Slipping off the shackles of political correctness?

Much of what Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI) President Clinton Urling had to say last weekend in his address at a Chamber dinner held to mark the launch of its 2013 Business Directory had to do with crime, its impact on the business community and what could or should be done to address the problem. Our own interpretation of the presentation has led us to the conclusion that the Chamber President is seeking to ramp up the public discourse on crime and the business community and perhaps even to drag the government and the Guyana Police Force (GPF) in the direction of decisive initiatives aimed at driving back the crime menace.

We believe that Mr Urling is correct in his assessment of the gravity of the crime situation. We appear to be in the midst of one of those spates of violent rampages with which the business community has had to live for several years, and which, before it finally spends itself, usually takes a heavy toll.

The business community usually doesn’t say a great deal about crime beyond the now customary generalized and polite requests that the police raise their game. It is, it seems, a matter of political correctness. When the business support organisations speak, their pronouncements are invariably  measured,  focusing as much attention on not giving offence to officialdom as on addressing the problem at hand. The government, of course, has grown quite used to this and takes those pronouncements in its stride knowing only too well that the next gentle admonition of the police will come when the next crime wave comes and starts to take effect.

The reality is, of course, that self-delusion cannot wish away the truth. Businesses are targets and in some instances hostages who continue to be restrained in their protestations mainly because of apprehension over possible official reprisals, real or imagined, if what they say is deemed to be politically incorrect. Insofar as it continues to place undue restraints on its own ability to engage government in genuinely free and open discourse on the issue of crime and the need for a more robust, official response, the business community negatively affects its own welfare.

The fact of the matter is that the Government of Guyana and the Guyana Police Force, collectively and individually, bear responsibilities for fighting crime. When, as is currently the case, we find ourselves in the grip of a spate of violent criminal acts there is absolutely nothing wrong with looking in those quarters for solutions and venting your spleen – at both the government and the police – if the results are not forthcoming in the legitimate expectation that they will take you seriously. That is the way the system works in countries considered to be far more sound and stable democracies than ours, so that we need feel no guilt when open and honest criticism attracts the customary official admonitions.

One of the things that Mr Urling said last weekend is that as far as tackling the crime problem is concerned Home Affairs Minister Clement Rohee is not the real issue and that public criticism should be directed at the GPF instead. There are those who would respond to this by saying that it is customary in democracies where accountability counts for anything for the inadequacies of government portfolios be laid at the doors of the subject ministers and that it should not be any different in Mr Rohee’s case. In fact, it might not even be a case of Mr Rohee’s competence or lack thereof but simply a matter of a serious decline in the force’s crime-fighting capabilities under his watch that is sufficiently serious to justify him being replaced. That having been said Mr Urling is entitled to his views on Mr Rohee as much as he is entitled to the various other views articulated in his presentation.

As it happened he went to town – so to speak – on both the political administration as a whole and the Guyana Police Force, seemingly extending both the tone and content of criticism of the government’s handling of crime beyond where the private sector had ever taken it before. As far as the government is concerned he wants it to put up or shut up on the business of crime and security. He wants government to tackle deficiencies like a lack of  physical resources, training, manpower, salaries,  issues on which the government has dithered for years. He wants leadership changes, “changes at the top” as he puts it. This may well be Mr Urling’s understanding of the direction in which his own constituency – the business community or at least sections thereof – wants him to go. Moreover, it has to be said that, one way or another, the bluntness of his pronouncements on this occasion will probably attract a greater measure of critical official attention. The point here is that however well-intentioned Mr Urling’s comments might be, you can bet your bottom dollar that there are those who are offended by what he had to say for no other reason that they have their own axes to grind. That is simply the reality of our polarized society and our petty political culture.

Mr Urling would of course have every right to argue that the physical and emotional impact of crime on the business community – which, after all, ought to be his real concern – has arrived at a point where both the levels and the seriousness of the intervention must transcend concerns over political correctness, move beyond the customary vague ritual calls for ‘more police action’ and address with far greater specificity issues that have to do with what’s wrong, who is accountable and how we go about solving the problems. Mr Urling might not, frequently, be a paragon of political correctness but then his job is not about political correctness but about saying things that must be said if he is to do what he perceives to be his job as head of the GCCI.

The kind of direct, engaging approach to articulating the crime challenge reflected in his recent presentation is probably likely to win a greater measure of official attention than those that never seem to go much further than simply crying over the problem. With that will come criticism from some quarters, but by now the Chamber President must surely know what goes with the territory.

What makes Mr Urling’s recent speech interesting is that its contents will inevitably be placed in a political crucible, picked apart and subjected to rigorous public assessment. However tedious the ensuing debate may turn out to be it would at least be a good deal more bearable if what the Chamber President had to say results in a measure of official action that better protects the business community.

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