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The Morality Debate and the Spirit of Capitalism

Public discourse on morality and individual virtue has long been emphasised. But as JÖRG WIEGRATZ argues, they only tell part of the story of human beings and human society. Indeed, capitalism and its current variant neoliberalism is a moral order that defines the standards of interaction within a neoliberal society.

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The Morality Debate and the Sprit of Capitalism
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“It is not from the benevolence (kindness) of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”  – Adam Smith: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

There is a common position in public debates in many contemporary societies – be it in Uganda, Kenya, Germany, the UK or the US – that we live in an age of moral decline and moral crisis. Typically, this is a more or less direct commentary on the global system that shapes all of these societies: capitalism. Well-known public commentators and analysts in these countries, such as Will Hutton in the case of Britain, will declare that current capitalism is morally bankrupt. Hutton writes: “’Modern capitalism’ has arrived at a moral dead end, interested largely in feathering the nests of its leaders while imposing enormous costs on the rest of society and accepting no reciprocal obligations.”

Others refer to capitalism as just plain immoral and evil; or assert that figures such as fraudulent bankers or hard core, ever-profit-maximising speculators, business owners and managers (who lay off thousands of workers, or close entire factories to move to countries with cheaper labour) have lost their moral compass. This is an argument that one comes across regularly when the latest scandals emerge around systemic, high-level, harm-producing fraud and corruption or when heartless profit-making schemes are exposed, with those paying the price for these schemes being the most vulnerable people, including patients, pensioners, children, poor communities or an unsuspecting public.

Often, the terms “greed” or “selfishness” are dropped somewhere in these analyses as well, which implies that the money-minded actors concerned are immoral greedsters. Other words one regularly finds in such texts are “shocking”, “disgusting”, “devil”, “soul-less”, “cold-hearted”, “inhumane”, “indifferent”, and the like, signalling a sort of (expressed) moral unease and outrage about the critiqued actors and practices. In society usually certain economic activities, certain ways of earning a living, of making money by some groups, get categorised as immoral by some other group. And when a society experiences the rise or becoming more publicly visible of certain – say, new, more innovative, blatant, or radical – forms of money-oriented activities or ways of thinking, you will soon find one commentator pulling the analytical card that has “immoral”, or “moral decline” written on it. Representatives of the state (and the political system more broadly), the church, or unions from time to time run this line in one form or another. Of course, when your analysis asserts that morals are at rock bottom, or have been crowded out, then the diagnosis is to inject “more morality”.

Let me then present some examples of this conventional type of reasoning in public debates from the African continent, more specifically South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Nigeria: “Is it that the moral fibre of our society is irrevocably broken…?”; “[Political leaders have] largely lost their moral compass”; “Our freedom of expression had started eroding our moral fabric”; “Poor parenting and moral decay in society are to blame for runaway corruption”; “[There is now] capitalism without a soul … capitalism has lost its moral shine”; “Nigeria is gradually moving into the future with greater number of its youths turning into drugs addicts and becoming morally bankrupt”; “Only immoral leaders would put politics ahead of Nigeria’s fiscal future”; “The loss of moral values threatens our common existence”; “Government will introduce an examinable subject in schools to teach students and pupils ethics in order to rebuild the country’s degenerating moral values and make the citizens appreciate honesty.”; “Rampant criminal activities… have been blamed on lapse in moral values.” And so on and so forth. Our world is full of such statements from public officials, church leaders, artists, scholars and other professional analysts.

Notably, the youth, or groups such as “drug users”, are regularly depicted as having lost their morals. So are categories of people who just go after money, who are just in it for the money, as they say. This debate is, for instance, existent in discussions about young women dating rich and powerful old men or looking for private sponsors/sugar daddies (“transactional sex”); or about the sex-for-university-marks or sex-for-a-job phenomena, be it in Kenya, Uganda, or Nigeria.

This debate came to the fore in Kenya recently when two women, Sharon Otieno and Monica Kimani, were killed mid last year, allegedly because of having sexual affairs with older men. Al Jazeera later ran an extensive special programme headlined: “Why are Africa’s ‘sugar’ relationships in the spotlight?”, and sub-headlined: “Murder in Kenya fuels conversation about partnerships where money and gifts are traded for sex and companionship.” And, the BBC published a long investigative piece about the phenomenon of sugar-baby-daddy/sponsor/blesser, titled “Sex and the Sugar Daddy’” around the same time. Did at least one of the commentators (in traditional or social media) run the moral decline/immorality argument in this particular case too to discuss the behaviour of the women, and the issue of money and sexual relationships?

Lots of observers and analysts seem to agree then that there is a spreading of immorality – especially in the world of business – and a sort of moral regression across modern society, and that this is the issue that needs sorting. In other words, morals are a good thing (and we need as much of them as possible), and something is attacking these morals, making them diminish. Picture a kind of downward spiral, an eroding kind of trend, a society (or particular groups such as “the youth”, or “bankers”) losing their moral values – something gets thinner by the day, something is in decline. The enemy here is immorality, not morality, or say, a specific type of morality. How easy and clear for an analysis – which one can run year in, year out – without even much need for empirical data to support the claims.

Lots of observers and analysts seem to agree that there is a spreading of immorality – especially in the world of business – and a sort of moral regression across modern society, and that this is the issue that needs sorting. In other words, morals are a good thing (and we need as much of them as possible), and something is attacking these morals, making them diminish.

But is this line of argument perhaps not as useful as it seems, as both diagnosis and prescription? Notably, whatever country you look at, very few commentators or scholars, let alone politicians, ever offer an analysis of capitalism and capitalist society as a moral order itself, as a moral system and moral economy with a moral grammar and all sorts of moral-economic milieus and cultures – across economic sectors, professions, locations. And, very few analysts would argue that what so many observers describe and interpret as a case of moral decline, crisis and bankruptcy, is actually a case or phenomenon of moral change in society, and what observers diagnose as a problem of immorality (or absence of morality) is actually a problem of morality, i.e. a problem of particular socially dominant and powerful moral cultures, moral milieus and moral economies in a capitalist society, of the type of moral views, justifications and priorities, of the type of moral actors that this particular social order – and capitalist polity and political economy – tends to bring about.

That said, to get a different analysis and debate concerning morals in today’s society, to move beyond the moral decline thesis and other conventional takes on the matter, three analytical insights or analytical starting points are crucial: capitalism is a moral order; the so-called bad/immoral actors are moral actors too; what is happening in front of our eyes can be treated analytically as cases of moral change, not moral decline or moral bankruptcy.

Capitalism is a moral order

One of the reasons for the popularity of the moral-decline/immorality argument is a particular understanding of morals that is apparently widespread in public discourse. According to this line of reasoning, morals are about being pro-social i.e. being good to other human beings; supporting others to flourish; being altruistic, caring, helpful, honest, selfless; foregoing one’s self-interest; not acting on the basis of self-interest; and so on. If one starts with such a notion of morals, then, of course, one might think that fraudsters or the super-rich are immoral or that our world is in moral decline – look at all the fraud, corruption, deception, violence, inequality, egotism, and narcissism in human affairs. And if you look through these analytical lenses at the history of humanity – i.e. at the actual practices of human beings and the explicit or implicit logics underpinning them – then you might indeed declare a large chunk of what humans do, of human history, as simply “immoral”, i.e. as immoral practice of immoral actors, as immoral decisions, immoral rulers, immoral government, immoral societies and so on.

Human history then in many (not all) aspects looks like a story of moral decline, moral crisis, moral bankruptcy, going on for centuries. Humans inflicting misery and suffering on others, destroying families, villages, cities and countries; using, exploiting and humiliating each other – and destroying the environment and extinguishing species – because of this decline or absence of morals. In other words, all these practices – and respective repercussions for the well-being of others affected by them – exist because of other factors than (i.e. everything but) our morals. They exist not because of the presence of (particular) morals, i.e. not because of the dominance of specific morals over others in society. If you are a morality analyst that adopts this conventional angle – morals are about being pro-social – you can ignore that big chunk of our human history, because all this immoral or amoral stuff has nothing to do with our morals, and our moral order and moral culture more broadly, and the political, economic, social and psychological factors and conditions that bring these about. To study human morals, it is sufficient then to focus on fair trade, altruism, charity, solidarity, and the like, i.e. the pro-social practices; that is where the music plays.

However, you might take a different, more open, flexible understanding of morals that allows you to, analytically speaking, see morals and moral culture de facto everywhere where humans relate and interact with each other and thus matters of their well-being – and related matters of (in)justice, (un-)fairness, (in-)decency, (in-)authenticity etc. – come into play, are affected, are at stake, or are negotiated. This take would allow researching, seeing, discussing and critiquing the moral underpinning of the entire spectrum of social practices from good” to “bad”. It would see (as some movies and TV series do) the prime sites of fraud, corruption, boardroom sell-outs, violence, humiliation, oppression, and exploitation as moral sites as well, as sites where moral codes, views and priorities operate too just as in the boardroom of the altruists (though arguably different sort of morals). How is that possible, you wonder, to find morals where they are supposedly absent, where people operate who have lost, as we heard, their moral compasses? It really depends on the definition and take on morals one applies.

But note: when I talk of moral order I don’t necessarily mean a “good” (just, humane, fair, socially progressive) order. Instead, moral order or moral culture here refers, amongst others, to an order that has a wide range of existent – dominant and non-dominant, complementing, conflicting and competing – moral norms, interpretations, views, beliefs, claims, demands, tensions, contradictions, discourses, imaginations, and so on regarding matters of good/bad, right/wrong, acceptable/unacceptable, legitimate/illegitimate, and so on in social relations and practices, including in the economy. And, in this sense, capitalism, and its different variants from colonial to neoliberal capitalism, is (and has always been) a moral order, culture, system too; with a wide range of moral milieus and moral economies, with a wide mix of notions of right/wrong, good/bad, acceptable/unacceptable, praiseworthy/blameworthy, with various patterns and distributions of benefit and harm, of flourishing and suffering.

Morals don’t necessarily mean or imply pro-social practice (i.e. a practice that fosters the flourishing of others, is honest etc.). As human history and research shows, there are operational, actually-existing, on-the-ground morals in particular social settings that prescribe or advance that it is acceptable, right, good, and necessary to defraud (or intimidate, threaten, evict, exploit, enslave, etc.) and thus harm another human being or social group, for particular reasons. Professionals who work or have worked in fraud-invested companies or organisations at times say – once they face a judge, investigator, or reporter, or blow the whistle – that fraud was the culture in the place, i.e. that it is/was the tacit or explicit moral culture in the organisation or team to deceive, cook the books, take short cuts, short-change vulnerable customers, and so on so as to meet revenue and profit targets, beat competitors, get bonuses, and keep the job (and thus make family/region/nation proud, send the kids to good schools, save for the future and old age, look after extended family, etc.).

Morals don’t necessarily mean or imply pro-social practice (i.e. a practice that fosters the flourishing of others, is honest etc.). As human history and research shows, there are operational, actually-existing, on-the-ground morals in particular social settings that prescribe or advance that it is acceptable, right, good, and necessary to defraud (or intimidate, threaten, evict, exploit, enslave, etc.) and thus harm another human being or social group, for particular reasons.

That said, let’s look at this alternative definition or take on morals in more detail then: Morals, including morals on the ground, as expressed in actual practice, can be understood as being in many ways about how we treat one another (for instance in the economy) and how we deal with matters of (in)justice, (un)fairnesss, (dis)honesty/authenticity, solidarity, etc. in this context. Morals are about what is regarded as acceptable or unacceptable, as right/wrong, good/bad, proper/improper, legitimate/illegitimate, or praiseworthy/blameworthy. As you can perhaps sense already, in society, in a local market place, in a factory or in an office there are all sorts of views about what constitutes acceptable practice, what or who is moral and immoral, and so on. And you can bet that the ruling classes (the powerful, the dominant, the oppressors and exploiters) in any place have a somewhat different view regarding what is right, good, proper and acceptable than the subaltern classes (the oppressed, exploited, humiliated, beaten-up people). In other words, what different social actors regard as proper or acceptable depends on the actor’s power, position in society and economy, experiences in and perspective on life and society, and so on. All this is far more open to people’s views and interpretations – hence diverse, variable and changing – than the many voices in public debates want us to believe.

One of the shortest and cleanest formulations of this aspect is one by Monika Keller: moral norms are “standards of interaction concerning others’ welfare”. In this phrasing of what morals are, the emphasis is on how we treat each other (and thus affect the lives of those involved), and what is regarded as normal or acceptable in this regard. Using this angle, the pro-social element (being altruistic, solidaristic etc.) is not a necessary part of the understanding of “morals” anymore. The morals in place could be: your welfare doesn’t matter (too much; or not as much as our welfare anyway), because of x (you are…; we are…; the situation…), hence, we (are justified to) treat you in a particular way (exploit, defraud, torture, kill etc.). Morals are thus also about what are acceptable levels of interpersonal or social harm in various settings, from the battlefields in business to those in wars. With this analytical starting point, one can now begin to search for, analyse, and understand (as well as critique) morals – and moral orders, cultures, climates and economies more broadly – that underpin – i.e. render (sufficiently) acceptable, proper, right, normal, necessary – exploitation, fraud, intimidation, humiliation, violence and trafficking in the economy, or the practice of leaving people who seek refuge/survival/a better life in Europe to drown in the Mediterranean. The analytical and political question then is: what are respective moral climates and moral codes, and what/who (re-) produces them, and why?

That said, from an analytical perspective we can now relate for instance fraud to morals, i.e. to standards of interaction concerning fellow human beings (and their lives and well-being, and related interests) in a specific time-place context. This “standard”, for at least some actors in their respective social settings, could be that under condition x, it is okay, necessary, proper, right, or good to defraud another human being, social group or class, because of z. Or, in case of corruption-infested road construction projects, the standard of those directly or indirectly advancing the deal could be something in the direction of: it’s okay to get some good money (for purpose x, y, z), at the expense of future victims of road accidents due to the resulting poor roads (because part of the money meant for building material etc. was siphoned off). And this shared notion, understanding, norm or “standard” – this action justification – is of course a social phenomenon, i.e. is socially constituted: (re)produced over time by something and someone (beyond the individual fraudster, or group of fraudsters), including global, national and local politics, political economy, religion, you name it. Remember, norms (including moral norms) are “socially constituted action justifications”.
So, the point is to recognise that whatever the social practice in the economy, there is some sort of moral grammar – a notion of how to treat others, what is regarded as acceptable/unacceptable – underpinning it. And these views, understandings and justifications – how to treat others in economic sites ranging from agricultural fields to markets, factories, bank branches, domestic homes and so on – do not fall from the sky but are a product of society, including its history, class and power structure, and its mode of production, as well as, for instance, the global political economy that impacts this society.

We have now arrived at an analytical point where we can shift gear: instead of mainly thinking about whose morals are right and wrong (from whatever political, philosophical standpoint), or what is moral/immoral, other questions to grapple with emerge: what are these specific morals in specific settings that bring about a certain social practice (that conventional analysis declares as immoral, inhumane etc.) and where do these morals come from, what/who (re)produces them, what has it to do with politics and capitalism, and so on. And: how do morals change over time, and why?

With this sort of take on morals, one can now understand better, and claim scientifically, that a particular set of morals (whether as an analyst one likes them or not) are actually present in the cases that much of public debate and commentators declare as immoral, amoral, or inhumane: from the cases of fraud, greed, exploitation, humiliation and intimidation in our high-stakes economies (where people relate and interact in order to make a living, survive, keep the job, ensure the bonus, escape poverty, get wealthy, strike riches etc.) to a capitalist economy, culture and society as a whole.

Of course, philosophers of war have for long run the line of argument that under specific conditions, for particular reasons (to protect/advance one’s country, king, god, etc.), it is good, necessary, legitimate, proper, or just to kill another human being, to kill (or imprison, torture etc.) others by the hundreds or thousands i.e. to harm others, to lower their welfare levels, to limit their flourishing. If war was one context and site where some scholars could construct an argument about the morals of harming others (aka, Just War) – which was of course not just a desk-based argument but somewhat reflected aspects of the historical situation on the ground where this war-is-moral was one of the existent morals at the time (arguably advanced, then as now, especially by rulers, and profiteers of war) – then the morals-of-harming-others analysis can be extended to other social sites, contexts and actor groups i.e. beyond war, soldiers, generals (or nowadays drone operators), enemies in the battlefield and so on.

Then there is an open analytical pathway, i.e. hope that the scholarly oddity – that we hardly study, let alone gather qualitative data on the morals that underpin the entire spectrum of human action (from so-called “good” to “bad” actions), across history – could be addressed, and perhaps amended over time. The oddity that there is so little theory and data on the moral underpinnings of a lot of social practices that humans in the millions and billions have very consistently, for a very long time, shown and opted for in their engagement with each other when matters of livelihood, poverty, survival, wealth, power, prestige, status, privilege, career and so on are on the line: these humans have deceived, exploited, intimidated, bought-off, bullied, defrauded, killed (with ever more effective weaponry), as well as conquered, colonised, enslaved, burned-the-place, and eradicated alternative, resisting, non-compliant cultures. Given the size, significance and importance of the phenomena of concern, it is odd that the (e.g. qualitative) data set about these aspects of the macro and micro moral climates, worlds and milieus of earning a living, of profit-making, of striking riches, of accumulation, of outcompeting others, you name it, is so astonishingly small.

Anyway, once one can hold this analytical point (regarding such a take on morals), one can engage with more unconventional analyses in order to learn something about the entire spectrum of moral orders and morals of human beings. For example, some scientists have explored moral systems and moral subjectivities related to “bad stuff” and “bad actors” outside the economy: cases here range from the mentioned soldiers and generals in war, to mass murders, terrorists, neighbours-as-killers in heightened social conflicts (in Rwanda, for example), Nazis and Nazi Germany, and so on. And some scholars have looked at the “moral worlds” of state institutions too, including police, courts, prison, social services, and mental health facilities, i.e. what some would regard as “bad” actors and practices. But this literature – especially the former that explores morals that prescribe significantly (and routinely) harming others – is generally not used in the scholarship, let alone in our public debates, about the moral order and dynamics in a capitalist economy and society.

Many positions in our public debates about morals in contemporary society are, in my view, so sterile, so stuck, so analytically flat, because they do not allow us to talk about, and thus understand, the social constitution, including the politics, of these sorts of morals: the morals of the small and large “wrong-doers”, such as the fraudulent (and/or “greedy”) bankers, insurers, industrialists, traders, speculators, tycoons, doctors, lawyers, or politicians, and the moral climate in the organisations and sectors they work and operate in. The debates, as outlined earlier, mostly say: immorality (or, out-of-hand greed, self-interest etc.) is the issue and problem at hand – and this can be cured by more morals, including an injecting of more morals into capitalist corporations and sectors. This closes off any engagement and debate with what is in my view the real issue: morals (of treating others, of making money etc., including deceiving, defrauding, taking advantage of, exploiting, and harming others) and moral order in a society shaped by capitalism.

Many positions in our public debates about morals in contemporary society are, in my view, so sterile, so stuck, so analytically flat, because they do not allow us to talk about, and thus understand, the social constitution, including the politics, of these sorts of morals: the morals of the small and large “wrong-doers”, such as the fraudulent (and/or “greedy”) bankers, insurers, industrialists, traders, doctors, lawyers, or politicians, and the moral climate in the organisations and sectors they work and operate in.

One more important point: morals – notions of what is acceptable, legitimate, normal, okay or necessary practice – are (i) political i.e. shaped by political and political-economic context, and thus matters of power and conflict, and (ii) co-constituted in a social process by a variety of social actors with different – and often competing and conflicting – moral views and priorities, and of course different and competing economic and political interests. There are always power structures and processes as well as social conflicts (regarding what is right/wrong, acceptable/unacceptable, legit/illegitimate) that underpin any dominant moral order, or specific aspects of that order. As an example: the absence of an effective minimum wage for decades now is a key characteristic of the moral order in neoliberal Uganda, backed, at the minimum, by a range of powerful actors and their moral views and priorities regarding right, good and acceptable and related political and economic interests.

Most public analysts that I read or listened to in our media over the years never really bothered to deeply analyse this collective nature of our actually existing morals in the economy. For instance, what are the societal processes and structures – and interplay of actors – that produce fraudulent bankers and fraud-invested banks? Crucially, economic activity takes place in an uneven landscape of power and resources in which social actors contest and negotiate over the boundaries of acceptable action. In other words, the moral order, the moral climate in the economy, or in specific sectors (say, maize production and trade in Kenya) is deeply shaped by politics and the political economy. What turns out to be the dominant practice, the dominant norm – i.e. the way things are done – is thus a “function” of power, or more specifically, of power structures and relations in a capitalist society. That basic insight makes the phenomenon and analysis of moral order so political; again, something most public commentators don’t recognise or make much of. So next time you are “shocked” about the practices and “immorality” of tycoons, bankers or managers, check out what their morals are and what they have to do with power.

To close the discussion of this point: according to theoretical and empirical scholarship, the current variant of capitalism, neoliberalism, is associated with or puts emphasis on morals that endorse matters, such as self-interest, individualism (with a focus on individual choice, gain and material success), personal enjoyment and achievement, self-actualisation, a focus on transactions and money, wealth accumulation, consumption, opportunism, cunning, low other-regard and empathy, low regard for the common good, and so on. Does some of this sound familiar when you look at your society, your town, your community? Of course, there is more to neoliberal moral order and neoliberal moral economy than I can outline here but these are some of the issues to start with.

Conclusion

Those who study and emphasise pro-social morals are not wrong, but they only tell a part of the story of the morals of human beings and human society. The economy (or polity for that matter) of your country is full of and overflowing with morals (not all “good” ones, I give you that, but morals still), with millions of actors with morals and moral compasses; even the notorious, hard core fraudster has a compass, a particularly skewed one perhaps but a compass it still is. Try to go through everyday reality and observe fellow human beings and their practices through this lens for a day or two. You might find it insightful.

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Dr. Jörg Wiegratz is a Lecturer in Political Economy of Global Development at the School of Politics and International Studies (POLIS), University of Leeds

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Monitoring Digital Hate: What the Christchurch Massacre Taught Us About the Limits of Free Speech

In the aftermath of the attacks by a white supremacist on Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinta Ardern, led a campaign to remove hate speech from social media platforms. TRACEY NICHOLLS examines the obstacles facing the campaign and offers some solutions to tackling the “dark web”, which is increasingly becoming the incubator of racist and fascist ideologies.

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Monitoring Digital Hate: What the Christchurch Massacre Taught Us About the Limits of Free Speech
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Dateline: CHARLOTTESVILLE (VA), USA, August 11, 2017 – A gathering of self-identified “alt-right” protestors marches through a park in this small college city waving white supremacist and Nazi-affiliated flags, chanting slogans identified with “white power” movements and so-called “Great Replacement” beliefs put forth by Islamophobes (“you will not replace us”) and slogans identified with Nazi ideology (“blood and soil”). In the name of (white) American history, they are protesting the planned removal of a statue of the general who led the army of the Confederate States of America, the Southern separatist movement that took up arms against the American government in the country’s 19th century Civil War (1861-1865). Subsequent protests result in beatings of counter-protestors and one death. Days later, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, notoriously defends the white supremacists by observing that there were “very fine people on both sides.” The organiser of this “Unite the Right” protest is known in Charlottesville for his sustained online harassment campaigns against city councilors who support the removal of racist monuments.

Dateline: CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand, March 15, 2019 – An Australian man living in New Zealand attacks worshippers at two different mosques in the city of Christchurch, killing 51 and wounding many others. He is a proponent of the Islamophobic, anti-immigrant views of a global “white power” network that disseminates its rhetoric of hate and its narrative of an imperiled white race online, via unregulated spaces within “the dark web” and via encrypted social media apps. His attack on Muslim New Zealanders is met with shock and grief within the country, an outpouring of solidarity that is expressed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in her immediate response: “They were New Zealanders. They are us.” Of the shooter, whom she consistently refuses to identify by name, she says, “He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist…He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing. Not even his name.” After the attacks, it becomes clear that he had been announcing his intentions in online forums and had been livestreaming the attack through a Facebook link. New Zealand moved swiftly to criminalise the viewing or sharing of the video of the attack.

Dateline: PARIS, France, May 15, 2019 – Two months after the Christchurch attack, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stands at a lectern in a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron to announce a non-binding agreement dubbed “The Christchurch Call to Action.” The agreement has as its goal the global regulation of violent extremism on the Internet and in social media messaging. Ardern calls upon assembled representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter to lead the way towards an online world that is both free and harm-free by enforcing their existing standards and policies about violent and racist content, improving response times involved in removing such content when it is reported, removing accounts responsible for posting content that violates the platform’s standards, making transparent the algorithms that lead searchers to extremist content, and committing to verifiable and measurable reporting of their regulatory efforts. Affirming that the ability to access the Internet is a benefit for all, she also asserts that people experience serious harm when exposed to terrorist and extremist content online, and that we have a right to be shielded from violent hatred and abuse.

Why is this call different from all other calls? 

What action can we expect in the wake of this call? And what consequences might plausibly flow from that action?

The Internet as a site of racist hate speech and vicious verbal abuse is not a revelation; in recent years, many culture-watchers and technology journalists have documented an increasingly bold and increasingly globalised “community” of white supremacists whose initial – sometimes accidental – radicalisation is reinforced in the echo chambers of this so-called “dark web”, the encrypted social messaging platforms that Ardern identifies as in need of regulation. (I put the word “community” in quotes here because the meaning derived from the word’s Latin root [munis/muneris: the word for gift] makes it a darkly ironic way to describe these bands of people: if community is a gift we share with each other, their gift of poisonous hate is one that damages all those with whom it is shared.

Recognising the danger of these groups, as Ardern does, and seeking to neutralise their effects on our online and in-person worlds is important, even urgent. As Syracuse University professor Whitney Phillips observes: “It’s not that one of our systems is broken; it’s not even that all of our systems are broken…It’s that all of our systems are working…towards the spread of polluted information and the undermining of democratic participation.”

The Internet as a site of racist hate speech and vicious verbal abuse is not a revelation; in recent years, many culture-watchers and technology journalists have documented an increasingly bold and increasingly globalised “community” of white supremacists whose initial – sometimes accidental – radicalisation is reinforced in the echo chambers of this so-called “dark web”…

The consequences of the way these systems are working are now as clear to New Zealanders in the wake of the Christchurch attacks as they have been to Americans, to Kenyans, to Pakistanis, and to Sri Lankans in the wake of their respective experiences of hate-fuelled terrorism. American Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt reminds us that acts of violent hatred always begin with words, words that normalise and seek to justify the genocides, pogroms, and terror attacks to come. If we do not speak out against those words, she notes, we embolden the speakers in their drive to turn defamatory words into deadly actions.

So the action called for at Ardern and Macron’s Christchurch summit is warranted. Will it happen? Will the nations who have the ability to exert moral pressure on the companies that created and profit from these online platforms actually force a change in how white supremacist rhetoric is dealt with? Karen Kornbluh, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, who is quoted in Audrey Wilson’s May 15 Foreign Policy Morning Brief, thinks that “the best case scenario [for] the Call to Action provides the political pressure and support for platforms to increase vigilance in enforcing their terms of service against violent white supremacist networks.”

The problem with reliance on political pressure to change cultural policies driven by economic incentives and reinforced by jurisdictional divides is that when the pressure fades, the behaviour we want changed re-emerges. This has certainly been the case in prior efforts to alter Facebook’s inconsistent oversight of its users. Back in 2015, for instance, Germany’s then Federal Minister of Justice and Consumer Protection, Heiko Maas, filed a written complaint with Facebook about its practice of ignoring its own stated standards and policies for dealing with racist posts. Maas pointed out the speed with which Facebook removes photographs (like those posted by breast cancer and mastectomy survivors who seek to destigmatise their bodies) as violations of the platform’s community standards, and the corresponding inattention to user complaints about racist hate speech. A Foreign Policy analysis of Maas’s complaint letter reports that it led to an agreement between German officials and representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter – the very same companies who sent representatives to Ardern and Macron’s Christchurch summit –on a voluntary code of conduct that included a commitment to more timely removal of hate-filled content. That was in 2015; in Maas’s view, Facebook has subsequently failed to honour the agreement.

The problem with reliance on political pressure to change cultural policies driven by economic incentives and reinforced by jurisdictional divides is that when the pressure fades, the behaviour we want changed re-emerges. This has certainly been the case in prior efforts to alter Facebook’s inconsistent oversight of its users.

Even at the international/multi-national level at which Ardern’s call is framed, it is not clear how much capability there is to reform the discursive violence inflicted on us by white supremacist digital hate cultures. Audrey Wilson’s May 15 Foreign Policy Morning Brief reports that in the wake of his own visit to the Christchurch mosques that were the scene of white supremacist terror, UN Secretary-General António Guterres committed himself to combatting hate speech.

However, in a talk at the United Nations University in Shibuya (Tokyo) on March 26, 2019, Mike Smith, former Executive Director of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, was pessimistic about the possibilities for monitoring sites on which people like the Christchurch killer engage in their mutual radicalisation. One could argue with some plausibility that the “soft power” of moral authority, widely acknowledged as one of the UN’s key strengths, should be used to speak out against hate and terror lest its silence on the matter foster a sense of impotence on the part of the international community. However, as Smith made clear, that level of monitoring on the part of international institutions (or national ones for that matter) is not feasible, even assuming there is no other claim on the resources that would be required. The only workable way to implement monitoring of online hate groups is for the tech companies to be doing it themselves and, as Ardern asked for in her Christchurch Call, to be reporting regularly on their efforts to international and national agencies.

What could possibly go wrong?

In considering the question of whether the Christchurch Call does, or can, mark the moment when the world begins to take white supremacist hate speech seriously, we need to consider what we are dealing with in that speech, in that “community”. One American think-piece published in the days following the Christchurch attacks observed that “[r]acism is America’s native form of fascism”, and I think it might be instructive to take that claim seriously. Frequently a carelessly-used and controversial epithet, fascism has been broadly defined as a political worldview in which some of a nation’s people have been given status as persons, as citizens, as lives that matter in a moral hierarchy, and others have had that status denied to them.

Seeing racism as a variant of fascism gives us the resources to understand why online white supremacist hate speech is such an intractable problem. Essayist Natasha Lennard, a theorist of the Occupy movement that erupted in the United States in 2011, insists that “fascism is not a position that is reasoned into; it is a set of perverted desires and tendencies that cannot be broken with reason alone.” Instead, she argues that fascism—which she defines as “far-right, racist nationalism”—must be fought militantly: white supremacists must be exposed, and the inadequately regulated online spaces where their views are promulgated must be shut down. A similar no-tolerance approach to the more mainstream sympathiser sites where these views are legitimised is also warranted as part of anti-fascist (antifa) organising, she thinks. The goal of those who oppose fascism, racism, and white supremacy must be to vociferously reject these views as utterly unacceptable.

The kind of intransigent approach Lennard advocates is precisely the posture that the companies providing these online platforms are so ill-equipped and unwilling to adopt. As Foreign Policy writers Christina Larson and Bharath Ganesh both make clear, social media platforms like Facebook have long cloaked themselves in a rhetoric of utopian connectedness and free speech. Absence of regulation has been pitched to users as the precondition of popular empowerment.

Ganesh points out that there is a real disparity of treatment in the ways online platforms deal with extremist speech: where German minister Heiko Maas charged that Facebook censors photographs involving nudity and leaves hate speech to flourish, Ganesh qualifies that only some speech is left unregulated. Extremist white supremacist hate speech is routinely ignored or approached with caution and with charitable concern for the poster’s rights of expression, but extremist jihadi speech is monitored, removed, and blocked. “There is a widespread consensus that the free speech implications of such shutdowns are dwarfed by the need to keep jihadi ideology out of the public sphere,” Ganesh explains. But, “right-wing extremism, white supremacy, and white nationalism…are defended on free speech grounds.”

In part, this is precisely because of the existence of more mainstream sympathiser sites (such as Breitbart, Fox, InfoWars) that ally themselves with right-wing politicians and voters, and defend white supremacists through “dog whistles” (key words and phrases that are meaningful to members of an in-group and innocuous to those on the outside), such that, as Ganesh puts it, this particular “digital hate culture…now exists in a gray area between legitimacy and extremism”. Fearing backlashes, howls of protest about censorship, and reduced revenue streams if users migrate out of their platforms, social media companies have consistently chosen to prioritise these users over the less powerful, less mobilised minority cultures who are undermined by digital hate.

Extremist white supremacist hate speech is routinely ignored or approached with caution and with charitable concern for the poster’s rights of expression, but extremist jihadi speech is monitored, removed, and blocked.

In light of this self-serving refusal to apply their own community standards even-handedly, what we are likely to see from social media platforms in response to the Christchurch Call is more legitimising of white supremacy rhetoric that is increasingly entering the mainstream of American discourse, and more policing of already marginalized viewpoints and voices. The most likely result is of their caretaking of this current situation is proliferation of the inconsistent censorship Ganesh identifies, and extension of that censorship to the very groups and users who might be calling out white supremacy. One example of this censorship of anti-racism predating the Christchurch Call involved a group of feminist activists calling themselves “Resisters,” who created an event page on Facebook to promote a 2018 anti-racism rally they planned for the anniversary of the Unite the Right hate rally in Charlottesville. Facebook removed the page on the grounds that it bore a resemblance to fake accounts they believed to be part of Russian disinformation efforts aimed at influencing the 2018 US mid-term elections.

What then must we do? 

“The real problem is how to police digital hate culture as a whole and to develop the political consensus needed to disrupt it,” Ganesh tells us. In his view, the central question of this debate about online hate is: “Does the entitlement to free speech outweigh the harms that hateful speech and extreme ideologies cause on their targets?” That question is also posed in the Christchurch Call, and in abstraction it is a difficult one. People committed to freedom and to flourishing social worlds want both the right to express themselves and protections against the violence and dehumanisation that hate speech enacts.

Practically speaking, however, we often can draw lines that delineate hate speech from speech that needs to be protected by guarantees of right of expression (often, views from marginalised communities). Ganesh cites Section 130 of the German Criminal Code as an example: in free, democratic Germany, it is nonetheless a criminal offense to engage in anti-Semitic hate speech and Holocaust denial. The point of this legal prohibition is to disrupt efforts to attack the dignity of marginalised individuals and cultures, which is, Ganesh contends, “what digital hate culture is designed to do.” If our legal remedies begin – as the Christchurch Call asks all remedies to – with basic human rights and basic human dignity as their central concerns, they will not, he thinks, contravene our entitlement to express ourselves.

“The real problem is how to police digital hate culture as a whole and to develop the political consensus needed to disrupt it,” Ganesh tells us. In his view, the central question of this debate about online hate is: “Does the entitlement to free speech outweigh the harms that hateful speech and extreme ideologies cause on their targets?”

Those who fear that any attempt to delineate speech undeserving of protection will slide down a slippery slope into censorship often turn for support to nineteenth-century British philosopher John Stewart Mill’s impassioned argument for the necessity of robustly free speech in his 1859 work On Liberty. However, Mill’s motivation for that argument was his belief that freedom of expression is a key component of human dignity. Free speech does have limits, even for Mill; he articulates those limits in arguably his most famous contribution to Western political theory: the harm principle, which says that limits on an individual’s freedom are only justified to the extent that they prevent harm to others.

Recognising that words have the capacity to trigger action, Mill acknowledges that a society cannot tolerate as protected speech a polemic to an angry mob outside the house of a corn dealer in which one charges the corn dealer with profiteering at the expense of hungry children and calls for death to corn dealers. Building on this view that incitement to reasonably foreseeable harm or violence warrants restrictions on speech, even the United States, with its expansive constitutional protections for speech, has enshrined limitations. (One cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theatre, for instance.)

While laws – and responsible oversight by social media platforms, if ever that can be mandated in ways they will adhere to – can structure the playing field, they cannot determine the actions of the players. For that necessary change, we must look to our own behaviours and attitudes and how each of us might play our role in reinforcing social norms. In a post-Christchurch attacks interview, American anti-racist educator Tim Wise advises people: “Pick a side. Make sure that every person in your life knows what side that is. Make sure your neighbors know. Make sure the other parents where your kids go to school know what side you are on. Make sure your classmates know. Make sure that your family knows what side you are on. Come out and make it clear that fighting racism and fascism are central to everything that you believe.”

We must, I think, resist the temptation of the easy neoliberal “solution,” the fiction that small numbers of committed individuals can neutralise a normalised culture of hate. But there is a germ of insight in Wise’s prescription. Yes, we need a better legal climate, one that levies real penalties on social media platforms that fail to monitor the content they make available in our lives; yes, we need more responsible social media companies and Internet site moderators; and we also need to all do what we can to make sure that the people who are listening to each of us are hearing messages that contribute to a healthy and caring social world.

One thing I learned from the 2014 online frenzy of misogynist hate known as “GamerGate” (the campaign of invective and abuse organised against women in the video game industry) was that a small number of committed individuals can produce a normalised culture of hate. Another thing I learned was that many of the casual reproducers of that organised hate are not fully culpable actors; they have been drawn into something they think they understand but when they can be made to see how harmful it is, they will renounce it. I do think Natasha Lennard is right about the futility of trying to appeal to people who have chosen hate or fascism, but there are many others on the fringes who can be influenced away from those ideas. They need to be surrounded by people in their (online and offline) lives who are speaking the language of anti-racism, feminism, multicultural inclusion, and the equal right to dignity of all human beings.

One thing I learned from the 2014 online frenzy of misogynist hate known as “GamerGate” was that a small number of committed individuals can produce a normalised culture of hate.

If online hate has IRL (in real life) ramifications, then IRL influencing might be a way to save or reclaim some otherwise radicalised young people, and also a way to assert pressure on the social media platforms to “walk their talk” of wanting a more connected community. The Christchurch Call cannot, in and of itself, drive out the poison of white supremacist hate. But it can, perhaps, inspire us to make our communities (the gifts we share with each other) gifts worth receiving.

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Battered but Not Broken: Resurrecting the Pan-Africanist Ideal

Arguably, Pan-Africanism could only have emerged beyond the shores of Africa. The continent’s riotous diversity, comparatively as dense as its famous jungles, aided the divide-and-conquer tactics of its numerous enemies. The multitudinous nature of its languages, historical traditions, customs and ethnicities meant that Africa never learnt to speak with “one voice” as it had historically spoken with cacophonies of voices. Its diversity in all things was simply astounding.

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Since the eras of Edward Blyden, W.E.B. Dubois, Chancellor Williams, George Padmore, Marcus Garvey and Kwame Nkrumah, the idea of Pan-Africanism has exercised the minds of blacks seeking to hurl off the yoke of racism and oppression. Each major advocate of the Pan-Africanist creed ended up inflecting it with different personal significations but its over-riding goal of black emancipation and unity remains intact.

Some, like Blyden, advocated a form of classism that demarcated continental Africans from diasporan blacks, with the former relegated to a lower socio-political status on account of their “lack” of modern skills and also their relative unfamiliarity with the Christian faith.

Times have since changed.

Arguably, Pan-Africanism could only have emerged beyond the shores of Africa. The continent’s riotous diversity, comparatively as dense as its famous jungles, aided the divide-and-conquer tactics of its numerous enemies. The multitudinous nature of its languages, historical traditions, customs and ethnicities meant that Africa never learnt to speak with “one voice” as it had historically spoken with cacophonies of voices. Its diversity in all things was simply astounding.

However, blacks in the diaspora – under the shared horror of slavery and plantation cruelty – were forced to unite through the creolised languages and cultures they had to develop. In essence, their shared experiences thrust them together rather than divided them. The abjection of their lives in which they were losing their original languages, cultures and spiritualities pointed in only one direction: the white oppressor. Out of those unimaginable depths of misery, their primal cries of agony struck a chord of unity. Expediency must have dictated that their collective pain could only be assuaged through the forging of unified black bonds.

Psychic freedom

Sometimes the notion of freedom within the definition of Pan-Africanism acquires metaphoric connations; freedom is not merely the release from forms of physical bondage; it can also attain subtler and deeper levels, including psychic freedom; a connection with, and an unrestrained exploration of the fact of blackness, which ultimately ends in the acquisition of more potent spiritual meaning.

The slave ship, rather than being merely a vessel of physical bondage, becomes a pilgrimage into the meaning of blackness, the eternal struggle for its recovery amid elemental oppression in which a hard-won strain of blackness is received as a prize of victory that comes at enormous cost, and which subsequently serves as a beacon for all those seeking freedom in whatever form.

Sometimes the notion of freedom within the definition of Pan-Africanism acquires metaphoric connations; freedom is not merely the release from forms of physical bondage; it can also attain subtler and deeper levels, including psychic freedom…

In this historical and precise moment, Pan-Africanism finds its essence, which it can only retain momentarily, for it must delve below to rescue numerous victims of oppression, thrusting and thirsting for the purity of its strength most often without relief. And when it descends from its enormous spiritual height, when it sheds ineffable spiritual sustenance for realpolitik, it also finds itself needy without its former spiritual glory. It must contend with the practicalities of gaining electoral votes, problems of inadequate and poor housing, chronic poverty and unemployment, teenage pregnancy and single-headed households, widespread alcohol and drug abuse; problems with severe cancerous impact on black communities.

The crisis within Pan-Africanism

Pan-Africanism needs to learn to deal with these myriad problems in order to acquire more power, the sort of power that divests it of its strain of purity and which also denudes of it of evocative power. Indeed the power of Pan-Africanism is largely evocative, which brings us to a problem within Pan-Africanism.

The problem stems from Pan-Africanism’s indecision to transit from its pure strain to its abstract identity. Undoubtedly, from the perspective of realpolitik, both the pure strain and the abstract identity are not of much practical utility. Pan-Africanism had been compelled to be an ideology as well as a religion at the same time, which led to its crisis.

In Africa and in the diaspora, slavery and colonialism left in their wake utter wreckage and chaos. The effort to re-build chaotic black communities all around the world entailed more than just the slogan of Pan-Africanism. It was akin to thrusting one’s head into a tunnel in order to cope with a multitude of practicalities. It meant, in many instances, a disavowal of the global in favour of the local, a severance from the beatitudes of the spirit for the urgent demands of the body, a re-configuration of the contest between ideological imperative and metaphysical comfort.

At the end of the day, Pan-Africanism had to recede to make way for shoring up shattered black communities; it entailed a retreat into the soul-crushing labours of the local.

And necessarily, the retreat into the local meant a diminution of the Pan-African appeal. By orientation, Pan-Africanism is global; it had sought to end the oppression of blacks in the world wherever it existed, and so it had to over-reach itself in order to gain a desirable degree of ideological purity.

But this over-reaching tendency has had some disastrous consequences in the field of politics. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, a noted apostle of Pan-Africanism, is often criticised by Ghanaians for not paying enough attention to them. A common assumption is that there were more Nkrumahists who were non-Ghanaians than Ghanaians themselves. Arguably, the Ghanaian leader struggled to no avail to strike the appropriate balance between the local and the Pan-African.

More recently, Thabo Mbeki of South Africa has labelled himself a scion of the African Renaissance and has sought, amid great difficulties, to realise the Pan-African dream in a territory tragically rife with Afrophobia. Afrophobia (fear of other Africans) is on the rise in South Africa as the country battles chronic crime, massive unemployment and its economic “junk” status. In such a context of political and economic meltdown, Pan-Africanism would obviously be a hard sell.

At a crucial political moment, Nkrumahists were probably better off being Ghanaian citizens than were non-Ghanaians in order to perform the gruelling local work of clawing inch by inch towards the Pan-African apex. Similarly, Mbeki’s political routing at Polokwane in 2007 spelled a major setback for the Pan-African initiative in South Africa. Within the ruling African National Congress (ANC), Mbeki’s supporters were muscled out of political reckoning and hounded into submission or institutional exile. And so there was virtually no base upon which to build from the bottom up, hence the frequent violent outbreaks of Afrophobia and other officially sanctioned forms of social exclusion.

Among the generation of the so-called South African “born-frees” (born post-1994), a disconcerting form of political parochialism has taken root, encouraged by older political opportunists. Often downplayed is the fact that the anti-apartheid movement had to acquire a global appeal fostered by a robust Pan-Africanism to be truly effective. In moments of insane xenophobic rage, this history suddenly vanishes as if the South African liberation effort had occurred in total isolation from the rest of the world.

There have been innumerable international conferences organised around a basic Pan-African intent or initiative where most of the delegates appeared to be grasping at vague, illusionary cosmic straws. But the real task lies in re-modelling local institutions, politics and aspirations to align more directly with the Pan-African dream.

Among the generation of the so-called South African “born-frees” (born post-1994), a disconcerting form of political parochialism has taken root, encouraged by older political opportunists. Often downplayed is the fact that the anti-apartheid movement had to acquire a global appeal fostered by a robust Pan-Africanism to be truly effective.

There always seems to be a discernible disconnect between dream and reality and these international platforms seemed to be opportunities to indulge in the lambent mirage of the unattainable before we returned to the grim and drab realities of our everyday lives. In chasing after the dream, we get to experience the fleeting joys and headiness of spirituality and ideology all at once.

It appears Pan-Africanism would have loved to work like Zionism, which has a politically, linguisitically, culturally and spiritually unified Israel as its home base. On the other hand, blacks, dispersed as much as ever all around the world, can only claim an Africa splintered as ever by several languages, cultures, faiths, politics, ideologies and (neo)colonialisms, as a possible homeland and even more problematically, an imaginary homeland of the mind.

Embracing our ethnic others

Yet, we cannot afford to succumb to the myopia the situation encourages. The Pan-African dream is a necessary dream and not a costly one. Any appreciable knowledge of African and black diasporic history would immediately reveal this fact.

It is necessary to saddle ourselves with the labours of the local; ensuring that our communities are safe and functional, our schools and health systems work, and that our homesteads are havens of care, decency and productivity. All of this involves unquestionably hard, grinding work. But as we build according to the dictates of the local, we must also ensure that our communities provide comfort and opportunities for our ethnic “others” and black brethren from elsewhere.

The inability to recognise, empathise with, and accept our ethnic others invariably leads to the Hutu-Tutsi genocidal context of 1994 or more recently, Darfur in the 21st century.

And so the conceptual challenge is to locate the cosmopolitan potential deep within the labours of the local. The Indian community activist working assiduously in the traditional Indian settlement of Chatsworth in Durban, South Africa, might be consciously or inadvertently pursuing the Pan-African dream when she embraces racial and ethnic others in the bid to strengthen her community for the good of all.

Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian author and polymath of Yoruba culture never fails to affirm the almost boundless territorial expanse of humanity even as he energetically explores the uniqueness of the Yoruba, his ethnic group. The Yoruba – like the other great West African nationalities, such as the Ibo, Fulani, Asante, Fon, Hausa, Malinke, Wolof, Mende, among others – had been dispersed globally via the transatlantic slave trade. So their descendants can be found in Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Jamaica, Honduras, Colombia, Trinidad and Tabago, Barbados, Brazil and the United States, amongst other countries. During the course of this global dispersal, they bore with them knowledge of their spiritualities and cultures, a considerable part of which continues to thrive until today.

Due to this kind of history, Pan-Africanism ought to be viable and necessary, but the pursuit of the Pan-African dream must be done in conjunction with the labours of the local; that is, building each little community piece by piece until it links up with the next, and the next, always bearing in mind the links between the local and the global, and that in attending to the tortuous demands of the local, the Pan-African dream will only become possible through the empathetic embrace of our ethnic others.

Perhaps the much-trumpeted Southern African humanistic concept of ubuntu has a lot to offer by way of explanation here. Pan-Africanism has always been over-burdened by the imperative of a strategic vision, or the propulsive romanticism of its dream, or else, the purity of its spiritual antecedents. All of these combined largely account for its abstract identity, which is not always what is required to build communities from the bottom. Only when it attains a balance between tactical drudgery and strategic ambition can it acquire renewed significance.

Due to this kind of history, Pan-Africanism ought to be viable and necessary, but the pursuit of the Pan-African dream must be done in conjunction with the labours of the local; that is, building each little community piece by piece until it links up with the next, and the next, always bearing in mind the links between the local and the global…

It is likely that once this balance is struck, life would probably be lived without the sloganeering, braggadocio and the perhaps understandably excessive spiritualism of Pan-Africanism. Perhaps it would then be possible to attain a state of Pan-Africanist nirvana without the rabid ideologisation of Pan-Africanism.

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The Contribution of African Philosophy to Conceptual Decolonisation: A Reply to Sanya Osha

Kwasi Wiredu’s contribution to philosophy not only pushed philosophical discourse forward but has been instrumental towards the decolonization process in Africa.

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In “Conceptual Decolonisation: Kwasi Wiredu’s Disruption of Philosophy”, published in The Elephant on 25th April 2019, Sanya Osha argues that while the celebrated Ghanaian philosopher, Kwasi Wiredu, has disrupted Western philosophy, his efforts at conceptual decolonisation within the framework of analytic philosophy are not radical enough because, allegedly, they remain captive to the Western philosophical canon. Osha has pursued the same line of argument in his article on Wiredu in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

It is appropriate to remind ourselves early in this article that since colonisation denotes foreign invasion and occupation that robs its victims of their political autonomy, material resources, and their attendant right to cultural expression in its diverse manifestations, conceptual decolonisation necessarily implies the victims’ initiative to evict foreign ideas that occupy and dominate their way of thinking, and to assert their right to think and act as they choose. Scholars have frequently observed that colonisation had a three-pronged approach: military action to physically subdue the armed resistance of its victims, religion to weaken their resolve for armed resistance, and formal education to superimpose on them a Western worldview with its “white” supremacist orientation. Conceptual colonisation mainly functions at the level of religion and formal education, and so its deconstruction must operate along the same lines.

Not bound to Ancient Athens

Osha asserts that “The Athenian origins of Western philosophy obviously do not address the urgencies of African existential dilemmas and this is probably one of the reasons that African philosophy sometimes appears not to be in the forefront of the social processes of decolonisation in Africa. … the African subject is compelled, with little or no voice, to find its locus of muteness within an invariably Western philosophical canon.” He seems to be implying that all African scholars of philosophy only feel accomplished in the discipline if they can expound the thoughts of the ancient Greek philosophers such as Thales, Pythagoras and Anaxagoras, Socrates himself, and his myriad academic descendants such as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, David Hume and Immanuel Kant, among others. However, Osha’s view, which implies that philosophy is essentially a Western discipline, risks creating the false impression that non-Western cultures in Africa, Asia, Central America, South America, New Zealand and Australia do not undertake philosophical reflection, thereby reinforcing the conceptual colonisation that he and Wiredu are agreed ought to be uprooted.

For centuries the West debated the question as to whether Africans had the ability to philosophise, to which Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in the introduction to his Philosophy of History, gave a definite answer in the negative, insisting that Africa was a dark continent without logic, and therefore without history and civilisation. Underlying this question was the widespread belief in the West that Europe’s culture is characterised by reason and non-European ones by emotion, superstition, or whatever else, but certainly not reason. Thus the renowned Kenyan philosopher D.A. Masolo, in African Philosophy in Search of Identity, observed that at the centre of the debate on African philosophy is “the concept of reason, a value which is believed to stand as the great divide between the civilised and the uncivilised, the logical and the mystical.”

However, as Jennifer Lisa Vest correctly observed in “Perverse and Necessary Dialogues in African Philosophy”, “To engage in academic dialogues implicitly or explicitly guided by a request or a felt need to justify and defend the very possibility of African philosophy or African rationality is to engage in perverse and unnecessary dialogues” – perverse because they question the very humanity and attendant rationality of Africans, and unnecessary because such humanity and its attendant rationality need no demonstration.

For centuries the West debated the question as to whether Africans had the ability to philosophise, to which Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in the introduction to his Philosophy of History, gave a definite answer in the negative, insisting that Africa was a dark continent without logic, and therefore without history and civilisation.

The publication of the English translation of Placide Tempels’ La Philosophie Bantoue as Bantu Philosophy in 1952, with a second better known edition in 1959, was a classical enactment of the adage that one ought to refrain from judging a book by its cover, for it ironically argued that Africans are incapable of individualised, rational, philosophical reflection, reinforcing the belief that Africans are outsiders to the kind of philosophical reflection undertaken in Europe. For Tempels, “African philosophy” simply meant a purported monolithic African worldview. Indeed, Tempels was convinced that Africans could not articulate their own “philosophy”, so that it rested on Europeans to explicate it: “It is we [Europeans] who will be able to tell them [Africans], in precise terms what their inmost concept of being is. They will recognise themselves in our words.”

Regrettably, John S. Mbiti’s celebrated African Religions and Philosophy, first published in 1969, adopted Tempels’ theoretical framework, with Mbiti sparing only one chapter for what he called “African philosophy”. Notice that the title of Mbiti’s book suggests that there are many African religions, but a single African philosophy.

It is also regretable that Mbiti’s book got to be much better known than The Mind of Africa, written seven years earlier, in 1962, by the Ghanaian philosopher William E. Abraham. Abraham’s book was a philosophical masterpiece that grappled with various issues regarding the direction that newly independent African states were bound to face. In his preface, Abraham wrote: “I have not merely tried to describe and isolate the forces at work in Africa, and to describe the people among whom the forces are unleashed. I have sought the fundamental framework within which these forces are set, that framework which reveals the people of Africa in their human condition in society. Every society has an ideology. It is the ideology of a society which yields those principles in the light of which significant events are judged to be significant.”

Since Abraham’s seminal work, philosophers too many to count, from different countries in Africa, have penned down their thoughts on various subjects, not least that of conceptual decolonisation. These include, but are certainly not limited to, Ghana’s Kwasi Wiredu and Kwame Gyekye, Benin’s Paulin J. Hountondji, Senegal’s Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Cameroon’s Jean-Godefroy Bidima, Nigeria’s Olu´ Fe´mi Ta´ I´wo` and Nkiru Nzegwu, Malawi’s Didier Njirayamanda Kaphagawani, Ethiopia’s Bekele Gutema Jebessa, Eritrea’s Tsenay Serequeberhan, and Kenya’s H. Odera Oruka and D.A. Masolo.

Wiredu in touch with the people’s struggles

Wrote Osha: “For philosophy to obtain relevance to the practices of everyday life in Africa, it has to be embedded in and defined by everyday struggles and experiences.” This is precisely what Wiredu does in a good number of his works.

In his 1967 “African Traditional Thought and Western Science”, Robin Horton asserted that Africans are incapable of a detached evaluation of their systems of thought in terms of truth and falsity. More specifically, Horton asserted that African religious systems of thought were “closed”, by which he meant that they did not envisage alternatives to the established systems of thought.

However, in “How Not to Compare African Traditional Thought with Western Thought”, published as a chapter in his Philosophy and an African Culture, Wiredu points out that Horton ought to have compared African religion with Western religion, and African scientific thought with Western scientific thought. While for Osha this is a mere attempt at disrupting the Western philosophical canon through a synthesis of African and Western philosophy, Wiredu’s rejoinder served the crucial role of slowing down the spread of one more Western myth presented as objective analysis of African realities.

Conceptual Decolonisation: Kwasi Wiredu’s Disruption of Philosophy

Read also: Conceptual Decolonisation: Kwasi Wiredu’s Disruption of Philosophy

An important issue in philosophical discourses by African scholars is the role of language: how much independence can such scholars really assert in their intellectual productions if they continue to be beholden to the languages of their erstwhile colonisers? In Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, Ngugi wa Thiong’o famously highlighted the fact that there is no escape from mental subjugation to Western imperialism as long as creative writers in Africa continue to use such languages. Osha is aware of the fettering effect of language, but charges Wiredu with perpetuating it: “The African subject thus finds him/herself entrapped within a Western philosophical vocabulary that necessarily constrains his/her discursive agency, notwithstanding the realities of being ensconced within an ostensibly African voice, in this case, Wiredu’s own voice.”

An important issue in philosophical discourses by African scholars is the role of language: how much independence can such scholars really assert in their intellectual productions if they continue to be beholden to the languages of their erstwhile colonisers?

However, Wiredu has consistently called attention to the challenges of undertaking philosophical reflection in Western languages on the basis that they are carriers of Western worldviews that necessarily colour the cogitations of the African philosopher. He presents some of his thoughts on this issue in his “Formulating Modern Thought in African Languages: Some Theoretical Considerations”, which appeared in The Surreptitious Speech: Presence Africaine and the Politics of Otherness 1947-1987 edited by V. Y. Mudimbe.

Furthermore, in “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion”, Wiredu is emphatic that African philosophy will go a long way on the road to decolonisation when African scholars utilise their indigenous languages in their philosophical works, and points out that many other people think philosophically in their indigenous languages as a matter of course. To illustrate his point, he takes up Placide Tempels’ claim, in Bantu Philosophy, that for the Bantu, “Being is force and force is being”, and points out that the very sentence cannot be translated into his Akan language, which, he tells us, does not have the existential verb “to be”. From this he infers that what Tempels claims about the Bantu in this regard cannot be attributed to the non-Bantu Akan, and that this is particularly significant because Tempels often gives the impression that what he purportedly found among the Bantu is applicable to all Africans.

Wiredu further points out that the late Alexis Kagame, himself from the Bantu, reported that Tempels’ sentence is also incapable of translation into Bantu languages. Wiredu goes on to observe that “If Kagame is right, then whatever it was that Tempels noticed about Bantu thought was radically mis-stated by the use of an inapplicable Western category of thought, namely, the concept of being as existentially construed. It is a concept that was obviously deeply ingrained in Tempels’ own manner of thinking, and he very well may have thought it universal to all human thinking.” Consequently, Wiredu points out that “it is fair to say that any Africans who go about disseminating Tempels’ claim without confronting the conceptual issue are simply advertising their colonial mentality for all who have eyes to see.”

What is more, Wiredu has led by example, in that he has contributed a chapter written in his Akan language to Listening to Ourselves: A Multilingual Anthology of African Philosophy, a ground-breaking volume edited by Agnes B. Curry and Anne Waters, with a foreword, most appropriately, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The other six contributors to the anthology – every scholar writing an essay in his or her own language, with accompanying English translations undertaken by scholars who are native speakers of the respective tongues – are Souleymane Bachir Diagne (Wolof), Messay Kebede (Amharic), D.A. Masolo (Dholuo), Fred Ochieng’-Odhiambo (Dholuo), Betty Wambui (Gikuyu), and the late Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze (Igbo). The editors indicate that Wiredu’s calls for conceptual decolonisation played a large part in inspiring the anthology.

Moreover, while Osha seems to imply that Wiredu’s philosophy is purely analytic (the kind undertaken in the British Isles and North America), D.A. Masolo noted in “Narrative and Experience of Community as Philosophy of Culture” that one implication of the communalistic and narrativistic approach of African philosophy is that the dichotomy between analytic and continental philosophy, so characteristic of Western philosophy, is not applicable to it.

Besides, contrary to the impression that Osha creates that Wiredu’s philosophy is strictly analytic, Wiredu also delves into contractarian philosophy, so closely associated with continental philosophy, when in Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective, he questions the almost hegemonic confidence in the Western liberal majoritarian multiparty systems of governance in post-colonial African states, and appeals for the adoption of no-party ones characterised by consensus-based decision-making in their place, on the grounds that many pre-colonial African communities effectively governed themselves through such systems. He asserts that “When representatives are not constrained by considerations regarding the fortunes of power-driven parties they will be more inclined in council to reason more objectively and listen more open-mindedly. And in any deliberative body in which sensitivity to the merits of ideas is a driving force, circumstances are unlikely to select any one group for consistent marginalisation in the process of decision-making. Apart from anything else, such marginalisation would be an affront to the fundamental human rights of decisional representation.” Wiredu is emphatic that while unanimity might be the perfection of consensus, quite often it will be enough to ensure that all views are adequately articulated in the course of decision-making to secure the goodwill of those whose wishes are not adopted for implementation.

Wiredu will also go down in the annals of African philosophy for having curated and edited A Companion to African Philosophy, a forty-seven chapter volume bringing together the contributions of philosophers from around Africa and a number from other parts of the world. His inclusion of non-African scholars is appropriate for at least two reasons. First, it confirms that African philosophers have made contributions that have been noticed and responded to by academics beyond the continent. Indeed, several philosophers of European descent, working in Western universities, have now thrown in their lot, not with the enslaving approach to African philosophy championed by Placide Tempels and John S. Mbiti after him, but rather with the emancipatory approach to it championed by a host of contemporary African philosophers. Second, Wiredu’s inclusion of non-African philosophers in A Companion to African Philosophy highlights the fact that African philosophy is taking its rightful place in the emerging discourses on world philosophies, thereby further whittling down the hegemony of the Western philosophical canon that Osha seems to think is invincible.

Diverse schools of African philosophy

Osha talks of “the Anglophone school of African philosophy”, suggesting that he holds the view that the schools of philosophy in Africa are organised along the Western imperialist mapping of Africa into Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) – a view that perpetuates Western imperialism by legitimising the criminal partition of Africa in Berlin towards the close of the nineteenth century.

However, there is no single Anglophone school of philosophy, but rather a number of schools of philosophy in the so-called Anglophone Africa. For example, the late Kenyan philosophy professor, H. Odera Oruka, identified six such schools: ethnophilosophy (which, led by Placide Tempels, treats African philosophy as collective wisdom or a shared worldview); nationalist/ideological school (comprising works of political leaders such as Julius K. Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah, and Leopold Sedar Senghor); professional philosophy (practised by academically trained individuals teaching and writing in universities); sage philosophy (the thoughts of men and women rooted in their indigenous African cultures); hermeneutical school (borrowing from the insights of the phenomenological and existentialist movements in Continental European philosophy); and the literary school (comprising the philosophical thoughts of African novelists, poets, playwrights and other creative writers).

Preserving the identity of African philosophy

Osha’s pessimism regarding the potential of African philosophy to contribute to conceptual decolonisation is perhaps most striking when he writes: “By interrogating the overarching tradition/modernity dialectic, Wiredu has announced cultural synthesis as a pragmatic approach. But it seems the benefits of this conceptual approach would have been better realised in the fields of cultural studies, and other related discourses.” Osha’s proposal is in line with positivism – the view, popularised by Auguste Comte, that only what can be apprehended using the five senses is worth scholarly inquiry. This line of thought is at the core of the incessant attacks on the humanities, with their focus on introspective inquiry.

Osha talks of “the Anglophone school of African philosophy”, suggesting that he holds the view that the schools of philosophy in Africa are organised along the Western imperialist mapping of Africa into Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) – a view that perpetuates Western imperialism by legitimising the criminal partition of Africa in Berlin towards the close of the nineteenth century.

In A Short History of African Philosophy, Barry Hallen notes that in the mid-twentieth century, both religious studies and social anthropology challenged the autonomy of African philosophy by popularising the view that all African thought was “traditional”. This approach is evident in Mbiti’s flagship book, African Religions and Philosophy, in which he unapologetically apportions a much lower status to philosophy than to religion: “We speak of African traditional religions in the plural because there are about one thousand African peoples (…), and each has its own religious system…Religion is the strongest element in traditional background, and exerts probably the greatest influence upon the thinking and living of the people concerned.” He further alleges that “While religion can be discerned in terms of beliefs, ceremonies, rituals and religious officiants, philosophy is not so easily distinguishable.”

Furthermore, during a public lecture at the University of Nairobi on 27th March, 2015, Prof. Mbiti related how he participated in establishing the Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Makerere University, Uganda, in the 1960s. Notice that the name of the department followed the pattern of his book title – African Religions and Philosophy. A look at the Table of Contents of Mbiti’s work reveals his unapologetic subjugation of philosophy to religious studies: of the twenty chapters in the book, fifteen have an explicitly religious focus, while the remaining five (Chapters 1, 2, 17, 18 and 20) are marginally philosophical. It is also noteworthy that several scholars of religious studies have insisted that there is no essential difference between philosophy and religious studies, to which many African philosophers have replied that religious studies investigates dogma, while philosophy focuses on the clarification of terms, verification of the truth of claims, and the logical connection between claims and evidence provided for them. Indeed, an attempt at integrating philosophy and religious studies would produce a monstrosity which would be neither philosophy nor religious studies, for it would incurably distort the distinct methodological approaches of the two disciplines.

On its part, social anthropology, which professes to inquire into the entire range of cultures and societies in the world, originally concentrated on non-Western so-called primitive societies, with sociology reserved for modern Western societies. Ethnology is generally regarded as one of the major sub-branches of social anthropology, and as Paulin J. Hountondji aptly illustrated in his African Philosophy: Myth and Reality, the original racist orientation of social anthropology  certainly influenced Placide Tempels’ paternalistic approach to African philosophy in his Bantu Philosophy; this is what led Hountondji to refer to Tempels’ approach as “ethnophilosophical”.

As for cultural studies, which Osha prefers to African philosophy, it professes to be an interdisciplinary field concerned with the role of social institutions in the shaping of culture. Britanica.com informs us that among the central concerns of cultural studies are the place of race or ethnicity, class, and gender in the production of cultural knowledge. Cultural studies emerged, not in Africa, but rather in Britain in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Consequently, one wonders what the basis for his optimism towards it is in contradistinction to his pessimism towards philosophy.

Furthermore, for almost three decades now, neoliberalism has been vigorously questioning the value of the humanities and social sciences, with buzz phrases such as “market-driven courses” being used in reference to applied sciences such as medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, and engineering, and governments resolving to allocate greater funding to them. Nevertheless, the social sciences have managed to convince those who hold the purse strings of their contribution to the economy, leaving the humanities, under which philosophy falls, grossly under-funded. As a result, some scholars of African philosophy are now trying to prepare research proposals that pander to the demands of funding agencies. This situation prompted me to write “Research Methodology in Philosophy within an Interdisciplinary and Commercialised African Context”, in which I argued that in view of the limited number of natural and social phenomena available for scholarly inquiry, there will always be intersections in the subject matter of various disciplines. As such, the only way for a discipline to preserve its identity and to contribute meaningfully to inter-disciplinary inquiry is to stay true to its methodology.

African philosophy Transforming the conceptual apparatus

Osha went on to write: “… essentially, what we require more than ever is a complete transformation of the conceptual apparatus so that we are able to embrace more fully our essential realities rather than being alienated and stymied by them at a fundamental conceptual level.” Although Osha thinks that African philosophy is an obstacle to the attainment of this noble aspiration, philosophers all over Africa are engaged in innovative projects aimed at conceptual decolonisation. We have already cited three such innovations by Kwasi Wiredu, but a few more examples would be helpful.

Scholarship has been inundated by the Western liberal concept of personhood, with its emphasis on the atomic individual who pursues his or her personal interests without any consideration of the common good except as it directly promotes his or her personal good.

The late Prof. H. Odera Oruka, from his base at the University of Nairobi, launched the Sage Philosophy Project in 1974, with the aim of collecting the individual, reflective and didactic thought of indigenous thinkers among various ethnic groups in Kenya, and this culminated in his Sage Philosophy: Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy. D.A. Masolo, in a chapter in Sagacious Reasoning: Henry Odera Oruka in Memoriam, edited by Anke Graness and Kai Kresse, aptly referred to Oruka’s Sage Philosophy Project as an instance of “Decentering the Academy”. Besides, in “The Philosophy of Foreign Aid: A Question of the Right to a Human Minimum” in his Practical Philosophy: In Search of an Ethical Minimum, Oruka wrote on the politics of foreign aid, responding to Garrett Hardin’s “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case against Helping the Poor”.

Scholarship has been inundated by the Western liberal concept of personhood, with its emphasis on the atomic individual who pursues his or her personal interests without any consideration of the common good except as it directly promotes his or her personal good. However, Kwasi Wiredu and Kwame Gyekye edited Person and Community, and D.A. Masolo authored Self and Community in a Changing World, both of which question Western liberalism and present incisive reflections on African communalism. Similarly, while in the post-Cold War world Francis Fukuyama announced the victory of liberalism in The End of History and the Last Man, Ademola Kazeem Fayemi, in “Towards an African Theory of Democracy”, aptly noted that Fukuyama’s liberal democracy cannot be the end of human history simply because we are not at the end of human intelligence.

Nkiru Nzegwu’s “Feminism and Africa: Impact and Limits of the Metaphysics of Gender” in A Companion to African Philosophy edited by Kwasi Wiredu, and her Family Matters: Feminist Concepts in African Philosophy of Culture, among others, are valuable contributions to the current discourses on gender equity.

The sum of the matter is that contrary to Sanya Osha’s diagnosis, African philosophy is making its robust contribution to conceptual decolonisation alongside other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. What is of crucial importance is that African and Africanist scholars indefatigably aim for academic excellence grounded in an ideology that is resolutely on the side of the African masses. There is wide room for inter-disciplinary co-operation between African philosophy and other disciplines. For example, collaboration between African philosophy and critical discourse analysis (CDA) would enrich African philosophy by placing at its disposal the thoroughgoing methodology and the avowedly pro-people ideological orientation of CDA, thereby yielding abundant fruit for conceptual decolonisation.

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