Crossing ethnic boundaries Editorial
Stabroek News
January 10, 2002

The appointment of Dr Kenneth King as Ambassador to Brussels is significant for many reasons. In the first place, it makes his undoubted talents available to the nation in an area of diplomacy that is of vital importance to our economic future. The European Community is a major market for our sugar, rice and rum. Dr King has identified in an interview with this newspaper some of the initiatives he hopes to undertake.

Secondly, in undertaking this appointment Dr King has shown considerable courage in crossing ethnic boundaries to make his services available. He was, of course, a member of former PNC governments and a prominent figure in Afro-Guyanese cultural circles. Asked about this in the interview he said: "It is my firm conviction that some of us must attempt to serve Guyana and our more immediate group by working within the system if it is not readily possible to change it". He also said: "I am prepared to try to demonstrate that it is possible for all of us to benefit from such a course of action. I am willing, perhaps because I am coming to the end of my career, to be the sacrificial lamb to prove that the options of co-operation are not closed."

The problem of ethnic differences and group identities must not be underestimated. It is a well recognised phenomenon in many countries. Yet it is not insuperable. In his book "The Warrior's Honour" subtitled "Ethnic war and the modern conscience" Michael Ignatieff in a chapter entitled 'the narcissism of minor difference', a term inherited from Sigmund Freud, after spending a night with some Serbs, whom he describes as "middle-aged reservists", in an abandoned farmhouse in a village called Mirkovci in eastern Croatia that was cut in two by the Serb-Croat war, with Croatian 'enemies' about 250 yards away in the darkness, and trying to find out in vain why these persons who had lived together for so many years and intermarried were now at war, wrote as follows: " Intolerance is a form of divided consciousness in which abstract, conceptual, ideological hatred vanquishes concrete, real and individual moments of identification. My Serbian friend (a reservist to whom he was speaking in the farmhouse) is at the edge of recognising his enemies as individuals, only to succumb to the nationalist fantasy of their radical otherness. There is a consciousness, an anguish, an uncertainty, which could be fanned into something decent and human, if only he could read a newspaper or listen to a television broadcast that didn't poison him with hate and lies. If he had access to a public discourse - a newspaper, radio, television broadcast, political speech - that addressed him as a rational individual, he might have a chance of becoming one himself. To the degree that individuals can ever learn to think for themselves - and so become true individuals - they can free themselves, one by one, from the deadly dynamic of the narcissism of minor difference. In that sense, the function of liberal society is not merely to teach the noble fiction of human universality, but to create individuals, sufficiently robust in their own identity to live by that fiction".

Dr King has found the strength, no doubt after agonising deliberation and widespread consultation, to overcome the 'narcissism of minor difference'. It could represent a step forward in our political culture. Many other persons of good faith and ability have faced the painful dilemma of being willing to appear to "break ranks" if they take a job under a government run by "the other party". Ideally, such a process should be quite acceptable if the terms of the appointment are clear at the outset and do not involve any compromise of that person's integrity and principles. Dr King said in the interview that he was of the opinion that an ambassadorship did not of itself necessitate an involvement in the formulation of controversial domestic policies and that he wanted to demonstrate to his younger colleagues, by his deeds over the coming years, "that it is possible to help one's group and one's nation at the same time, and that there is no inherent conflict of interest".

A final word from Ignatieff: "The less substantial the differences between two groups, the more they both struggle to portray those differences as absolute. Moreover, the aggression that is required to hold a group together is not only directed at eliminating the differences that distinguish individual from group. Individuals, Freud is saying, pay a psychic price for group belonging.

They must turn the aggressive desire to conform against their own individuality. In order to dissolve his identity in Serbdom, for example, the foot soldier must repress his own individuality and his memory of common ties with former Croatian friends. He must do a certain violence to himself to make the mask of hatred fit". The reduction of the strength of group identities, however tentative, is surely a halting step towards rationality and a more open society and a freer political culture.