Reading the racists posts on social media immediately following the election results, I was reminded of an intense conversation with a young Bosnian who tried to convince me that theirs was not a war born out of racism but rather ethnic differences.
I must say I never got the point he was seeking to make. From where he sat, racism had to involve people of African decent. Ethnic differences somehow ranked higher on the scale of what made hatred legitimate.
From where I sat, amidst the rubble of the once spectacular city of Sarajevo, all there was to contemplate was how political manipulation of differences had been allowed to go so desperately wrong.
It seems clear that the visceral reaction to the election outcome in Trinidad and Tobago provided a vista into a society unraveling. What else did we expect as the culmination of a long, “brutish, acrimonious, rampageous and vitriolic” election campaign?
Political strategies driven by the promotion of a singular identity of one group being, ipso facto, better suited to leadership than another are doomed to disaster. Of even greater concern, is that such strategies become structural, carried over from one generation to the next, and at some point, frighteningly unstoppable.
To their credit, political leaders on all sides immediately and publicly distanced themselves from the comments on Facebook last week. A cross section of religious leaders expressed mutual concern, and the police, with good intent but perhaps unwisely, issued a threat to stamp out racism on social media.
Indeed, much has been written about those disturbing statements by commentators more savvy than myself.
The overarching response has been healthy outrage and righteous condemnation. So there you have it, we reject racism in Trinidad and Tobago. I am not convinced.
It is not likely that the emotions expressed on social media will easily go away. Nor will distancing oneself from the statements suffice.
Several years ago, the Nobel Laureate author of “Identity and Violence, The Illusion of Destiny”, Professor Amartya Sen, visited Trinidad and Tobago. In delivering the Dr Eric Williams Memorial Lecture, Sen paid tribute to Williams as a visionary political leader who as “a shrewd social analyst paid a lot of attention to the issues of identity.”
The thrust of Sen’s lecture was that identity is of central importance in understanding a range of practical development issues, from economic policy to institutional strengthening, since: “Our behaviour and our commitments are deeply influenced by the way we identify with some people and not with others.”
He argued that citizens are individuals with plural identities. The same person can be of African origin, a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago, a US resident, a woman, a mother, a lawyer, the daughter of poor farmers, and an avid believer of extraterrestrial beings. Societies are not best served by encouraging citizens to chose a singular identity that trumps all others.
As Professor Sen pointed out, an unreasoned identity choice has been responsible for many atrocities in the contemporary world, such as those I experienced in the former Yugoslavia.
Looking at the Caribbean, Professor Sen proposed that recognition of the diversity of the population should go hand in hand with the aspiration of developing a common national identity. In short, the challenge of leadership in a plural society such as ours is the elevated importance of social cohesion.
So, what is our next move?
Clearly, the country needs to revisit the “shrewd social analysis” of Dr Eric Williams and refocus our attention on issues of identity.
What that means in practical terms is that social cohesion should become a guiding principle of public policy. Not guidelines to determine, for instance, the number of Hindus in Parliament, but coherent public policies that foster mechanisms of solidarity between individuals, groups, communities and generations.
Identity in Trinidad and Tobago is a complex issue underpinned by entrenched disparities in education, health care, access to justice and wealth distribution. The vitriol expressed post election came from citizens whose circumstances encourage them to pin their futures on political patronage.
What we are seeking to achieve this time is a set of broadly shared and equally accessible opportunities that contribute to citizens having a shared sense of responsibility for the common enterprise of nation building and a genuine sense of belonging.
In addressing the opening of Parliament in 1962, Dr Eric Williams identified the protection and promotion of democracy as the overriding responsibility of the newly independent Trinidad and Tobago:
“Democracy means more, much more than the right to vote; Democracy means recognition of the rights of others; Democracy means the equality of all before the law; Democracy means equality of opportunity for all in education, in public service and in private employment; Democracy means the responsibility of the government to its citizens, the protection of its citizens from the exercise of arbitrary power and the violation of human freedoms and individual rights: Democracy means freedom of worship for all and the subordination of any one race to the overriding right of the human race…”
So as Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley calls for volunteerism and the end of the ‘gimme gimme’ culture, the challenge of promoting social unity goes out to the new government.
A goal as large and complex as social cohesion needs to be addressed from a comprehensive approach, interconnecting all levels of public action and all policies that affect the deepening of social cohesion.
This is no small feat, but there is no more powerful force to initiate positive change than political will working in consort with the will of the people.