It has been asserted that at Independence, we “inherited a state but not a nation”. With the vast majority of Guyanese arbitrarily dumped into Guyana over the last few hundred years to join the Indigenous peoples already here, we simply do not have the collective wherewithal to imagine a nation “looming out of an immemorial past”, as one writer proposed. We will just have to deal with the bricolage that we are.
We hope that now that the elections are finally over, the question of “national culture” will be discussed. The question has formed the site of a contestation of power in civil society as well the State and cannot be deferred. It has, therefore, precipitated a wider struggle than merely the “political”. Ever since the beginning of European colonisation, the model of the “nation” imposed on the Guyanese population – notwithstanding some rhetoric to the contrary over the past few years – has been for our peoples to “assimilate”. This stance totally privileges “unity” over “diversity”.
Its premises, which are accepted as common sense, are that the people within a state must all share values and a common culture so that they would feel a sense of oneness – to better work towards achieving the “national” goals. The sixty-four-thousand-dollar question, of course, is who decides on what constitutes the “national culture” into which everyone is to be assimilated?
There have been several variants of the assimilationist school: ranging from the demand that individuals entering such societies jettison their “old” cultures and practice the new – to such individuals being exhorted to intermarry with others from the “mainstream” so that they physically disappear. The American “melting pot” remains the most famous example of the assimilationist school, even though their State, especially through its school system and its very explicit “Citizenship” examinations, couched their values to be assimilated in ideological, rather than cultural terms.
This was feasible because the WASP cultural ideal was so deeply embedded in the state structure that there was no need to emphasise them. In reality, for American citizens to enjoy the full rights of citizenship, they had to conform to the “societal” culture – which was overwhelmingly British. The French, following Rousseau, have been the most faithful to the model in terms of explicitly demanding French culture as the standard.
The sad fact is that the assimilationist project has only worked at the price of great suffering and even then, never very successfully. America has had to concede that instead of a “melting pot”, it has had to accept that it can only be a “salad bowl”. Ultimately, assimilation can only work under the extreme demand that there is complete physical intermixing between the various populations. But this is very unlikely: modern communications facilitate the dissemination and forging of ethnic bonds. Simultaneously, modern international norms of ‘equality’ and ‘self-determination’ of peoples militate against cultural hegemony being accepted by even “subordinate” groups.
It is rather ironic that multicultural societies are actually the norm in a world of “nation-states”. Individuals from the several cultural groups will have different experiences and will become different to the extent that culture shapes and gives meaning to our life-plans. Significantly, the participation of members helps to change the culture itself. Out of this relationship between people and their cultures arises a sense of identity and belonging.
We need to address the type of cultural integration that may be best for Guyana in view of its evident cultural diversity. Each society has to find the right balance between the demands of the two concepts that is appropriate for its own circumstances so as to have a political system that is cohesive and stable, while facilitating the cultural aspirations of all the peoples.
We have proposed before, the creation of institutions to promote an ideological notion of “Guyaneseness” for a nation based on equality, which incorporates all our present cultures. Having one’s social institutions embody one’s culture means that they will be immediately comprehensible to us and, therefore, easier to use. The mutual intelligibility will promote relationships of solidarity and trust for all Guyanese.