THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF ETHNIC INSECURITY
BY PREM MISIR
November 10, 2003
Those who see only race/ethnicity in politics in Guyana, as others who see tribe and religion in other countries, are not viewing reality comprehensively, objectively and scientifically. They fail to note that the two major ethnic groups in Guyana are not, in class terms, uni-class; that economics, on the one hand, and politics, ideology, culture and institutions, on the other are inter-related and inter-acting. Race/ethnicity was not the determinant when the 7-unions' candidate, George Daniels, with a minority of delegates won in a secret vote against the PNC-backed presidential candidate. At that time, the struggle at the trade union level was sufficiently advanced to cut across racial lines. So now, the struggle will advance to realize racial-ethnic unity at the political level, as in the 1947-53 period (Cheddi Jagan).
We define our own reality! Once defined, we live within this reality.
But this reality is shaped and determined by the individual in interaction with others either face-to-face, or through other forms of communication. Statements and expressions in the mass media do influence the formation of this reality.
False Views of Reality
Through the mass media, we experience these statements: that they do not understand the fuss made about Kean Gibson's book; that social inequality is entrenched in East Indian culture; that the East Indian leadership pursues racial dominance against Africans; that East Indians do not accept Africans as racially equal; that Africans are marginalized; that Africans do not trust the East Indian political leadership; that East Indians own and control the wealth of this country; that Hinduism is a racist ideology; that there is a Hindu plot to marginalize and oppress Africans in Guyana; that the current Government is an East Indian Government; that Africans will be better off with the PNCR, etc. Politicians even budding and wannabes, and the mass media are owners of such remarks.
These statements are regurgitated daily on the television stations and in the print media, and so they should be in the interest of freedom of speech. But these statements, if untrue and not objective, should not be presented as if they were legitimate. Most if not all of these statements are consumed in a high degree of falsity. However, they help shape the individual's reality, that is, to influence the individual to believe that all these statements represent the true picture in Guyana. In the end, we see the development of false perceptions and a reality filled with untruths.
Notwithstanding the falsity of these perceptions, they constitute the individual's reality and that individual behaves in accordance with these false beliefs. We can invoke the Thomas Theorem which states: "If people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences." What we draw from society and use to fashion a view of reality is referred to as the social construction of reality. Referring back to the statements above, we can say that they form a view of ethnic insecurity in Guyana. But that reality sculpted by those statements which, indeed, may be true for the individual, may, nevertheless, be false in terms of the objective reality.
Clearly, politicians ubiquitously present this view of ethnic insecurity and call for new political arrangements to eliminate it. It's as if the politicians create a stage play where they write the script and hope and pray that the masses would use it effectively. Why? In the first place, particular politicians help to fashion this false realty for the masses, and that, in turn, enables them to use the ethnic and race card; the race and ethnic card makes certain politicians relevant in Guyana's politics. Let's symbolically express this idea: P + M = R ? PP where P are the certain politicians who shape the false reality, M is the mass media who help to sustain this reality, R is the people's false reality, and PP is political power attained. The _expression denotes that certain politicians plus the mass media influence the formation of an individual's false view of reality in this country, which could thrust the politician into political power.
Several of the above-mentioned statements allude to ethnic insecurity through perceptions of dominance of East Indians over Africans and where Africans are discriminated against and marginalized. Clearly, ethnic mistrust will prevail in this environment. We know these perceptions are real for those who internalize them and will largely determine their behavior.
Ethnic Dominance in Turkey
Societies practicing ethnic dominance invariably have a legislative framework where the subordinate minority groups' status is sustained. I want to use Turkey as an example to demonstrate that country's application of ethnic dominance and let people draw their own conclusions about Guyana.
In Turkey, prior to August 2002, education, broadcast and the published media were presented only in the Turkish language. Kurds, a minority group in Turkey, could not use their language in public institutions. Until that time, even the Kurdish names were prohibited, although Kurds constituted one fifth of the population of Turkey. Article 42 of the Turkish Constitution stipulates that: "in educational institutions, Turkish citizens may not use any language other than Turkish as their native language."
Kurdish as a foreign language was not permissible (Law No.2923, Art.2a). Again, the Provincial Administration Law (No.5442) which was implemented in 1949 stated that: "Village names which are not Turkish and which should be changed are to be brought before the provincial council and changed by the interior minister within the shortest possible time" (Art.1) (Yegen 1999:123).
Participation in politics also was closed to the Kurds. In the early years of the Republic, the only political party was the Republican People's Party (CHP), founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Article 8 of the CHP program prohibited Kurdish membership, as shown here: "Every Turkish citizen can become a member of the Party, only if he or she can speak Turkish and has accepted Turkish culture and all the goals of the party." (Yegen 1999:123). No ethnic group in Guyana has this type of institutional dominance as existed in Turkey prior to 2002. But certain politicians continue to peddle the perception of ethnic dominance and marginalization and discrimination against Africans in Guyana.
Well, if some groups' perceptions are false, it's the job of all politicians to help fashion the new objective reality. Every time, a politician opens his/her mouth to talk about power sharing or some other sort of new political arrangement, aimed at addressing this sculpted ethnic insecurity, we need to ask this politician whether or not, he/she has determined this reality to be false; and if so whether or not, he/she has attempted to remove the distortions; in short, whether or not, this politician has exerted efforts to create a new objective reality for the masses, given any evidence of falsity in the perceptions. It is not enough for the politician to say that there is ethnic insecurity. The politician has a social responsibility to objectively examine the data that help to form the false reality, the reality of socially constructed ethnic conflict. Let me demonstrate further how politicians can chisel the formation of ethnic insecurity and conflict and thereby influencing people's perceptions.
Fergal Keane, a BBC Africa correspondent, explains the genocide of one ethnic group by another ethnic group in Rwanda in 1994, thus:
"...What happened in Rwanda was the result of cynical manipulation by powerful political and military leaders. Faced with the choice of sharing some of their wealth and power with the [insurgent] Rwandan Patriotic Front, they chose to vilify that organization's main support group, the Tutsis . . . The Tutsis were characterized as vermin. . .the forces of Hutu extremism identify and whip into murderous frenzy the historical sense of grievance against the Tutsis . . .This was not about tribalism first and foremost but about preserving the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the elite." Keane insists that ethnic conflict is socially constructed. In Guyana, race and ethnic conflict and insecurity are socially and politically constructed and reconstructed.
This whole discussion about new political arrangements is based on the fragile and downgraded view that only those of a particular ethnic group can understand members of this group. This view suggests that only those from the group will have a sensitivity to the group. This view may not be necessarily true. To know others, we have to make some sense of their experience, and this would require more than sensitivity. We will have to make sense of the meaning of their experiences. Or as Brian Fay would put it " Knowledge consists not in the experience itself but in grasping the sense of this experience." In this connotation, one does not have to be them or like them. Therefore, a political party in government can deliver the goods for all, regardless of that party's ethnicity. Once the party distributes the goods to all and enhance people's economic status, then ethnic insecurity should not raise its head.
However, if we agree that this ethnic insecurity is socially constructed, enabling politicians to demand new political arrangements, like power sharing, and that if the new political arrangement happens, then one would expect the perception of ethnic insecurity to be obliterated. But if during this period of a new political dispensation, the standard of living continues to decline, what would happen to those people's perception now (those who previously felt ethnically insecure). Will they construct a new reality of ethnic insecurity? What will be their new perception of the new politically-concocted directorate with this brand new political system? In the end, it's not so much as to who is managing the affairs of a nation, but what is done to enhance the masses' quality of life. What people want the politicians to address, are their 'bread' and 'butter' issues. For those who are not prepared to take this line, are people, who as Cheddi Jagan said, see Guyana's politics only in race/ethnic terms, and are not viewing reality comprehensively, objectively and scientifically. Those politicians' ill-conceived application of the race card and their rhetorical talk ad nauseam of an outright new political system, clear and simple, are a conduit for entry into the corridors of power. Do they have the mandate from the Guyanese people to advocate for this new political dispensation?