Witnessing the upsurge of ethnic tensions amidst the increased polarisation in our society following the successful No-confidence Motion (NCM) in the National Assembly, there are renewed calls for “constitutional change” to resolve the political crisis that is seen as behind it all. “If only the PPP and PNC could gather around a table and come to a settlement!” I wish it were that simple.
As I have been saying for three decades, our conflict is so intractable because it challenges the premises on which our political institutions are based. It is identity or more specifically ethnic based, rather than class or economic based and as such, most of our Liberal-based institutional innovations fail to address the roots of our political conflict. It is not surprising that we are back at square one with the two major groups “squared off” at each together.
Theories of social-psychological motivations far better explain our ethnic conflict and locate its sources in the way in which we perceive our society; locate ourselves in it, and on that basis, form individual and group identities that guide our behaviour and actions. In Guyana, each group has developed its own narrative of its place in Guyana and the hitch is these narratives clash at various nodes. Unless we identify and resolve these clashes, we are really shadow boxing at our conflict.
Groups placed in the same environment share a universal tendency to compare themselves against each other: each become “the other” to each other. When, as in Guyana, groups with reinforcing cleavages of culture, attitudes, race, religion, etc, are thrown into the same society, comparison is inevitable and inescapable. The intractability of ethnicity lies in this fact: social groups can only be evaluated comparatively. Each category of individuals with similar traits evaluates itself positively and others with dissimilar traits, negatively.
Over the course of time, the process results in stereotypical attitudes being formed as the cultural or physical or other trait is given a social meaning, which is applied, to the whole group. This group comparison is of great significance because of its stress on the “worth” of its members to whom this evaluation becomes an integral part of his/her identity and self-esteem. Some individuals may be impoverished but as members of a powerful group, they still have some pride of self-worth vis a vis members of less “powerful” groups.
At the abolition of slavery, the Whites, Coloureds and Africans formed distinct social strata in descending order of status, power and economic worth. While, for instance, all accepted the values of Creole culture, the Coloureds had different speech patterns, foods habits, dress, etc from the African masses and considered the latter their social inferiors. The introduction of Indians into Guyana – with their acceptance of “slave work”, “heathen” religion, unfamiliarity with Creole culture and values – gave the society and especially the Africans, the opportunity to further compare and afterwards designate a new low man on the totem pole. He was the ‘coolie’, whose typical immigrant’s focus on economic advancement was labelled as “mean and stingy”, and stoic acceptance of hardships in fulfilling his indentured contract, “docile”.
The Indian on the other hand, sequestered in the rural plantations came primarily into contact with rural Africans. They defensively valued their culture and heritage highly, rejected the “coolie” categorisation and when in social comparison, utilised their own criteria to stereotype the African. They were “lazy” (for rejecting their despised “slave’s” work!), hedonistic (for his emphasis on fancy clothes and weekend revelry), licentious (for their serial polygamy) and lacking their own culture (for imitating the British).
One armament used by some groups in the competition over relative group worth, is the notion of ‘legitimacy’ where one group is convinced that it has a greater right than other groups to the national patrimony. In Guyana, as in the West Indies as a whole, because of their prior arrival, greater acculturation to White values, earlier entry into governmental services and politics, Africans and Coloureds viewed themselves as having greater claims to legitimacy than Indians, Amerindians and other groups. The latter groups however rejected these claims and countered that their contribution to the development of the country and the international norms of equality conferred on them as much rights as other groups to all that the country offered.
The potential for ethnic conflict in Guyana, or elsewhere, is stimulated when there are changes that cause one or more ethnic groups in a given society to feel threatened by other groups. Changes that affect the groups’ self-worth, especially if they are structural and thus self-perpetuating and widespread, create the greatest potential for conflict.
This is where we are today.