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Identity, violence and nation building: social cohesion is T&T’s biggest challenge

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.

Photo: A young boy plays on a tank in the Sarajevo neighbourhood of Grbavica on April 22, 1996. (Copyright AFP/Odd Andersen)
Photo: A young boy plays on a tank in the Sarajevo neighbourhood of Grbavica on April 22, 1996.
(Copyright AFP/Odd Andersen)

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.

Photo: Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (left) shakes hands with Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley en route to Nelson Mandela's funeral in South Africa. (Courtesy News.Gov.TT)
Photo: Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (left) shakes hands with Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley en route to Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa.
(Courtesy News.Gov.TT)

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.

Photo: Dancers for Massy Trinidad All Stars perform to "Curry Tabanca" during the International Conference and Panorama at the Grand Stands, Queen's Park Savannah.  (Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)
Photo: Dancers for Massy Trinidad All Stars perform to “Curry Tabanca” during the International Conference and Panorama at the Grand Stands, Queen’s Park Savannah.
(Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)

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.

Photo: PNM supporters poke fun at the outgoing Prime Minister on September 7 at Balisier House. (Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)
Photo: PNM supporters poke fun at the outgoing Prime Minister on September 7 at Balisier House.
(Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)

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.

Photo: New Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley gestures to supporters at Balisier House after the election results on September 7. (Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)
Photo: New Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley gestures to supporters at Balisier House after the election results on September 7.
(Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)

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.

AboutElizabeth Solomon

Elizabeth Solomon
Elizabeth Solomon is an award winning journalist, who has recently returned home after more than 15 years working on Human Rights and Conflict Prevention with the United Nations.

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44 comments

  1. I totally agree as was said Plato in his “republic” spent two pages on economics and forty pages on music.

  2. I find all of a sudden commentators on this blog have toned down their vitriol on government. These same commentators came out with blazing guns over the last 5 years. Sorry, but your slip is showing like Helen Drayton.

  3. I really like the selection of articles you are publishing Lasana.

    • Yes. I am thrilled to get such wonderful content. I’ve even gotten more than I can post. I got one or two additional stuff from Elizabeth and Raffique. Hope to make the time to put them up soon.

  4. Some people continue to pull the wool over their own eyes. lol

  5. Why is social cohesion the biggest challenge for Dr.Rowley and it wasnt for the former Prime Minister? Have you heard the comments of some sbout who and which denomination not included in his cabinet? How come no burden is placed on the opposition to also accept the challenge of cohesion?To speak out on these issues so early in his governance will only fuel more speculation as he has already been branded during the election s as one who hates a certsain ethnic group.
    Also read the collective comments of some and penetrative analysis will help you to see the entrapment stratefy.

  6. I find it strange that Trinidadians don’t immediately recognize that we have race problems here …… or could it be a case of not seeing the forest for the trees?

  7. Imagine max was typified as not understanding that south produces presidents pm and scholars

    Lol

    That’s coded language

  8. We have a race problem
    Eg the response to Max comments

  9. Where ever multiple races reside one would find “race problems”, but the effects of those problems are mitigated where people aren’t averse to discussing them.

    • Ok, there are differences that “we” haven’t discussed, but the term “problem” is being applied and then amplified, when based on my interpretation of your response, what is required is dialogue btw the Groups…which occurs naturally through social interaction!

    • From my personal observations Trinidadians prefer to pretend we don’t have interracial issues that need addressing because discussing them is awkward and sensitive.

    • Ahhhh “personal”! As for my experience, growing up in Tacarigua, this “problem/issue”, was non-existent! In Trinity College, non-existent! Unit Trust (work-life) non-existent! However, the Politicians and certain Members of the “Groups”, were painting a picture that is/was foreign to me! So when I hear the word “problem”, it doesn’t correspond to my existence in T&T, but rather an Agenda with roots but no tree!

    • Then you are lying to yourself – of course we are very far removed from other countries but you know why? Because we are so darned mixed! Thank God for that.

    • I offer no word of untruth to U or myself, I only gave an account of my life in T&T, which has never been affected by Racism…overtly or covertly! What I read or hear as it pertains to Race, is from a minute segment who have every right to feel “proud” and pat themselves on the back! Part of what I’ve asked is why do “we”, lend a hand to them?

  10. Peace Folks, do we really have a “Race” problem in T&T? Or is it that the advent of Social Media has allowed all and sundry to have their say (Democracy)? Ppl have a rite to have their preferences, Indian for Indian, African for African, Syrian for Syrian and prior to all the Post Election bile “Trinbagonian for Trinbagonian! If Groups express their distrust of others on an occassion, shouldn’t the environment that fostered the response be factored in, as opposed to concluding that a “significant problem” exist? If we look to the machinations of those that have Governed (political), each Group will have grounds to their disenfranchised claim, but on as a Society (everyday interactions/trade/commerce), do we have a “Race” problem?

  11. Excellent post! The author’s experience in Bosnia gives her a unique perspective which she brings to bear in her analysis.Would like to hear more of what she has to say on this and other topics.

  12. Very well articulated. UNC scribes are searching for social issues to burden our Prime Minister

  13. I have a suspicion that much of what we have seen after the election is the deliberate work of agent provocateurs bent on destabilizing the country. Who they are, what country or whose interests they represent, I really don’t know. But I don’t think it is as simple as we may think. Be on guard.

  14. While we are processing the overt racism, spare a thought for the covert realm of more subtle prejudice.

  15. I felt that the columnist referred to Rowley’s government primarily because they will have to govern over this mess and it will be difficult. So she is challenging the ruling party to deal with it directly.
    But I agree with Trin No Pepper Bagonian in that we all have to take responsibility.
    Including in this group!

  16. Will toning down our language when referring to each other help? Or will that just mean we are stifling our real thoughts?
    I always feel if we take a minute to consider the other side before responding, it helps with our empathy meter.

    • Melanie Abdulah-Devenish

      I think it will be a matter of stifling what one really thinks, although it is still a start. I also think that a lot of us have become “suspicious” of each other without actually becoming racist. If not dealt with openly it could easily become straight out racism.

    • Yeah tell that to some people here on this group :/

  17. This is the PM job description after 2015?

  18. The moment you are convinced that it’s (more) one group than the other( not “your” group), you are part of the problem.

  19. Social cohesion will be even more difficult with falling oil and gas prices, when resources are tight, tribal instincts come to the forefront. ..

  20. This is not just Keith’s challenge…it is our challenge, to spread the positive and ignore the negative, to speak up instead of being silent when it counts and educate in the presence of ignorance….saying no to racism and classism is not just about a silent disagreement, it must something we practise daily. “To their credit, political leaders on all sides immediately and publicly distanced themselves from the comments on Facebook last week.” Really? Is that how it happened…? I did not see the comments, but the impression I got was that one side took some time before distancing themselves…but then again when you run a campaign on racism, how can you immediately turn around the next day and distance yourself from it? A deep level of hypocrisy is alive and well in this camp – and it shows they have support because they got 18 constituencies to side with them. It is just ridiculous, from start to finish that this campaign was allowed to be what is was, unchecked and unfettered and now, all of sudden, it is Dr. Rowley’s problem. I don’t know if I can agree with that. There is a problem yes, but it is all our problem….if we start to feel Dr. Rowley is some medicine man or miracle worker who can cure all that ails us, we are regressing not progressing and certainly not listening to a word he said when he spoke about doing this “together”.