Our habits divide us
Ignore all the corny Confucius jokes in fractured English; this was really a man with a startlingly brilliant mind about the human condition. He possessed the unique ability to distill very complex matters into a single sentence that captured the essential element of a condition.
On the process of learning, for example, he said: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”
He explains the motivation of high-achieving individuals thus: “If you enjoy what you do, you’ll never work another day in your life.”
As someone who believes in the paramountcy of culture in mankind’s behaviours, I was particularly struck by recently reading Confucius’ observation that “wherever you find them, men’s natures are alike; it is our habits that divide us.” Occasionally you read something that makes you literally straighten up; that sentence was one. Like so many things this genius said, it’s true, and, like so many things he said, it goes beyond true to profound.
What the Chinese sage referred to as “habits” are of course the behaviours of a people, all the things we do and are – what we call today “our prevailing culture” – and history shows us example after example of the essential truth, the pith, if you will, of Confucius’ declaration.
The Chinese teacher’s use of the word “divide” is particularly telling in that it speaks directly to the mindset across the world today in which there is a disinclination to see one set of people essentially different from another set in their behaviours; not different from “environmental effects”, nor from “varying opportunities”, nor from “motivational factors”, but simply different. Blinders, it seems, are in play.
Looking around at mankind in close up, as we are able to do so easily these days, it is patently obvious that we do differ widely in our habits, and it is therefore vacuous for persons here to proclaim, as is done almost daily in political rhetoric, that we are one people. We are of course one as a nation, but within our nation there are cultural subsets, in particular, the two dominant ones, markedly different from each other, exhibiting different behaviours, or having different “habits” as Confucius put it, and those differing habits are the manifestations of what we call the ethnic divide.
In any nation, such divisions are not ill-defined or ephemeral. Clear and powerful and long entrenched, they are fiercely held and fiercely defended, and as they come down from succeeding generations the fervour of those differences does not dissipate. The behaviours maintain. We grow old with them. We pass them on to our children. We die with them.
These ethnic divisions, based on culture, are starkly present all over the globe – Africa, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Eastern Europe – and while the differences can coexist benignly when a true melting pot of groups occurs, as in the USA and parts of Canada, anywhere there are two dominant racial or ethnic groups competing for power, the situation often becomes malignant. Today the international press is full of daily examples of the horrific consequence of such conflicts, and Confucius’ point is being borne out everywhere with rampant ethnic divisions.
Guyana is a multi-cultural nation, and as a young man growing up in West Demerara, it was clear to me, from a very young age, that the Indian population and the African one had differing values and priorities; differing cuisine; differing tastes in music, dress, economic pursuits, and, most tellingly, contrasting attitudes towards each other. To some degree, the same can be said of the Portuguese population, and the Chinese one; the British here were the same. (And before someone cites it, while there may be little overt racial politics in Trinidad, the differing ethnic habits are very evident there, too.)
At one time or another, each of the cultural groups in this country, even the colonialist British, had their own association or club, many of them rigidly private. This was no aberration. Political theory was not at play. It was one group of people preferring association with those of their own culture. The crux is that it is a subject we generally avoid, and today even some of the most erudite among us are discomfited when this topic of racial division surfaces in social settings.
Indeed, ethnic divide is the elephant in the room in all these discussions we are now having about political demarcations, but we tiptoe mutely around it and the elephant remains. The reality is that although we have some very difficult problems to solve in Guyana, the most difficult is this ethnic difference because of (a) its rigid intransigence and because of (b) the fact that it impinges directly and powerfully on every other problem we face. (As I write these lines, a group called the Multiracial Patriotic Movement (MPM) has been formed here by Lin-Jay Harry-Voglezon with the aim of engaging the division issue.)
A handful of some of our more courageous political thinkers have said it is nonsense to claim that our present ethnic differences were created by persons or groups with political agendas. They are right. If you grew up in Guyana without blinders on, you know the differences were already there; political minds merely recognized what existed and exploited it to generate adherent racial groups. However, while the difficulty with political parties now being unable to find acceptable leaders outside their own ethnic stripe is certainly evidence of the polarization, to then say the political agencies created the division is myopic.
Observe the migration of our people. When the members of the sub-groups move, the division goes with them. Whether it’s Barbados or Toronto or New York or Miami, the division goes with them because the division is not about location, or occupation, or economic status; it is about the way you see life, and the way you rank aspects of life; it is about your fundamental behaviours and dispositions, and those things differ widely from one culture to another – they separate us as cultural beings. Look at us in those distant lands: completely free of political persuasions or party dogma, living in scattered communities, often many miles apart, we continue to cling to our own cultural brethren. You see it in the makeup of the various Caribbean or Guyanese associations in North America. You see it in the Caribbean sports clubs in those cities in Canada and the USA. You see it in the staff and patronage of scores of small businesses we operate in New York, or Toronto or Fort Lauderdale; free to choose, we generally choose our own.
From as far back as we can go in anthropology, even before mankind conquered the basics of survival, his fundamental concern has been to huddle “in the cave” with people whose behaviours were akin to his and even to seek to impose his/her culture – his “habits” – on other groups outside. Indeed, in extreme cases, proponents cleaving to the need for his/her “way” to continue in the face of perceived threats, will willingly sacrifice their lives, and take the lives of innocents, in the perpetuation or propagation of it. We are seeing that vicious drama being expressed in the global terrorism of this age.
It is certainly commendable that enlightened and mature minds are speaking out, in this country and in many others, on the urgent need for comity; the need for nations to join hands; the need for groups within nations to live in cooperative harmony. Unfortunately, as admirable as the goal is, the evidence in this country and in many others is that it runs aground on the impermeable rock of mankind ensconced in his culturally separate caves. To deny this is to deny reality.
The ultimate irony of Confucius’ “habits” division, is that aspiring politicians, in any country you name, including Guyana, seeing the endurance and intransigence of the divide, often seek to take advantage of it rather than attempt reconciliation.
Bernard Ramsay is right in his recent letter to castigate us for our ethnic division here, but the problem he cites is not just Guyana’s; it is mankind’s. Whether it is the Serbs and the Croats, or the Arabs and the Israelis, or the Sunnis and the Shiites, mankind’s cultural arms remain folded, and our habits continue to divide us. For Guyana in a landscape littered with stumbling blocks, that one looms the largest.