Freedom, culture and security
March 30, 2004
"So jail me quickly, clang the illiterate door
if freedom writes no happier alphabet"
Martin Carter - After One Year
An article in the March issue of the prestigious monthly magazine Guyana Review, published by Mr David Granger captures some of the anger and despair many have felt at the cultural degeneration visible in recent years on television. Captioned `The public interest: television and miseducation' the article stresses the importance of television in moulding public opinion and the capacity of this medium to project a charisma on the performers and to transform mediocrity.
Referring to members of a group the author Madan Gopal describes as "race champs" he states that their first priority is "to assume the posture of champion of the people or, more correctly, outraged champion of the people. As champion, he, of course, is very special: his tone is bellicose, his eyes breathe fire, and every word is an incitement to battle. It matters not that other groups, including children, are watching. They are not part of the chosen, their feelings do not count.
The routine consists in a long, never-ending listing of grievances, repeated over and over again, and all given a racial cast. This dreary activity, day after day, is kept alive by mixing the real with the imaginary and allowing the latter to prevail."
Later, the author returns to the phenomenon: "In their routine, the race champs practise a series of remarkable omissions. They evidently fail to comment on the real nature of the society in which we live and, like perfect ingrates, are likewise silent about the benefits they have themselves reaped as members. There is failure to note the merits of each constituent part of the whole. And there is failure to articulate ideals befitting such a society. Failure to identify with, and even to mention, the multiethnic heritage created and fostered by the relations among the several groups of this society is a significant omission and alerts us to the underlying project of these creatures.
But it is assumption of the role of champion of the people that allows the race champ, in the perception of the faithful, to ascend an elevated platform, to amplify his moral tone, and to speak with authority. It is in this regard that he partakes of aspects of the pedagogic role and it is in this dangerous respect that he usurps some of that transformative power that, as McLuhan noted, television tends to confer on teachers, presumably even those of modest ability.
Which brings us to the level of the race champs. Despite their effectiveness with the faithful, it is modest ability which distinguishes their performance, as any analysis of their programmes would reveal. In fact, even casual observation would disclose a low level of cognitive competence for half-truths and lies, ignorance of the best of the traditions of the community they supposedly represent including ancestral languages, and lack of insight into what they actually project about their own to the larger society. Indeed, it is a great irony that, despite their declared intent, these TV race champs do a thorough job of strengthening some of the worst stereotypes about their own community in the minds of others."
Many will share the writer's analysis with one reservation, the cultural decline he describes is not limited to television, though that is its most pernicious example. The proposal that some be debarred from the airwaves will however be much more contentious. Mr Gopal writes: "Even in a stable democratic state, the right to free speech is not absolute, and its exercise must be balanced against other considerations, such as the rights of other citizens. In such a state the right to free speech is not extended to those of unsound mind, to murderers and hate-pushers.
In our society, once peaceful and prosperous but now tottering on the brink of disaster, why should this right be extended even on TV to the hate-pushers and those who, by their every word, seem madly intent on fracturing the multiracial integrity of this country?"
The television industry in Guyana, such as it is, has developed in the most unorthodox and unregulated manner. Efforts to create modern broadcasting legislation that will provide a framework for licensing standards and other minimum requirements has been indefinitely delayed for one reason or another. By law, station owners are liable for anything that is broadcast on their programmes. If it is libellous, ethnically inflammatory or otherwise disgusting they must bear the legal consequences, which in all democratic countries could include fines or the suspension of their licences. That has not been the case here. It has been, as the writer suggests, a wild west in which anything goes, there is no tomorrow and no price to be paid however much damage is done. Station owners have been getting away with every kind of slackness.
There is a downside to all free speech and the conflict between freedom and security is something all democratic societies have to work out for themselves. In our young democracy we are beginning to understand that a microphone can be as dangerous as an AK-47, as the tenth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda will remind us. Whether we can summon the collective strength and wisdom, in our depleted condition, to tackle this problem of free speech fairly and with due regard to our constitutional freedoms must be an open question.