Few would not be willing to declare that “equality” 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 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 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.
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 categorise groups, each group would have equal rights and thus equal power. However, if the rights were denied to members of a particular classification while others enjoyed those rights, the deprived group is said to be oppressed in that it does not have an equality of power. In Guyana, unfortunately, some groups are claiming greater rights because of criteria like “greater suffering”. In human societies, oppression has been perpetuated on all fronts: thus, a poor woman may be oppressed simultaneously and interjectionally 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 prioritise their activities since resources are limited.
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 society’s 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 that 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.
One of the major problems with this stress on the equality of results by the State is that it ignores the fact that only a part of the relevant circumstances depends 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, etc.
In Guyana, there are expectations that “equality” means equality of results which can never be achieved because of life’s contingent realities.