For less screaming in politics

Some old friends from the Opposition benches seem determined to deploy only polemics and protests in their political struggle for “justice” in Guyana. I commend Michael Ignatieff’s advice after he retired from academic life (Harvard) and entered politics (Canada): “In academic life, false ideas are merely false, and useless ones can be fun to play with. In political life, false ideas can ruin the lives of millions, and useless ones can waste precious resources. An intellectual’s responsibility for his ideas is to follow their consequences wherever they may lead. A politician’s responsibility is to master those consequences and prevent them from doing harm.”
That all groups might be seeking justice should be taken for granted, since this might help make the outcome “variable sum” rather than “zero sum”. The other neglected consideration would be the nature of the institutions in this push for “justice”. When the political philosopher John Rawls declared: “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions as truth is of easy systems of thought”, it was because justice goes to the content of political action. Justice is paramount.
But what about the need for “truth” in the paradigms within which we struggle for justice in social institutions?
Today, liberalism appears to have swept the field as our ideology of choice by “all the sides”. While some approaches have been extremely critical, I believe that liberalism’s stance on “truth and reason” in the variant dubbed “deliberative liberalism” offers us a practical approach towards a democratic process that can deliver “justice” in our social institutions.
As in science, deliberative liberalism holds that truth is to be found through reason, but the “truth” unearthed is never held as the “TRUTH”. It is always held provisionally, conceding that this “truth” may be overturned based on some new evidence. The outcomes of deliberative liberalism are indeterminate and are based on empirical practice. Truth claims must be fact-based. I recommend this approach to those who are engaged in the ongoing discussion on justice in the distribution of the national patrimony.
Liberal democracy rests on deliberation utilising “reason” – not screaming – as the yardstick for evaluating differing perspectives. The institutions, however, would only be democratic to the extent that the citizens themselves determine their precise nature. Such a deliberation, therefore, would have to be made as open as possible to all citizens, who recognise each other as citizens – that is, recognise their common political identity. We are all Guyanese citizens, with equal rights and responsibilities, and the upcoming deliberations on constitutional change offer a forum for reaching consensus on essentials.
Only public reasons should be proffered in such deliberations. That is, assertions rising solely on faith or dogma, and not reason, would not be accepted as “public reasons”. This requirement would obviously place burdens on some groups, but such burdensomeness itself would be evaluated by reason for its “degree of burdensomeness” caused by arbitrariness etc. We cannot escape the fact that there will be aspects of some identities that will have to be withheld from the public realm. In most cases, these are the ones that stem from beliefs that are in deep, fundamental conflict with similarly held beliefs of others. We will have to agree to disagree on such nettlesome issues, and not insist on placing them on the national agenda.
For instance, we will have to be committed to democratic practices to achieve our ends. I have proposed “equality of opportunity” coupled with “equity” as values that we can all agree on in light of our common history of slavery and indentureship. However, it is possible that some groups may have differing views: we will have to deliberate with each other whether such values would be prioritised. The bottom line is whether citizens would be committed to such a process of deliberation. I believe so.
The problem lies in our leaders. We will have to be practical and ensure that all near-term proposals have incentives for the politicians.
We will have to be prepared to deliberate with each other in every available forum – and then some. Newspapers letters pages, community meetings, town hall meetings, call-in talk shows, books etc. But we have to respect each other as citizens. I have warned time and again about the sterility of polemics. We should avoid debate in vocabularies and ideologies that force us to consider issues only in black and white.