By Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” Jan. 21, 2021)
“In fact, the only sin we will never forgive in each other is a difference in opinion.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Anti-intellectualism, camouflaged with civility and politeness, has blocked the means to engage in critical debate. Contempt for the life of the mind and an obsession with comfort has made public discourse virtually impossible. And, with the avoidance of critical dialogue, we end up hiding the truth of our understanding from ourselves and each other, which may prove to be the greatest tragedy of all.” — Ejike Obineme, Too Terrified to Enter the Arena of Ideas.
In times past, you entered a discussion at your own risk. Woe be unto you if you made a statement and could not back it up. Those were the days when all of SVG was teeming with ideas, conversations, discussions and arguments. When everyone held fast to their beliefs but was willing to put them up to investigation and inquiry.
Debate was everywhere, and it was not a test of debating skills. It was a test of ideas about what is wrong with society and what was to be done to take the country forward.
Some of us were so thirsty for knowledge that we risked our liberty to get information. We eagerly awaited the arrival of illegal and banned Granma, the Cuban newspaper that highlighted the battles and successes of the Cuban Revolution; Soviet Weekly; the English language Russian paper that offered a glimpse into the socialist world; Thunder and Mirror from Guyana and Cheddi Jagan People’s Progressive Party that damned the blight of Burnham’s Co-operative socialism yet offered critical support for its progressive foreign policy: Ralph Gonsalves’ biting columns in the Barbados Nation Newspaper, as well as the bold and brave radicalism of Renwick Rose YULIMO and the United People’s Movement whose organs, Freedom and Justice newspapers, made the ruling elite quake with fear of exposure.
In those days, there was a serious battle for people’s minds. And then everything crashed. The Grenada Revolution imploded with negative fallout. The Soviet Union and the socialist countries disintegrated swiftly. The world had truly changed.
The progressive movement was torn asunder. Many who claimed to be revolutionaries became ghosts of their former selves. They essentially became careerists, pragmatists, accommodationists and apologists. Most settled for the honeycomb of power and merely genuflected to the pressing problems plaguing the people.
Many gleefully embraced the get-rich-quick, my-time-now, no-more-personal-sacrifice mantra. Nothing except family was worth fighting for. Commitment to anything meaningful was opportunistically timed to coincide with an electoral clock. The community dismantled and suffered, and among the youth, there developed a strong nihilistic belief made popular in song by the artist 50 Cents, “Get rich quick or die young.”
In politics and across all social, economic and religious institutions, a radical form of control emerged. Confirm or be bent into shape, remain non-conforming and be ostracised. A warning stalked the land: rock the boat at your personal and professional risk. All too many meekly obeyed, citing the primary obligation of food, clothing, shelter, the mortgage to pay and the children to educate.
Groupthink, a tendency to seek consensus instead of fostering dissent, has sadly gripped the land. According to the Yale psychologist, Irving Janis, “Groupthink is the enemy of originality because people feel pressured to conform to the dominant, default views instead of championing a diversity of thought. Groupthink occurs when people are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, and their striving for unanimity override their motivation to appraise alternative courses of action realistically.”
Bill Moyers, a communications expert for President John Kennedy, recalled that many in the leadership circle “tended to conduct the affairs of state as if they were a gentlemen’s club… If you are close … you are less inclined, in a debating sense, to drive your opponent to the wall and very often permit a viewpoint to be expressed and to go unchallenged.” There is a fine line between people sharing the same values and norms in such an atmosphere, belief in them intensely and operating like a cult.
Clearly, unity is paramount. Unity must be cultivated and cherished, but a dogmatic approach to vital issues is deadly especially if you think you have developed a Teflon-like ability to swim past difficulties successfully, misfortunes and blunders that might have taken down the less fortunate or savvy.
Plain Talk harbours no doubt that to solve problems, make wise decisions, and remain successful, groups need to encourage original ideas and dissenting views. Groupthink should be frowned on because it is a form of mind control that attempts to choke off inquiry. We approve the wise words of Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
But too many of us remain too terrified to enter the arena of ideas to sort out differences and push each other to think deeper about our words and work’s implications. Important disputes, we are told must be done in private.
Ojike Obineme correctly points out that “any attempt toward public discussion involving a direct, ideological confrontation is quickly reinterpreted as disruptive and an attempt to self-righteously and selfishly reassert oneself in the public sphere. And yet it is certain ideas going unchallenged that has led to misunderstanding and mass confusion so prevalent among our people.”
Plain Talk will be forever convinced that the moral growth of a country has to be measured by its ability or failure to bring into public consciousness the plight of the silenced, oppressed and unremembered. Any serious change agent must take it as her solemn responsibility as Edward Said points out in Representations of the Intellectual to “publicly represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten and swept under the rug”
SVG has become an intellectual wasteland. The time has come for us to fertilise our minds again.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.