Cultural values are vital to evolution of ‘One Guyana’

Dear Editor,
A national conversation has begun on the concept of “One Guyana”, which was introduced into the political lexicon by President Dr Irfaan Ali. This is an idea that the President believes would bring together the various segments of the community to promote sustainable development and create a good life for all Guyanese.
A unified society (grounded in universal human values: both instrumental and affective) could maximise the benefits to be derived from the oil and other sources of wealth that flow incrementally into the public treasury. However, identifying the cultural forces that could produce a united society is a complex challenge.
The situation is accentuated by pluralism, which is characterised by social cleavages and cultural diversity. Pluralism in Guyanese society is also reflected in the divergent views expressed in relation to the ‘One Guyana’ concept. Some commentators view One Guyana as an opportunity to bring together all ethnic groups through adherence to a common set of core cultural values and institutions; some view it as an opportunity to enhance the main ‘creole’ culture system; some view it negatively, as an attempt to stifle specific ethnic cultural values and institutions; while some regard it as an attempt to create a Guyanese nationalism. Yet others view it as an opportunity to create an economic rights-based policy.
The main culture system of Guyana is referred to as “creole.” In the plantation system, there was the need by the colonial class to identify their Christian-based Euro-centric culture system, which has its intellectual roots in 18th-century enlightenment (rationalism, natural rights, and progress) separately from the local emerging creole culture. This “low value” creole culture system has been viewed as distinct from the “high value” European culture. The emerging creole culture system has been evolving through a process called creolisation, in which syncretism (a combination of two separate cultural elements combined into a new, unique value, such as in chutney music) and acculturation (where people adopt, acquire, and adjust to aspects of the European culture system, such as in education). The impact of acculturation is not uniform, it varies among the ethnic groups.
Many scholars have seized upon, and explained, societal changes in terms of “creolisation,” which has caused “fundamental change in culture and social structure of ethnic groups, but did not lead to a unified society.” (Prof R.T. Smith). The Amerindians, for example, have not been greatly affected, because of their geographic location (hinterland) and away from the centre of political power. Indo-Guyanese have resisted attempts at acculturation/syncretism, and have been inclined to embrace only those cultural values that are compatible with their instrumental (material) needs. Professor Philip Singer and Dr E Araneta highlighted the “tenacity of East Indian culture despite creolization.”
Previous attempts to push forth unity in Guyana, like Suriname and Trinidad & Tobago, have not been wholly successful in eradicating the plural features of Guyanese society. This point did not escape the scrutiny of scholars like Dr Erique Araneta and Professor Philip Singer, who stated that for Indo-Guyanese, what was evolving has been a process of “Hinduization”, and not creolisation.
While they accept some basic western values and institutions (such as education, dress code, language, commerce, etc.) which facilitate their instrumental (materials) needs, they (Indo-Guyanese) have preserved the integrity of core Indian cultural values, such as songs, music, festivals, rituals, dances, arts, cuisine, and kingship.
Indeed, all the ethnic groups of Guyana have persisted in keeping some core elements of their respective cultural values/institutions intact against the dangling thrust of western values.
In trying to forge nationalism in Trinidad & Tobago, there had been stiff opposition by the Indian leaders, who felt that their traditional cultural values/institutions would have been downgraded and marginalised. Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams’s response was swift and furious; he described Indians then as “a hostile and recalcitrant minority.”
Guyana’s leaders should avoid this type of caustic rhetoric, and always be mindful that ethnic identity and personality are shaped by cultural values/institutions, and they exist in a symbiotic relationship that could not be easily severed. People are skeptical of state-sponsored ideology, as experience has shown how this could lead to dictatorship or totalitarianism. They are therefore likely to feel comfortable with a well-thought-out and articulated policy.
What is becoming evident is that ‘One Guyana’ should be founded upon an economic rights-based policy, and not on an ideology of nationalism. An economic rights-based policy should be built upon some core instrumental values, such as (i) a modern constitution, (ii) equality of access to opportunity, (iii) empowerment programmes, (iv) and mutual respect for diverse cultures. Upon these core instrumental values/ institutions should be added affective universal human values such as (i) natural rights, (ii) freedom, (iii) citizens’ allegiance to state, (iv) defense of territorial integrity, (v) and respect for national symbols and national anthem.
In the pursuit of an economic rights-based policy, ethnic groups’ cultural values/ institutions should not be stifled, but respected.

Dr Tara Singh