Picturing a society free from bigotry and persecution, on the eve of Independence on 31 August 1962, Eric Eustace Williams—the Father of the Nation—gave us the watchwords “Discipline, Tolerance and Production.”
Starting the very next day, we began to sing our National Anthem, which says in part, “Here every creed and race finds an equal place.”
I remain a big fan of Dr Williams’ scholarship and his brilliant mind although, I confess, there is a lot about his politics which I have not liked. He obviously recognised that the diversity born of our racial and ethnic differences was an asset rather than a liability and was potentially the most important pillar of nation building.
When Dr Williams gave us those watchwords, all three were relevant and necessary. We were a young nation then, still on the brink of greatness. Since then, the rapidly changing global village has created greater inter- and intra-group competition, driven by economics, individualism, enhanced group affinity and confidence and other sociological forces.
As June 2017 comes to an end and, thanks to CNN, we watch ourselves as the outside world sees us. We have heard from the mouth of the proverbial 1% that the middle class has disappeared—excluded or maybe decimated.
We have heard further that “Trinidad has been good to some” but obviously not quite so good to ALL. We have heard that those who came last are now the most powerful.
So I think we can safely say that we did not, as a whole, progress in the disciplined and productive way Dr Williams envisioned. And the question has to be asked about what has happened in the 50-odd years since 1962. Did we simply watch the words?
In my view, we certainly have not demonstrated—and still do not now demonstrate—the understanding and sensitivity to one another without regard to race or ethnicity that one would have expected us to at this stage of our development. The hostility that still sometimes seem to characterise the relationship between the major groups suggests that we have merely tolerated each other. And that, I think, has gone on for far too long.
And mere tolerance has often not delivered the results the nation needs to achieve its full potential.
Take, for example, last month’s hammering of Kevin Baldeosingh on social and in other media over his “Hijabonomics” column. This was, as far as I could see, an opportunity for us all to ventilate our views on religion and engage in a serious, free and frank discussion.
A dissenting or different view, after all, might just be the one that creates the essential value for the whole community. How is seeking to silence someone who expresses an opinion that differs from the mainstream view different from persecuting an LGBT person?
But leadership among our civic, religious and academic ranks did not see the need for a conversation. Rather, individuals and organisations took sides and development suffered.
Rather than seize the moment, the critics railed, and once more T&T lost an opportunity. Once more, T&T failed to see that right and wrong live in opposite camps but different can live in either.
The greater our racial and ethnic differences, the greater our diversity. But nowadays, diversity goes well beyond differences of race and ethnicity, demanding as it does more open and more authentic consideration of all differences: sexual preferences, left- and right-handedness, differences of religion, of age, of points of view, of abilities—apparent and not quite so apparent.
Whether we wish to or not, we have no choice but to broaden our definition of diversity. The realities of the age in which we live demand that we do more than merely tolerate; we are bound nowadays to include.
I think that is the message that Muhammad Muwakil was sending us all when he spoke to Anthony Bourdain. What he said was that he thought that violent crime is the result of the exclusion of large segments of our society.
Might he be right? Might this comment not be another opening, another strident call for a more inclusive, nationwide conversation?
And will we let the opportunity go a-begging again, thanks to our vast national insecurities and our now chronic myopia?
On the evidence so far, my best answer is yes. And if I am right, then our thinking at all levels must evolve.
We need more progressive thought, we need some new constructs to facilitate honest and meaningful discourse. We need action to ensure that ALL Trinbagonians are accorded genuine inclusion without regard to differences.
What better time can there be than the present to review where we stand on the issue of equality and inclusion? Will there be a better time to fellowship around the table of brotherly love and national harmony?
The truth is that, here in T&T, diversity in and of itself is not a goal. For us, it already exists. What we need is to be more open, more sensitive, more inclusive.
Tolerant we already are but tolerance speaks only to allowing others to come a certain distance towards us—not necessarily to willingly sharing all our space with others. Mere tolerance rarely ever engages at the level that is necessary and it can sometimes be condescending, even insulting.
I know that I don’t want to be merely tolerated; I don’t want merely to be heard. I want to be listened to; I want to be included.
Living in a truly ‘rainbow’ manner is more than convenience. After all, the true success of diversity lies in our collective ability and willingness to harness the plurality of the totality of our differences. It is that that will maximise the power and the value of our diverse society.
But it has to be said that embracing diversity isn’t without its challenges. Getting everyone to coalesce around central themes requires astute and authentic leadership and genuine savvy. It’s not for either the thin-skinned or the faint-hearted.
It’s going to call for toughness, courage, resourcefulness and imagination; it may well be, therefore, that it is beyond the current crop of leaders.
These are difficult times for Trinidad and Tobago; we stand at the crossroads. One way lies greatness, in the other direction lies failure.
Without optimal integration and marriage of our brains, skill, will and ambitions, we may never realise the potential bestowed by our resources, human and natural; greatness will certainly elude us.
To achieve it, we have to break open the box and engage all of our people to their fullest. We have to truly include and value all our people to the benefit of the nation. We have to adopt new and modern approaches to our problems and that begins, I submit, with seriously engaging those with differing views.
Our food attests to an incredible harmony of flavours but we have sat for too long around a single table of mere tolerance. If we aspire to achieve together, we must go beyond mere tolerance to both engage and include.
It is high time we begin to commune around the table of inclusion.
I suspect that Dr Williams would have no objection to an updated trio of watchwords: Discipline, Inclusion and Production!