Does Cultural Identity Lead to Violence
by Walter H. Persaud
Guyana Journal, June 2006
I am glad that the piece, which was first written in about thirty minutes and published in Guyana Chronicle, got passed around and generated some discussion. The Chronicle version was first written as a commentary for Nobel Laureate A.K. Sen's online seminar on developmentgateway on May 24, 2006. After I belatedly realized that I was allowed 1000 characters not 1000 words, I sent the 650 word article I had hastily written to Chronicle. Since then, another version has appeared in Caribbeannet News. Below is a third substantially revised and expanded version. I have clarified some points, added to the original letter and responded to a few comments which I have received via email.
Cultural identity and violence
The simple answer to the above question is no, cultural identity per se does not necessarily lead to violence, even though people often mobilize and organize along lines of cultural identity to commit violence.
Normally, when people cite cultural identity as the reason for committing violent actions, it is because they feel aggrieved over perceived or real threats to their cultural identity and believe that their feelings give them the moral right to commit violence on others.
However, threats to cultural identity may be cited even when narrower purposes are involved, such as the personal desire for power. In such cases, it is normally difficult to separate the narrow personal ambitions of the few from the broader feelings of injustice that a group may have.
One example is the Afro-Guyanese contemporary mobilization and threats to commit violence. In this case, we have a situation where the aggrieved party wants executive power through violence as they see their numerical minority status as preventing their political party from winning executive power through elections. They see executive power as necessary to protect their cultural identity from perceived injustices. So the relationship of cultural identity to violence in Guyana is a mixture of personal desire for power and perceptions of threats to Afro-Guyanese cultural identity.
The perceived threat to Afro-Guyanese which is cited by their purported leaders may indeed be well-founded and may not altogether be an invention for narrow instrumental purpose. However, in the climate of threats and acts of violence, it is difficult to determine the nature and extent of the grievances, much less design viable solutions to address them. For example, assuming that the perception of threat is well-founded, is the state unwilling or unable to take appropriate action, and, is such unwillingness or inaction discriminatory against Afro-Guyanese? I believe that not having a peaceful climate to genuinely discuss and assess such issues is a very important reason for the social and political impasse in Guyana.
One notable fact about this situation is that the Indo-Guyanese majority also feel a serious threat to their existence, perhaps more so than their Afro-Guyanese fellows. This is because although they are the numerical majority, and an Indian-led party has formed the government since 1992, they have consistently been at the receiving end of Afro-Guyanese violence. I believe that since both communities are constituted de facto around identity related grievances, there is no point talking around this in the name of class experience.
Afro-Guyanese violence against Indo-Guyanese is a matter of a long public record. This was the case when the Afro-Guyanese based political party was in power for 28 years from 1964 to 1992, and has continued to the present. Most recently, Minister Satyadeo Shaw, three members of his family and his security guard were murdered. In the context, there is strong reason to believe that the killings were done by people in the African resistance. Many Afro-Guyanese are celebrating this on the internet and 'their' political parties, and intellectuals have stepped up the threat of more violence as election approaches in September 2006.
The restriction of cultural and physical space and the unleashing of violence on Indo-Guyanese (and others) have turned them into a psychological minority. The highly restricted cultural and physical space is experienced as cultural suffocation and the years of physical violence and threat of violence directed at Indo-Guyanese is experienced as internment and organized terror.
Like people everywhere else, Indo-Guyanese are just too busy protecting and defending themselves culturally and physically to have time and moral space to even want to listen to someone else's claims about their being economically and politically marginalized. The violence has also generated forms of Indo-Guyanese resistance.
These responses, I believe, are normal in conditions where people feel that their lives are unsafe. One of the most destructive effects of the cultural suffocation and physical internment of Indo-Guyanese is their increasing loss of empathy for the Afro-Guyanese condition and the claims made their on behalf.
Something we need to keep in mind is that collective feelings and perceptions related to identity are always informed by specific ways of interpreting history and society, even when the feelings and perceptions are grounded in direct experience. In the colonial period, Whites saw themselves as the master race involved in civilizing the world; today, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Guyanese see themselves involved in a project of racial redemption. In the process, both groups have constructed master narratives to solicit support for and justify the violence through which they are supposed to realize their aims.
Two points immediately relating to cultural identity as discussed above require further elaboration. First, Afro-Guyanese have mobilized on the basis of Black Nationalism, an ethnocultural ideology which has wide currency in the Caribbean, Canada, the USA, the UK and elsewhere. This ideology is buttressed by Caribbean Historical Discourse which sees Afro-Caribbean people as providentially and historically appointed emancipators, a teleology which results in an aggressive and violent assertion of cultural and political rights against everyone else. This master narrative today serves as an empowerment and encouragement mechanism for Afro-Guyanese and Afro-Caribbean violence against others, even though it had clear progressive purposes in the anticolonial period.
In fact, Black Nationalism has constructed a common sense with attendant values and desires around its reading of history and its mission to seize executive power. Its representations of Afro-Caribbean peoples and its Others in history (concrete lived experiences) and History (impersonal teleology) according to master narrative of racial emancipation and redemption work as a desiring machine to solicit and secure affective investments. These militant intentions of Black Nationalism are realized in Guyana as the routine unleashing of Afro-Guyanese violence and terror on Indo-Guyanese and others.
Secondly, the overwhelming dominance of 'Africans' in the Police and Military in Guyana serves as another empowerment and encouragement mechanism for Afro-Guyanese violence against Indo-Guyanese. One prominent African leader recently pointed out quite frankly that given the composition of the security forces in Guyana, Africans cannot be militarily defeated. In this context, we can interpret the non-effectiveness of the security forces in Guyana as more than incompetence or foot-dragging; it is a pledge of affective investment in the Historical Mission bequeathed to Afro-Guyanese in the master narrative emplotted in Caribbean Historical Discourse and its political moment, Black Nationalism.
What these two points highlight is that people who commit violence in the name of cultural identity do so when they are empowered and encouraged to do so. This was true of Whites during colonialism, of Serbs in Kosovo, of Indonesians in East Timor, of Fijians in Fiji, and of Afro-Guyanese in Guyana today. This is a situation which desperately needs humane attention.
Beyond the impasse
The solutions may lie in:
1. Genuine discussions and understanding of the perceived problems
2. A collective agreement on establishing and maintaining peace and security
3. A comprehensive collective agreement on the protection of cultural and human rights
4. Monitoring for violation of cultural and human rights
5. Agreed upon institutional mechanisms to investigate and address perceived state and non-state related violations
6. Developing a public culture through a public pedagogy to help everyone recognize the grievances of both groups and the difficulties of attending to them because of a lack of peace and trust
7. Focusing the education/school system on these issues as part of the attempt to cultivate such a public culture
8. Enhanced media/journalistic ethics and licensing to contribute to the fostering of such a public culture and decreasing inflammatory rhetoric by talk show hosts, columnists, letters to the newspapers, etc.
9. Establishing a multi-racial Commission of Eminent persons to study the problems indepth and recommend longer term solutions.names such as H. Brewster, B. Ramcharran, S.S. Ramphal, Wilson Harris, Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter and A.K. Sen come to mind.
10. Work with all groups to design fair and viable ways and a timetable to implement the recommendations.
Before, I close this piece, I want to issue a few words of caution and answer my critics. Although I have used the terms Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese as if those groups are monolithic, this is not so. Indo-Guyanese are deeply divided, even among the Hindus, which some may think is a united group. One research study found it impossible to get an opinion from Hindus in Guyana because each faction tried its best to prevent the researcher from even knowing about, much less speaking with, other rival factions. I suspect this may be less so among Muslims. Then of course, Indians who are rich and who are ordinary field and plantation workers do different things with their time, space, imagination and affections, as do many of those who are fully urbanized and Westernized and who are not quite so.
As for Afro-Guyanese, my generalizations are even more dangerous for they represent this group as an identity organized around violence. Nothing can be further from the truth. If that were the case, then lets stop talking and call in the Indian army and police (from India) under technical assistance to fight the gang in Buxton on behalf of Indians. This would realize the Hobbesian war of all against all and seal our collective fate as a failure of reason.
Afro-Guyanese are a deeply divided people as well. As a person whose first high school friend was an African from Cashbah in Uitvlugt (he died of tetanus poisoning a couple months after we became friends), I would be denying reality and betraying his memory to suggest that Afro-Guyanese are a monolithic group bound to violence. As a student, I benefited from the resourcefulness, intellectual guidance and friendship from Black scholars and professors like the historian David Trotman of Trinidad, the social and political theorist Ato Sekyi-Oto from Ghana and our own Caribbean political scientist Rudy Grant from Guyana. I would be a namakaram (ungrateful in Guyanese translation) and an intellectual dunce to now say that African people are united by a tendency to violence. As someone who has fought for the rights of African peoples in different continents for over two decades, often at great personal cost and suffering, I would be betraying my political instincts and convictions to suggest that all Afro-Guyanese people have an affective investment in violence against Indo-Guyanese. As a visitor and guest to Dr. Havelock Brewster at his UNCTAD office in Geneva back in 1992, who immediately felt him to be the most gracious human being I have ever met, I would be betraying my affective and intellectual self-knowledge and self-formation to totalize and simplify the identity of Afro-Guyanese around violence.
Neither Afro-Guyanese nor Indo-Guyanese are simple unities
I suppose my sweeping generalizations about Africans may be what prompted Alissa Trotz to say my essay in Guyana Chronicle was an exercise in simplicity and provocation. I accept the charge. It was meant to be both, although not to injure. I hope it has not injured. I am not as worried about Afro-Guyanese and Afro-Caribbean peoples forgiving my simplicities as I am about those Indo-Guyanese who may seize on this as a finished work and vision, and as a truth to be pedaled and hurl at all Afro-Guyanese people. Yet, I have faith that the internal criticism within the Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Caribbean communities will help all to realize that my argument needs to be read in nuanced ways.
Dr. Festus Brotherson sent me a reading list on revolution for which I must thank him. I wish he would have instructed me as to what revolution has to do with the murder of Indo-Guyanese and innocent Afro-Guyanese people by Afro-Guyanese militants in Guyana. Perhaps, he and I and others could learn from each other about how far or close we are in our ways of making sense of the despairing state in which Guyana has plunged since independence. But to do that we need to engage in a public pedagogy to build a public culture which faces our problems honestly, squarely and humanely. Festus also noted that I set up a too strong opposition between real/unreal. I confess to intentionally simplifying again. As a card-carrying postcolonialist, I understand the incestuous relationship of the two categories as each implicate and deconstruct the other and have made some effort to modify the essay as necessary.
Nevertheless, I should reiterate that I stand by my central argument and this is that Caribbean Historical Discourse is the primary intellectual funding mechanism of Black Nationalism, including a Black Nationalism that justifies and provokes murder and terror in Guyana and solicits and secures affective investment from most Afro-Guyanese for doing so. Black Nationalism is a more than an ideology and a movement. Here, I strongly disagree with Dr. Randy Persaud who wrote some time ago that ROAR is an Indian version of Black Nationalism.
Unlike ROAR, Black Nationalism is a discursive formation which, like all discursive formations, works to create a complex field of values, meanings and practices through which the African self is posited as a universalized subject of emancipatory possibilities staged in the drama of the dialectic of White/colonizer and Black/resistor. In the cartography of this discursive system, Indians and other non-whites and non-Blacks are positioned on the margins as Others and are supposed to submit to the march of History, Truth, Universal Reason, etc. This intellectual simplicity is Christian metaphysics, Marxism and Eurocentrism all in one. Dr. Rishee Thakur rightly called it Anglo-Christian hegemony.
ROAR, on the other hand, like Paul Tennessees DLM before it, is an oppositional gesture without a social base and institutional location. While it solicits affective investments from Indians, it has come-up empty handed. Both the gesture and its lack of success are instructive for what they are not.
Guyana, with a population of around 800,000 ought to be a place where all Guyanese want to live. Unfortunately, it has the highest 'peace' time emigration in human history and probably more capable people than any other country, percentage wise. I believe that some of these people want a viable Guyana and are willing to work for it.
Finally, let me end by saying something I have been hearing and seeing in my part of the world for more than a decade: The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. This is mine.
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Walter H. Persaud teaches Political Science, Cultural Studies and English in Thailand. His interests revolve around social and politican discourse and human rights issues, especially those related to gender and racial/ethnic conflicts.