I am sure that readers are tired of the seemingly interminable exchanges between Mr Tacuma Ogunseye and I on WPA co-leader Rupert Roopnaraine’s role in the scuttling of the 2005 CoI request by Dr Patricia Rodney, for her husband’s assassination. In this communication, I will simply expand on the distinction between “polemics” and “dialogue” that Tacuma requested. I do believe it is relevant at this juncture of our history, even more than ever.
On my return to Guyana in 1989, I was afforded a column in the Stabroek News by Mr David De Caires to air my views on the political situation that was log-jammed over demands for “free and fair” elections. I offered a perspective that attempted to balance the then dominant class analysis with the ethnic imperatives I apprehended as immanent in our society. After the January 12, 1998 violence against Indian Guyanese in Georgetown, following the 1997 elections, I deliberately adopted a polemical, ethnomethodological approach in the press with letters and then columns in Kaieteur News. This was intended to give voice to the Indian Guyanese community’s feeing of outrage and anger, but to direct those emotions towards creating a common narrative with the other communities in Guyana.
“Polemics” is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “a strong verbal or written attack on someone or something” or “the practice of engaging in controversial debate or dispute”. It has a long history in Greek, Hindu (“vitanda”/caviling or the destructive debate element of Nyaya philosophy), Roman and Christian thought. . Even though some of my polemics were directed at the WPA, I still maintained a close working relationship with them, especially after I was elected to Parliament at the 2001 elections. I had accepted Rodney’s 1970 position that Guyanese society was too ethnically/racially divided for joint political action, but that ethnic activists, while located in their various groups, should collaborate at the leadership level. Even though the WPA resisted our insistence that they were grounded in the African Guyanese community and insisted they could “speak for all”, we still collaborated.
In the five years of being in politics as well as being in Parliament, I realised that the ethnomethodological approach (using the everyday methods and practices of an ethnic group – here Indian Guyanese) articulated in polemical language made other groups see us as “racist”. It did not matter, for instance, that I had explained Africans were acting out their Security Dilemma; spoke at City Hall with the PNC and WPA calling for a “sanitised voters list”; at the Square of the Revolution called for an Inquiry into the extrajudicial and banditry killings and Gajraj’s role; or giving a eulogy at the funeral of Ronald Waddell, I remained a “racist”.
I then appreciated the caution of Michel Foucault on polemics in favour of “dialogue”. As I wrote after the collapse of the Third/Center Force: “The French post-modernist Michael Foucault drew what he considered to be the “essential” distinction between entering discussion/dialogue and engaging in polemics, which is very apropos to all of us at our historical moment.
In “discussion”, participants implicitly understand commitments entailed by “the acceptance of dialogue” and avail themselves only of rights that “are in some sense immanent” in the “dialogic situation” itself. “The polemicist, on the other hand, proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principle, he possesses rights authorising him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in the search for the truth, but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is harmful and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then, the game does not consist of recognising this person as a subject having the right to speak, but of abolishing him, as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be, not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth, but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning. The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied.” Foucault concluded: “There are the sterilising effects (of polemics). Has anyone ever seen a new idea come out of a polemic?”
Yes, Tacuma, there can be new ideas out of polemics; but will the “other side” ever listen for a needed reconciliation? Does a falling tree make a sound if no one hears it?