The poisoning of public discourse

Ian on Sunday
Stabroek News
February 11, 2001

When I was a schoolboy we had a games-master named Mr. Wilkinson who had served the College it seemed forever. I suppose he must have been in his fifties but he seemed ancient to us. He was small and craggy and shrewd. We liked him, called him Wilkie, the wise one. He coached us in football and always accompanied us when we played our matches.

One day we were going to play the final of a competition against another team boasting a lot of stars. We ourselves were a pretty ordinary bunch so we found it strange how confident the coach was that we would win. As we talked it over just before the game we asked him why he felt so confident. We certainly didn't feel that way. "Simple," old Wilkie said, "I've seen them. They just don't like each other. All of you get on well. You'll see."

He turned out to be right. They were much better than us really. However, they were selfish and played a bickering, unhappy game. They scored a couple of brilliant, individualistic goals, much better-looking than our bustling, scrappy joint efforts which dribbled into the net, but finally we scrambled a win and embraced in a joyful heap at the end. "What did I tell you?" The coach said afterwards. "Call that a team? They loathe each other. Remember that."

Well, more than fifty years later I remember the old coach and his words. In story after story in the media, in countless TV phone-in programmes, in letter after letter in the press, I learn of so much suspicion, resentment, mutual bitterness, factional hostility and disputes, complete intolerance of opposing views and unnecessary incivility among people who after all possess the same love of Guyana. One gets so much of this that one feels despair that the country can ever win its way in the world. Feuds fester everywhere. Sullen antagonisms lurk beneath the surface of every situation. Plots are perceived even in gestures of goodwill. No side thinks the other side has any good intention, only insidious purpose. Vitriol and hatred poison the atmosphere. Vicious, undocumented accusations kill all hope of sensible and constructive dialogue. Loathing and contempt divide and ruin the society.

One hesitates to believe that the poison is sourced from or encouraged by any political party since there can be no possible electoral benefit in pursuing sordid rumour-mongering and personal vilification as a campaign tactic. I suppose such a tactic could satisfy and further inflame already militant supporters but it certainly will not attract any new supporters or, indeed, favourably impress any undecideds. The effect may even be to turn off ordinary supporters and incline them not to vote at all out of disgust.

How can anything ever be achieved if intemperate division and vicious back-biting run so deep on every side? What chance has the nation got of healing crucial divisions originating in race and class if in so many fields of activity constant jockeying for position and narrow-minded factionalism are the name of the game? We like to talk of the need for national unity. Not much chance of that when acrimonious dissension breaks out when any idea or initiative not our own is trashed in a reflex action of suspicion and knee-jerk opposition.

The problem may start at a very personal level. The new world-view is overpowering us. Selfishness has infected us all and spread into our social and political behaviour. The market rules, individual success is at a premium, personal preference is what matters most, private enterprise will be the engine of growth, material goods the measure of success: perhaps we have become too obsessed with that guiding ethos which now seems to control our lives and direct our destinies.

You do not have to be a lover of socialism to realise that achieving a stable society depends to a large extent on submerging selfish and factional ambitions for the sake of the collective good. Deference to the views of others, consensus-seeking through mutual give-and-take, cultivation of the arts of achieving compromise, an ingrained sense that attaining communal objectives is well worth personal self-effacement or even party sacrifice: all these are part of principles of behaviour fast being forgotten. We are living in an era where increasingly the term society itself is becoming meaningless, where social responsibility and commitment to the communal good, and the duties which come with that, are seen simply as drag anchors in the pursuit of personal advantage, factional upperhand or party power.

Many developments follow. Divisions in society multiply. The rich seek, for instance, to minimise their tax contribution to the general welfare. Yet as their wealth increases the rich pay an ever higher price for their security and peace of mind as the poor become steadily poorer, more resentful and more criminal. At every level, and in every organization, striving for common goals takes a poor second place to selfishness and suspicion that the other man or party may be getting the upper hand and so may be depriving you of some prize or other of power or prestige. It is not at all surprising that in organisations both big and small, in causes both trivial and important, rancour grows and goodwill disappears. How can anything good be achieved? How can the country stay anything but small-minded, divided, grid-locked by hate, backward and bereft of hope?

I do not know what truth there may be in that kind of basically rather superficial analysis. What I do know for sure is that my old coach, Wilkie the wise one, would have put it more simply: "Call yourself a team? You don't even like each other. You won't win anything that way. You'll see.

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