Unity and diversity
Ravi Dev Column
Kaieteur News
November 26, 2006

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A recent editorial in our newspaper reminded us that at Independence , we “inherited a state but not a nation”. With the vast majority of Guyanese arbitrarily dumped into Guyana over the last few hundred years to join the Indigenous peoples already here, we simply do not have the collective wherewithal to imagine a nation “looming out of an immemorial past”, as one writer proposed. We will just have to deal with the bricolage that we are. But in the meantime, what do we do about the demands for a “national culture” implied in such a vision of a nation, and the criticisms of those who see calls for ethnic “Renaissances” as retrograde? These questions have occupied centre stage in the political arena for quite a while. They have formed the site of a contestation of power in civil society as well as the state. It has therefore precipitated a wider struggle than merely the “political”. Ever since the beginning of European colonisation, the model of the “nation” imposed onto the Guyanese population - notwithstanding some rhetoric to the contrary over the past few years - has been for our peoples to “assimilate”. This stance totally privileges “unity” over “diversity”. It has been the dominant model over the past 300 years, and still undergirds the policies, of most of the states of the world, which now routinely define themselves as “nation-states”. Its premises, which are accepted as common sense, are that the people within a state must all share a common culture and values, so that they would feel a sense of oneness so as to better work towards achieving the “national” goals. The sixty-four-thousand-dollar question, of course, is who decides on what constitutes the “national culture” into which everyone is to be assimilated?

There have been several variants of the assimilationist school – ranging from the demand that individuals entering such a society jettison their “old” cultures and practice the new – to such individuals being told that they should intermarry with others from the “mainstream,” so that they physically disappear. The American “melting pot” remains the most famous example of the assimilationist school, even though their state, especially through its school system and its very explicit “Citizenship” examinations, couched their values to be assimilated in ideological, rather than cultural” terms. This was feasible because the WASP cultural ideal was so deeply imbedded in the state structure that there was no need to emphasise them. In reality, for American citizens to enjoy the full rights of citizenship, they had to conform to the “societal” culture - which was overwhelmingly British. The French, following Rousseau, have been the most faithful to the model in terms of explicitly demanding the French culture as the standard – the best in the world, as a matter of fact.

The sad fact is that the assimilationist project has only worked at the price of great suffering, and even then, never very successfully. America has had to concede that instead of a “melting pot,” it has had to accept that it can only be a “salad bowl”. Britain has had to grant autonomy to Scotland and Ireland in cultural as well as political terms. Recently, however, under threats from Islamic radicals, both the US and Britain (as well as the rest of Europe ) are beginning to re-invoke the old demands for assimilation. In Guyana , while everyone was told to assimilate into British culture, there were always snickers from whites when “natives” talked about Britain as “home” – as was very common as recently as the sixties. Ultimately, assimilation can only work under the extreme demand that there is complete physical intermixing between the various populations. But this is very unlikely – even though recently Mayor Green extolled the virtues of this path. Modern communications facilitate the dissemination and forging of ethnic bonds – witness the recent calls for an African Renaissance in Guyana . Modern international norms of 'equality' and 'self determinations' of peoples militate against cultural hegemony being accepted by even “subordinate” groups. Witness the new militancy of our Indigenous peoples. It is an ironic fact about the world, however, that multicultural societies are actually the norm in the so-called “nation-states”. Each individual in such states is also a member of a particular cultural group, who will have different experiences from another belonging to a different cultural group. This is because our culture shapes and gives meaning to our life-plans; and the mere participation of each member helps to change the culture itself. Out of this relationship between peoples and their cultures arises a sense of identity and belonging.

The question as to whether “unity” or “diversity” should be privileged is partially a semantic one, caused by the conflation of “state” and “nation”. But at the bottom, the dispute has to do with power, as it almost always does. Political unity and cultural diversity do not have to be mutually exclusive. Each society has to find the right balance between the demands of the two concepts that is appropriate for its own circumstances, so as to have a political system that is cohesive and stable, while facilitating the cultural aspirations of all the peoples. We need political unity to guide the state, but that is not contradictory to “diversity” in terms of the “nation” – of diverse cultural expressions by the people of a given society. We have elaborated previously on the type of political unity necessary, such as Federalism.

We need to address the type of cultural integration that may be best for Guyana in view of its evident cultural diversity. While the definitions of culture are legion, for our purposes, we may see culture as, in the words of Ronald Dworkin, “a shared vocabulary of tradition and convention” by a group of people. To repeat, each culture in Guyana gives its adherents a shared understanding of life – how to live it, and how to organise it. Since each “shared understanding” may entail a different conception of the good life, there are obvious implications for the political viability of a culturally plural society. We have proposed before the creation of institutions to promote an ideological notion of “Guyaneseness” for a nation based on equality, which incorporates all our present cultures. Having one's social institutions embody one's culture means that those institutions will be immediately comprehensible to one, and therefore easier for one to use. The mutual intelligibility will promote relationships of solidarity and trust (“we all understand one another, don't we?”) for all Guyanese.