people now than we were fifty years ago.
A motto is not a magical wand that will transform us overnight, but one that recognises our social reality has a chance of serving us better. “Unity in Diversity”, or some version or other of this construct in which both unity and diversity remain equally valid can be such a motto. It is time to bring our Motto in concord with the spirit of our Anthem and Constitution, keeping in mind that diversity is not fragmentation and unity is not uniformity.