May 6, 2004
One sometimes marvels that Guyana is still in one piece. The tone of public debate has become so aggressive that people routinely speak of their opponents in language that would be considered unacceptable in other democracies that enjoy complete freedom of speech.
Talk show hosts have, of course, pioneered their own brand of unrestrained 'free speech', in which facts are never checked and the inarticulate major premise of every programme is that 'the other side' is engaged in diabolical conspiracies designed to oppress or marginalise those favoured by the talk show host. Motive is always assumed, the logic of any alleged action or plot is irrelevant and the result is a world of ethnic fantasy which becomes almost impervious to rational criticism. The fact that this kind of propaganda has led to disastrous consequences in other countries does not deter these gentlemen.
But that is only the most extreme example of the pathology. The language used at the press conferences of the political parties frequently goes well beyond the strong criticism that is a normal part of political life everywhere and descends to vulgar abuse and the personal denigration of opponents. Having been fed these diatribes since the fifties, given the often extreme and divisive nature of our politics then and since, citizens have perhaps become inured to or numbed by these onslaughts. There have, it is true, been changes in the terminology. We no longer hear of Soviet stooges, bourgeois traitors and the running dogs of imperialism though their modern counterpart terms are no more pleasant.
The debasement of language is a symbol of the debasement of culture and an inability or unwillingness to speak clearly and describe things precisely. Remember the awful turgidity of the prose in Stalin's Soviet Union, the fiendish propaganda of Goebbels. Sick politics breeds sick language which obfuscates reality. Huxley and Orwell taught us this. Abuse is often a symptom of verbal or intellectual impotence.
What can be done about this problem in Guyana today? As noted the politics breeds the language and it would be idle to hope that our politicians will suddenly see the light. But the media can do something, however limited in itself, at least those who wish to.
They can stop reporting or broadcasting vulgar abuse, they can delete it from letters, they can refuse to report wild allegations that have no basis in fact or are accompanied by no evidence, they can try to raise the tone of the ongoing debate.
A modest project perhaps, but better than nothing.