Giving dialogue at least a chance

If ever a country needed more civility in the discourse conducted between its political and other leaders it is Guyana now. The level of virulence, the lack of magnanimity, the bitterness of exchanges, the presumption of enmity on the other side by each side is astounding. Hackles rise at the slightest hint of provocation or indeed with no excuse whatsoever. Tempers fray at the drop of a misplaced word.

Consider the life and work of the Russian Anton Chekhov. At a time like this it is good to consider the life of one of the most sensible, open-minded and civilized men who ever lived. Anton Chekhov, born in 1860, became a doctor and practised his profession devotedly. But he also turned himself into one of Russia’s greatest writers. In a wonderfully creative life of only 44 years he was able to divide his time between “Medicine … my lawful wife and literature… my mistress.” He wrote perfect short stories of shining lucidity and his plays – the celebrated Uncle Vanya, The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard amongst others – revolutionized the theatre of his day and have provided succeeding generations with vivid insights into how men and women love and hate and suffer and exult when living even the most ordinary and uneventful lives: “People,” he pointed out, “eat their dinner, just eat their dinner, and in the meantime their happiness is taking shape or their lives are being destroyed.”

As a doctor Chekhov tended thousands of peasants in a clinic on his estate, planned and helped build schools, endowed libraries, and scraped together money and support for a multitude of other causes. This first hand involvement with day-to-day practicalities made him scornful of all-or-nothing recipes for universal salvation. He was once accused of writing a story that lacked “ideology.” “But doesn’t the story,” Chekhov responded, “protest against lying from start to finish? Isn’t that an ideology?”

ian on sundayIn a famous letter to the editor of a journal which had begun to publish his work he outlined his credo: “I am neither liberal, nor conservative, nor gradualist, nor monk, nor indifferentist, I would like to be a free artist and nothing else … Dullwittedness and tyranny reign not only in merchants’ homes and police stations. I see them in science, in literature, and among the younger generation. That is why I cultivate no particular predilection for policemen, butchers, scientists, writers or the younger generation. I look upon tags and labels as prejudices. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and … freedom from violence and lies, no matter what form these two take.”

What shines through in Chekhov’s life is his plain humanity, the allowances he made for people’s weaknesses and foibles, the understanding he showed for beliefs he did not share, the respect he cultivated for the personalities of others, his disposition to seek arrangements which brought out the best in all whom he encountered.

Would that the spirit of Anton Chekhov might preside amidst the tense debates taking place in Guyana! The dialogue between the contending parties, to put it mildly, cannot all be plain-sailing and free of heat. Matters of great moment are at issue and entrenched positions are naturally defended to the hilt. After all, the dialogue is about the whole future of Guyana, the basic way in which the society and governance is going to be organized. Party contention, even bitter contention, will sometimes be the order of the day. Given the rifts which have recently reopened so dangerously it is going to be extremely important that tempers are held in check and that some minimum of patient attention to and consideration for the other side’s point of view is maintained.

In other words a certain underlying civility is going to have to prevail if dialogue is to bear fruit. My thesaurus gives a wide range of words and phrases associated with civility: common courtesy, considerate attention, graciousness, politeness, tactfulness, diplomacy, amiability, obligingness, benevolence, agreeableness, lucid words, generosity of spirit, respectful attentiveness, good temper, amity, peacefulness, fair mindedness – to name some of them.

None of these words describe states of mind or behaviour patterns which have been much in evidence in recent events or indeed in the reporting of recent wants in the media. In fact, let us face it, civil is not exactly the word which describes the state of relationships between the parties and people contending for power in the nation at the moment. But if dialogue is going to lead to progress in resolving gut political issues then a basic civility is going to have to accompany the substantive debates.

Solutions are difficult to find when suspicions and resentments are simmering and people are speaking at each other but not listening. At this stage it is crucially important that a basic civility exists between our leaders as they conduct their deliberations on the nation’s future. And such civility needs to be spread among those more extreme followers on both sides who are always the ones most likely to put any delicate negotiation at risk.

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