In the bewildering variety of things that come over the electronic transom we now have on the internet, there occasionally comes a gem that stops you in your tracks; even more rare is the gem that gives you goose bumps. This weekend from my friend George Jardim came one of the latter. It was a video of an address by Lieutenant General Jay Silveria, Head of the United States Air Force (USAF) Academy who was responding to an incident involving racial slurs being written on a message board in the USAF Prep School there. Speaking to an assembly of hundreds of people, including faculty, staff and workers at the Academy, he began by referring to the racial slurs as “having no place in the USAF” and he went on to talk about responses to the slurs:
“The appropriate response is a better idea, which is why I’m here with all these hundreds of faculty and staff, all aspects of the 10th Air Base Wing. We have a better idea.
“We would be naive to think that everything is perfect here, that we shouldn’t discuss this topic. We would also be tone deaf not to think about the backdrop of what’s going on in our country, in Charlottesville and Ferguson and the NFL. We should be having a civil discourse and talk about these issues. And the discussions we’ve already had here about Charlottesville have been very useful.
“I also have another better idea and it’s about our diversity; it’s the power of our diversity that we can come from all walks of life, all races, all backgrounds, genders, make-up, all upbringings. It’s how that diversity comes together and makes us more powerful. That’s also a much better idea for us to consider.
“So just in case you’re unclear on where I stand on this, I will leave you with my most important thought today.
“If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.
“If you can’t treat someone from another gender, man or woman, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.
“If you demean someone in any way, you need to get out.
“If you can’t treat someone from another race, or a different colour skin, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.
“I want you to take out your phones and video tape this so you can use it. Keep the words; remember them; share them and talk about them.”
General Silveria’s talk was riveting. Of course it was the head man speaking and this is a military environment, but the huge crowd there was silent, drinking in his words. It was a brief message, very direct, and aimed obviously at the United States Air Force personnel, but his performance left one with the feeling that his message could be transposed into other situations around the world where mankind’s problems with ‘the other’ are so redolent. His point about seeing diversity as something to be embraced, because “that diversity comes together and makes us more powerful” is a striking lesson for us in Guyana, itself with a multi-racial population where our own ethnic divide is stunting our progress and crippling our systems at every turn.
The General’s talk was gripping, providing measured advice for that audience in America wrestling with racial matters and societal strains, and in that context it might well be something that should engage us here. Of course, his admonition to “get out” is largely symbolic in that he’s essentially talking about a mental shift, rather than a physical relocation, but the advice is powerful and pragmatic at the same time. “Remember the words,” said General Silveria. “Use them; share them; talk about them.” Whether one lives in the USA or Guyana, that does indeed sound like “a better idea”.
(The USAF leader’s dramatic speech can be found at CNN.com/videos/US/Jay-Silveria-Air-Force.)
In the wake of hearing the General’s comments, it is pertinent to say that we have a number of voices in this country who are equally important to us for the concerns they raise, or the information they pass on to us, many on a daily basis, in our local press. I’m referring to such persons as Christopher Ram, Freddie Kissoon, Ian McDonald, David Hinds, Abu Bakr, Henry Jeffrey, Alan Fenty, Ralph Ramkarran, Lincoln Lewis, Adam Harris and others who stir us or inspire us, or cause concern or awareness to rise in us. These are truly important voices, dealing with important issues, and we are fortunate that they speak out.
Against my praise for them, I have heard some of the persons I have mentioned in this piece being dismissed as “radical” or even “extremist” in their various commentaries. Those are not the adjectives I would use – I would prefer to say they are “stimulating” or “provocative” – but for those who persist with the “radical” or “extremist” descriptions I suggest they look past the label for a minute and consider that there may be value or awakenings for many of us in the output of these writers and others like them, unsettling as they may be. In that context, these persons are making substantial contributions to our understandings and insights, and we are limiting our own potential as a people when we turn a deaf ear to such voices. The evidence is clear that they often have much of value to say to us. They constitute a resource for all the Guyanese people. We should look where they are pointing; we lose when we don’t.