Towards greater equality

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 would 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 criterion 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 or any other Government-sponsored initiative promoting equality would be concerned with all the citizens of our country. Thus, we are 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? Here there would be 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.
Since for purposes of analysis we can group humans 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 categorize groups, each group should have equal rights. 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 human societies, oppression has been perpetuated on all fronts; thus, a poor woman may be oppressed simultaneously on the basis of her gender, class, ethnicity, age, religion and race. This, of course, describes the notion of “intersectionality”. 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 prioritize their activities, since resources are limited. In Guyana, there is a general consensus that, politically, the racial cleavage is the most salient in terms of actual potential demand of rights of groups.
Discrimination is the selection of an individual or group for treatment not accorded others equally situated. It is commonly described as a form of oppression. However, there are instances in which society may decide to correct a historical wrong, let’s say exclusion of Amerindians from the bureaucracy, by selecting them at a rate more favourable than other groups. This form of discrimination, also labelled less tendentiously “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 would 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 would impinge upon the liberty of many other citizens.
The best that we can do is to ensure equality of opportunity, which then means individuals have to work to ensure the results are as equal as possible to others. And the state should institute affirmative action programmes where appropriate, as explained above.