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 Ethnic Relations Commission should be 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. There is 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.
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 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 human societies, oppression has been perpetuated on all fronts: intersectionally, 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 prioritise their activities since resources are limited.
“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 Indian-Guyanese from the Disciplined Forces, by selecting them at a rate more favourable than other groups. This form of discrimination, also labelled less tendentiously as “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 that 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.