By what values should we strive to live in order to achieve a community in which differences are accommodated, a community where there is diversity of discourse but a recognition of the common good regardless of politics, religion, race and personal beliefs? Such an ideal will never be realized but the values which could lead to a serviceable approximation of the good society need to be taught early and for as long as it takes to reduce the hate and bile, mutually exchanged, which disfigures too many countries, including our own, too often.
Four concepts come to mind.
Respect: This is one of those good, old-fashioned concepts which has fallen into disuse but should not have done. As I used to tell our young cricketers and tennis players when I talked to them before they went on tour, respect takes many forms: respect for each other on the team but also for their opponents, respect for honesty in how they play the game, respect for the laws of the game and for those who officiate, respect for the traditions of the game and for those who have built before them, patriotic respect for the country they represent and, of course, respect for themselves.
Respect has been degraded as a concept because it became associated with colonial kow-towing and servile acceptance of imposed standards and rules. But respect does not have a place or a season – it is for everywhere and all times.
Service: Serving the public in central and local government offices and agencies and in municipal departments – serving customers, clients and patients in stores, banks, restaurants and hospitals – service is not a favour being bestowed, it is a duty absolutely owed. Implicit in the role is the understanding that service is the right of the person being served and not favour-dispensing by the temporary office-holder. Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations, had it about right – we should not expect showy gratitude (much less bribes) for doing what rightfully belongs to the job. “That is like the eye demanding a reward for seeing.”
Civility: In this time and place of mutual suspicion, intense animosity, back-biting and even hatred in the media, in politics and in public discourse, it is of the utmost importance that in society there are those who set an example by simply behaving with tolerance and mutual understanding and generosity of spirit. If these basic civilities cannot be exchanged between us all, whatever our differences of opinion, then hatred and pettiness and bitter intolerance will come to rule in the land and drag us down into the dirt and finally into the depths.
There is a terrible divisiveness which can grow even in a land where democracy has taken root. It is the divisiveness of political differences taken to the point of destructive partisan rancour. In America we see it happening now. In Guyana we suffer deeply from it. Long ago George Washington in his Farewell Address when he gave up the presidency of the United States in 1796 warned of this ever-present danger: “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissention, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”
Wisdom: Practical wisdom involves two things – it involves the exercise of sound judgement and it involves an appreciation of what really matters in life. And a good part of such wisdom means engaging with what other people think and want. Wisdom is often found in listening to others, understanding their concerns and helping them to make their lives better. Wisdom can only be acquired through engagement and dialogue, by feeling that we are responsible not only for ourselves but for others.
A celebrated Jewish teacher and sage, Hillel the Babylonian, who lived more than 2,000 years ago, advised his people with words that have echoed down the centuries: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me, yes, but if I am only for myself, then what am I?”
All persons of any goodwill at all should regularly ask themselves: “If I am only for myself and mine then what am I?” No better time than now to ask ourselves the question.