National unity to be grounded in pluralist cultures

By Dr. Prem Misir
Guyana Chronicle
June 10, 2001

PEOPLE who constantly talk about the need for races to 'come together', lack a basic understanding of the 'ethnic attachment' people have to their culture in a multi-ethnic society.

This 'coming together' is invariably intended to mean the development of national unity in developing societies. It's as if all cultures in Guyana will degenerate into a melting pot scenario, producing a new culture that is alien to each ethnic group.

In this situation, however, each group's culture is lost to make way for the new. This is not the kind of national unity that we want, and which comes closest to miscegenation or interbreeding.

Also, national unity also could mean an assimilation of values that excludes recognition of minority ethnic cultures, as these values belong to the power elite. This is not the kind of national unity that Guyanese want, or for that matter, any person from a multiethnic society.

Also, national unity could mean pluralist unity where there is acceptance and observance of many ethnic cultures in the society; the plural cultures reflect a pluralist cultural landscape where several cultures exist side by side. There is, in effect, ethnic variation. Let's explore this issue of national unity.

The Spanish writer Ortego who authored SPAIN INVERTEBRATE, aptly explains the process that keeps a multiethnic group of people together, thus "People don't live together just like that. That kind of cohesion exists only within a family. The groups who make up a state live together for a purpose. They are a community of projects, desires, big undertakings. They don't come together simply to be together, but in order to do something tomorrow." Ortego's cohesion is not achieved because the minority people's cultures are underemphasised.

Naipaul in a keynote speech at a conference held at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, tried to paint a picture of the impact of the colonial attitude. His position on how diversified groups of people come together, supports that of Ortego. Naipaul drew attention to a European colonial administrator who complained about why the local people did not come together.

He criticises this colonialist's cognitive process that sees the local peoples as having no distinctive qualities, and that all of them can be compartmentalised into one cultural non-distinguishing brownish mass.

Naipaul rejects this colonialist's assertion as "It concedes humanity, it concedes a past, a particularity, and a pride, only to one particular group.

It concedes these things only to one people - the administrator's people - and it denies them to everyone else."

The European colonialist's conception of national unity was the compartmentalisation of all the locals into one cultural group, resocialising them to show deference to Anglo-culture and to subscribe to Anglo-conformity. This colonialist's thinking and action amount to cultural imperialism where everything that is white is superior and that whatever is nonwhite is inferior. Naipaul rejects this cultural imperialism.

This scenario is an illustration of assimilation of minorities to a dominant white group's culture, or to any other dominant group's way of life. That was the basis of national unity in colonial times. Naipaul was right. But Naipaul went further to say that this colonial conception has persisted.

In the case of Trinidad & Tobago (T&T), Naipaul believes that T&T people present to outsiders their picturesqueness, and the cosmopolitan population at a trivial level. In other words, they use tourist concepts to introduce their society. Such tourist concepts solidify simplicities and ignorance about diversified people's history and achievements. We do this because we have been socialised and re-socialised by the colonialists to accept that the many different local people are really one people. We are not. We are different, as we have different cultures.

If we accept this position of being one people, and as such, national unity, then we are acknowledging cultural loss to each ethnic minority group. We are admitting to the society being a cemetery of cultures. If you doubt this, look at the impact of cultural imperialism in education and politics in the Caribbean. This overwhelming aura of the colonialist conception of national unity, seeing all locals as one people has reached maturation in the Caribbean, as we still use the colonialists' rules.

Some politicians thought that use of the term 'Guyanese culture' and baptising everybody as 'Guyanese' would heal all and eliminate the deformities in the society. Using the term 'Guyanese culture' is just like an admission of the cultural non-distinctiveness of all the peoples of Guyana. The cultural content and parameters of the application of the term 'Guyanese culture' is fully controlled by people with vested interests. But yet we hear people saying that we have this evolving common Guyanese culture. The common Guyanese culture has to be a pluralist cultural landscape. It is only this pluralist scenario that will contribute to national unity. Anything less is not national unity.

Naipaul would say that it is disheartening to think that these attitudes, such as, using the term 'Guyanese', which at first might seem revolutionary, is really the other side of the old colonial attitudes. He said: "What looks new is only a reaction to the old, is conditioned by the old. I think this is the kind of irrationality that we must avoid."

Let all people in Guyana do some self-examination of links to their cultural heritage. This process involves going beyond the boundaries of slavery and indentureship. We must connect to our roots.

In the United States no credence is given to unifying all people's

cultures in the society. Burnham attempted to effect this goal through the medium of National Service. The policy failed. In the U.S., pluralism, implying the coexistence and acceptance of each ethnic group's culture is in vogue, and is characterized by an element of permanence. People in the U.S. together engage in projects and work collectively, against a background of institutional recognition of each ethnic group's culture.

Pluralism and multiculturalism are the most logical, secure, and

enterprising form of national unity in a multiethnic society. To be part of a common 'Guyanese culture' is to accept and celebrate the diversity of ethnic cultures in Guyana. This is the kind of persisting national unity that Guyanese want and deserve. 'Guyanese culture' must not be applied to mean merely one culture; there is not one Guyanese culture, but many Guyanese cultures that would make for national unity.

Guyana can enhance race and ethnic relations by perceiving 'national unity' as a unity of all ethnic cultures. However, 'national unity' referring to physically a common Guyanese culture must be eliminated from the political lexicon. In theory, a 'national unity' embracing merely this common Guyanese culture, implies the presence of a power elite as an ethnic and class-based group, determining the parameters of societal unification, and hegemony over other ethnic groups in the society.

The common-culture modality of 'national unity' may work if there is a level cultural playing field. But such level playing field is still a fiction of some people's imagination, as a perception of a hierarchy of ethnic cultures prevail in Guyana. At any rate, this type of national unity is not feasible, and is antagonistic to cultural diversity. Keep in mind that pluralism or cultural diversity is not part of the common-culture modality associated with national unity.

But Guyana, being highly stratified by class and race, with considerable amounts of inequality, would not embrace a national unity that excludes pluralism. Real political acknowledgment and institutionalisation of each ethnic group's culture would improve race and ethnic relations. The proposed new Constitution is a useful starting place.

The 'national unity' goal, devoid of a pluralist base in a multiethnic and stratified system, requires as a pre-condition some significant cultural loss to all ethnic groups, but not to the people with vested cultural capital interests. They are the cultural capitalists. This is so because this kind of 'national unity' as a political expedient refers to the acceptance of some different and higher values, advocated by people with these vested cultural interests, and, indeed, this version of 'national unity' is not part of the multiethnic landscape.

The cultural capitalists want to see the acceptance of their perceived higher values because these values, being treated as having more potency than the rest of the other ethnic groups' values, sustain their vested interests.

The 'national unity' goal, under these conditions of excluding the values of the other ethnics, is fertile ground for an emerging community of irrationality. People will not come together in this community of irrationality.

Pluralist unity grounded in an equal status among all ethnic cultures is a more feasible and attractive alternative. If, however, you still are turned on to use the term 'a common Guyanese culture', then ensure that it is grounded in pluralism. 'National unity' must not pander to one ethnic culture, at the exclusion of other ethnic cultures.