Defending his ‘plural (cultural) society’ model against charges that it was ‘static’ and not incorporating a mechanism of change, MG Smith pointed out that, invariably, the different cultural segments were ‘differentially incorporated’ into the power relations of their societies, and this fact, in and of itself, initiates change. This change is engendered through the inevitable social comparison process. Right now, there is a claim that African Guyanese historically suffered more, and as such should have superior rights to the national patrimony. This, not surprisingly, is being vigorously contested by the latter groups, who point out that all citizens have inalienable equal rights guaranteed by the state.
Our political scientists and economists, who pontificate on our national policies, unfortunately ignore MG’s insight, to our general peril. As aforementioned citizens, their lived experiences inevitably would influence how they felt about the attainment (or not) of that egalitarian promise. Their experiences are filtered through their cultural lenses, and it should not surprise any if the several groups (defined culturally) even perceive they are differentially into the power structure political consciousness would cleave along cultural (read ethnic) lines.
After decades of focusing on an economistic notion of equality, there is still not an appreciation of the need for cultural equality also. So much for the politics of ‘identity’ and ‘recognition’ in Guyana. There are some who posit that if we have economic equality among the various ethnic groups, our troubles would be over. But our history has demonstrated we are not homo economicus …but more like homo culturalicus. Each group in Guyana has an economic elite, but we have not seen these elites making common cause since the PPP was split in 1955 by Burnham.
An indica of the ‘power relations’ is who gets to define what is the “national culture” – in which all groups have to pattern “proper” behaviour. And it is the differential incorporation of the various cultural groups in this equation that our policies on “multiculturalism” have to address. “Multiculturalism” demands that society present a full range of prospects, membership, and respect to all its members – regardless of cultural and religious differences – while also creatively accommodating them in a fashion that is both morally persuasive and practically effective for the majority of society.”
We have a “Ministry of Culture”, but the name itself – “Culture” – suggests promoting a singular, monolithic, overarching “culture” as a stalking horse for assimilation through the back door. We suggest our motto be changed to “Unity in Diversity through Equality in Diversity”. One definition of ‘multiculturalism’ suggests that it is “a systematic and comprehensive response to cultural and ethnic diversity with educational, linguistic, economic and social components and specific institutional mechanisms”. This suggests areas in which we initially pursue equality.
Now, we want to stress that we certainly are not emphasising any ‘separatist ideal’ in which each group lives in hermetically sealed enclaves. We are suggesting that the ‘equal treatment in culture’ imperative, if implemented and becomes real, would eliminate the barriers of hauteur and exclusion that set off their inevitable reactions of resistance. We believe that when we deal with each other as equals, there would be the inevitable cross-cultural fertilisation (in all directions), and not one-way, which is seen as top-down.
With the state out of ‘culture’, it should focus on promoting a feeling of “Guyanese-ness” among our people through the conscious construction of a democratic state – the creation of conditions wherein we are all treated as one, equally, by the state. Equality of opportunity; human rights, encouragement of diversities, due process; justice and fair play and rule of law may seem dry compared to the warmth of the blood ties of “nation”, but they can engender the unity of public purpose and the recognition of individual worth, where we can be proud of our common citizenship.
Citizenship of Guyana has to become something that has concrete meaning to all of us.
For Guyana, then, our ethnicities would be defined outside our “Guyanese-ness”, and to be African, Indian, Indigenous Guyanese etc, would not be contradictory in any sense. The first part of our identity would be specific, while the latter universalistic. The “national” would now be a space that ethnically imagined communities can live in and share. To be Guyanese would be to share moral precepts – norms, values and attitudes – rather than shared cultural experience and practice.
A “good Guyanese” would be one who is loyal to this country and strives to practise the secular universalistic ideological values it extols.