Understanding the narrative of the “other”

Last Wednesday, I was on a panel discussion on a social media platform with David Hinds, to discuss our “divided nation”.
I emphasised that each of the groups in Guyana has its own narrative on why we are in this mess, but each points its fingers at the other in blame. It means that our narratives are in conflict, to allow us to play the blame game. I suggested we need to consciously construct a “national narrative” that would give each group in our country its just desert.
Narratives are stories, and our need to create them appears to be wired into our brains. An event occurs – say, the elections contretemps at Ashmins – and we are driven to explain how or why it occurred. What happened first? What followed? Who were the persons involved? What did each person do, and what were their choices? What were the background circumstances – social or physical – that might have brought the event about? We want to know about causation.
And we create narratives. Since very few of us are in a position, or have the inclination, to conduct rigorous enquiries from ground zero, we reflexively also resort to narratives that others might have constructed around similar events. In a word, we fall back on “history” – whether at the micro or macro level. Narratives, then, are not only constructed; they are constitutive as far as they “explain” our experiences. Much of what we are fighting about can be described as “memory wars”.
In assuming there must be some material historical truth “out there”, we should appreciate that we have to be careful to filter out, as best as we can, the inherent subjectivities of all narratives, especially when they concern history “writ large”. Reality may be created by events and processes, but our “experience” of that reality is the “rememberance” of it; that is, “his-story”. History and remembrance are not the same. History is the human narration of that reality as seen by historians, but it is our “remembrance” of the events that structure our responses.
Why is it, we should ask, that the supporters of the coalition PNC/APNU/AFC insist there is nothing untoward in the actions of Mingo in the tabulation of the Reg 4 SOPs, when international observers and ambassadors insist he was pulling a flagrant sleight of hand? Much of it has to do with the narrative we bring to “explain” our experience.
On the panel, I pointed out that African-Guyanese have a historical fear of being “swamped and subordinated” by Indian-Guyanese if the latter get into office via the PPP. To assert, as I have done, that Indian-Guyanese are now a minority in a nation of minorities — in which either of the two major blocks has an equal chance of securing office through attracting votes outside of their base constituency — did not cut much ice.
Today, we and all those who would examine our history have the advantage of hindsight and access to a wider array of accounts than those who lived through the events. In attacking the possible “illusions of retrospective determinism” – that things HAVE to be so – we should connect the past with the present in a broader, more unified narrative that is healing rather than destructive. We cannot change the past, but we can certainly change the future.
John Paul Lederach, the “International peacebuilder”, defines constructive social change as “the pursuit of moving relationships from those defined by fear, mutual recrimination, and violence toward those characterized by love, mutual respect, and proactive engagement.” It is time that we take time to listen to the narrative of the “other”, and respect and address their fears.
Lederach has advised that, “Transcending violence is forged by the capacity to generate, mobilize and build the moral imagination.” We must recognize the complexity of relationships, and not fall prey to an “us vs them” mentality. Moral imagination is a matter of creating links between memory and vision, and is, to a large extent, the vocation of communities.
By shifting the meaning of the past through a differential emphasis on particular events, we can transform how we act in the present. The past may not literally exist – any more than the future does – but it lives on in its consequences, which are a vital part of it.
Our past was not all hate or division.