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The Morality Debate and the Spirit of Capitalism

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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

Ideas

Decoloniality and the Kenyan Academy: A Pipe Dream?

Decoloniality in Kenya may be permitted in Kenyan universities if the Kenya government receives a grant to promote it, or if the British Council or other foreign donor will sponsor a conference on it.

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Decoloniality and the Kenyan Academy: A Pipe Dream?
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Over a decade ago, I was a fresh graduate, still aflame with post-colonial critiques of empire and eager to implement this consciousness in my new station back home in Kenya. In one of my first assignments as a naïve and enthusiastic administrator, I attended a workshop on implementing the Bologna Process in higher education.

​For me, the workshop was odd. We were implementing an openly European framework in Kenya, a country which gained fame for challenging cultural colonialism, thanks to people like Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s and his classic Decolonising the mind. It was surprising to me that this workshop would happen in a country where it has now become standard practice in Kenyan literature to present the great art of our ancestors as a evidence disproving the claims of colonialism. Our students cannot read an African work of art without lamenting the colonial experience. Surely, implementing a European education agenda in 21st century Kenya should raise some hullabaloo. But this Europeanization of our education seemed to raise no eyebrows.

Eventually, I could no longer ignore this elephant in the room. So I asked: why are we implementing a process without discussing where it came from and what problem it was addressing in its context?

I have now learned that such questions are not to be asked in Kenyan universities, which is the point I will emphasize later. For the moment, I will repeat the answer I was given: if the Bologna Process improved higher education in Europe, it will do the same for us in Kenya.

At that time, I was too academically shy to interrogate that answer. It did not occur to me to research whether it is true that the Bologna process delivered the spectacular results in Europe that we were being promised, or even to find out the reactions of European faculty and students to the process. In retrospect, I now understand why I could not interrogate that answer.

To be a young academic in Kenya gives you a fairly strong inferiority complex. Rather than acquire humility of knowing that there is so much to learn, you acquire a shame of knowing. Worse, you fear asking questions because the answer you get sometimes suggests that you are arrogant, which is usually expressed as an accusation that you think only you have a PhD. So I accepted the answer I got.

Imagine my surprise to later discover that there was a political economy around the Bologna Process. The short version of it is that the Bologna Process was an effort by the European Union to fight back against the US and UK efforts to monopolize the higher education “market” with Ivy League and Oxbridge universities. Bologna Process was continental Europe’s way of commercializing itself at home, and in Africa, setting European universities as the standards against which African universities benchmarked themselves.

Within continental Europe, students demonstrated against this standardization at protests called “Bologna burns.” Faculty pointed at the neoliberal and corporate agenda of the Bologna Process. In African continental platforms like CODESRIA, African scholars raised questions about the political motives of the Bologna Process and pointed out that African universities would complacently implement the process largely because Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) had rendered universities vulnerable to external interference.

But in Kenya, land of Decolonizing the Mind? We academics quietly implemented it without raising questions.

Anti-colonial resistance in the Kenyan academy is more about reputation than about reality. The Kenyan academy is  conservative as a whole, despite its rhetoric of opposing colonialism and affirming African culture. It appears that the global resonance of the Mau Mau and the persecution of faculty and students by successive Kenya governments have made the world see more anti-colonial resistance in the Kenyan academy than exists in reality. As a result, the Kenyan academy remains stuck in a gap between the rhetoric of decolonizing on one hand, and on the other, the reality of coloniality and of the university as an agent of coloniality.

Even I, a Kenyan, was still mesmerized by our anti-colonial reputation when I naively asked why we were implementing the Bologna Process. It is only after ten years of never getting direct answers to my questions about the Kenyan obsession with global “standards,” “competitiveness” and benchmarking,” that I slowly accepted that there is a fundamental dissonance in the Kenyan scholarly consciousness.

This reality, in a nutshell, is why the current discussions of decoloniality may not take root in the Kenyan academy.

That is not to say that the concept of decoloniality is irrelevant. My Bologna Process experience is proof that coloniality of power is very much entrenched in Kenya. Policy travel in education has made Kenyan education bureaucrats, many of whom are academics and professors, adopt and implement Euro-centric policies in Kenya’s schooling system. Meanwhile, the policy makers frown upon and run away from questions about the policies themselves.

This brutal reality has hit home for me with my public engagement on the competency based curriculum. The Ministry of Education policy makers have refused to answer questions on the imperial and commercial interests behind the competency curriculum. Worse, some of the supporting documentation they have filed in court cases, to which I have had access, openly demonstrate the racial bias of the foreign promoters of competency, especially in the United States.

As if that is not absurd enough, Kenyan scholars of education seem unperturbed by this overt imperial control of Kenyan schooling. A search on Google Scholar for Kenyan studies on CBC shows that few, if any, carry out an actual philosophical or political critique of the school system and of the international actors behind it. More absurd, the concern of some of the scholars is with the indigenous content in what is basically a recolonizing curriculum.

The insights from decoloniality studies cannot be more urgent in Kenya. Decoloniality would help us distinguish between maintaining an anti-colonial rhetoric and reinforcing colonial logics of power. It would enable us to understand that even  African cultures can be weaponized for colonial agendas. It would help us detect and explain the inertia and decline of Kenyan universities.

But here’s why it will be difficult for decoloniality discourse to take root in Kenya.

As an approach, discussion of decoloniality requires certain institutional conditions. One is our ability to be political. To be political, as Lewis Gordon says in several of his works, is to go beyond oneself. One must be willing to ask about implications for people beyond the self, for time beyond the present, for space beyond the here. Second, one must have a fairly robust knowledge of national and international history. Third, one must be willing to accept their own implication in the colonial project.

All these conditions do not exist in Kenya. Kenya is a very conservative country, in the political sense of the word. By its very essence, conservativism denies the political. Conservativism explicitly discourages discussions of power and sociality  in institutional and daily conversation. The question I asked about why we were implementing a foreign education policy was a political one because it was a question beyond myself. It was a question about the institution, society and international community.

The only questions we Kenyans are allowed to ask are about the personal. We Kenyans are not allowed to think socially and globally. Hence one will often hear Kenyans silencing one another with responses such as “speak for yourself,” or “that does not apply to everybody.” Similarly, the answer I got was that the Bologna Process would work for me as an administrator faithfully implementing it, and maybe for the institution, but it remained silent on the larger society.

On the question of history, it goes without saying that Kenya does not teach its history, either in the syllabus or in popular arts. The competency curriculum, for example, has reduced history to citizenship, which means that there is an intention to limit Kenyan children’s knowledge of history to legitimizing the state. For the few Kenyans who escape the war against humanities by the Kenya government and private sector, and who specialize in the arts and humanities in the university, we are preoccupied with protecting our jobs as we are accused of teaching subjects which have “no market.” With such a weak public grasp of history, a decoloniality conversation in Kenyan academic circles becomes difficult.

The third issue, of personal implication of academics in the colonial project, is probably the most difficult to tackle. Because of the de-socializing and de-politicizing rhetoric of what Keguro Macharia calls Kenya’s political vernacular, Kenyans find it psychologically difficult to deal with contradictions, and deflect them with the conservative moral rhetoric of blame. If one points out the colonial threads in a particular policy, a Kenyan academic will typically respond with statements such as “let’s not blame one another,” “we need to be positive so that it works,” or “let’s not politicize issues,” or “let’s not take this personally.” It is inevitable that the social and political conversation which decoloniality demands will be difficult for us when we operate in an atmosphere where cannot have conversations beyond the self and morality.

Decoloniality in Kenya may be permitted in Kenyan universities if the Kenya government receives a grant to promote it, or if the British Council or other foreign donor will sponsor a conference on it. And it will likely hover around the old, conservative slogan of “let’s go back to our cultures” which, as Terry Ranger wrote, was a slogan from the colonial government itself.

For the decoloniality discourse to take root in Kenya, we need to deepen our knowledge and teaching of history. We cannot have a conversation about history when we do not know it. We need to overtly confront the conservative Kenyan political vernacular. We must refuse the small space of blame that makes us constantly apologize for possibly treading on people’s feelings and sounding like we are assigning personal guilt. We must refuse to be policed by demands for verified facts and data as a condition for having a social conversation.

​But that work is easier said than done. Kenyan academics who take this journey should know that challenging these discursive barriers will, most likely, come at an emotional and professional cost. We should not be surprised by accusations of being negative and confrontational, or by being isolated and lonely within our institutions. I know several Kenyan academics who are suffering painful psychic injuries after being isolated for daring to do this work. But we can survive and thrive if we deliberately search for solidarity among individual academics across the country and the world who are having that conversation.

This article was first published in Wandia Njoya’s blog.

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Re-imagining the African University

In relation to their knowledge production, African universities should acknowledge the importance of producing research in support of development, while retaining their liberal education focus, he advises.

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If they are not to be condemned to irrelevance, universities in Africa must strengthen their research and teaching and adopt a proactive stance in responding to the institutional and developmental demands of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

This is according to Paul Zeleza, the former the vice-chancellor of the United States International University-Africa, and at present the North Star distinguished professor and associate provost at Case Western Reserve University, a private institution in Cleveland, Ohio, in the United States.

“Universities have a crucial role to play in pushing governments and the private sector to ensure that Africa has agency in the 4IR [Fourth Industrial Revolution] and, accordingly, derives significant benefits,” says Zeleza, giving warning that the continent may otherwise be “left behind or unduly exploited, as was the experience during the previous three industrial revolutions”.

“Instead of being what Kenyan pan-Africanist thinker Ali Mazrui used to describe as ‘pawns’ in the global system, Africans must become 4IR players,” he urges, citing the need for the continent to acquire sufficient high-performance computing capacity to undertake the complex data analytics and processing of big data sets that are required as part of the 4IR.

In the absence of such high-performance computing, Zeleza says, the continent will be indebted to external data processing and storage firms and “will not even receive the trinkets it was once paid [under colonialism] for its raw materials”.

In a parallel move, African universities should also make every effort to improve their research and pedagogic functions, seeking to support domestic development while also boosting their standing and the quality of their contributions at international level, he advises.

“The issue of relevance is a complex one,” Zeleza says. “It comes from the university’s anchoring in its society but that should not exclude being global … because, whether we like it or not, higher education is global.”

Indeed, he urges, “it is important that African universities do not surrender the global to others”.

Indigenisation vs internationalisation

“We also have to be global,” he says. “An appropriate balance has to be struck between indigenisation and internationalisation.”

However, Zeleza notes, higher education institutions on the continent are, at present, generally failing to make their mark globally, which is creating institutional harm in terms of their access to resources, students and staff.

For example, he says, Africa has yet to acknowledge the importance of research, including on critical issues such as climate change and health, in its funding priorities.

“A report produced by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in June 2021 indicated that the continent’s expenditure on research and development, which includes the universities, was very low at about 0.5% of GDP, compared with a global average of about 1.9%.

“Meanwhile, its share of total global research and development expenditure was about 1%, with most of this taking place in South Africa and North Africa, indicating the dire conditions for research elsewhere on the continent.”

Pedagogy at global standard

Zeleza also notes that, while African universities should be providing pedagogy at a global standard, “this is not [their] current reputation in general, as is illustrated by the relatively low number of international students at higher education institutions on the continent”.

“In addition, and notwithstanding the justified criticism of the international university rankings, African universities fare poorly on these tables,” Zeleza says. “In the Times Higher Education rankings for 2021, only 60 of the 1,500 ranked institutions were from Africa.

“Whatever the misgivings about the rankings, they are used as a marketing tool and, in this way, influence the flows of students, faculty staff and resources.”

In this regard, Zeleza cites a preference among the Kenyan elite for sending their children to universities abroad as an example of the depths to which the reputations of many African universities have sunk.

It is a dynamic that he is keen to see reversed, particularly given what he describes as the inappropriate and often damaging nature of the education offered to African students at universities in North America, the United Kingdom and Australia.

“I used to see a lot of young students from Africa undertaking undergraduate studies in the United States and it was clear these kids were lost at a personal level and intellectually,” he says.

“They were not being developed in ways that were good for them. They were forced to deal with being treated as second- or third-class because of race issues; and they were not being equipped with any knowledge about their own countries, their own societies.”

However, African universities can reverse what Zeleza describes as their decline and reclaim their relevance by adopting greater agency and a more strategic approach in relation to their key functions, including their pedagogy and research, and their public-service and technological innovation roles.

The importance of research

In relation to their knowledge production, African universities should acknowledge the importance of producing research in support of development, while retaining their liberal education focus, he advises.

“Whatever particular questions the research is trying to answer, it should broadly seek to address fundamental social and community issues, as these are articulated in national, regional and global plans.

“The generation of knowledge for social impact is something that I think our universities should always have in front of them.”

In this respect, Zeleza is encouraged by the production of a new table for assessing the performance of higher education institutions according to their social impact – that is, in relation to the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – which is now being produced as part of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

“This produces quite different results from those produced by the traditional ranking methodology,” he says. “So, for example, these new rankings have recently listed Australasian universities at the top rather than your Oxfords or Harvards.”

In fulfilling their public service and engagement function, Zeleza stresses the importance of African universities trying to be intentional in building critical strategic and transformational relationships with multiple stakeholders, including the government; the private sector; intergovernmental institutions; community bodies; and philanthropic organisations.

“Universities have to engage their governments, partly in their role as major funders but also in order to provide the kind of research that can be translated into policy,” he says.

While advocating the establishment of mutually beneficial triple-helix arrangements among public- and private-sector partners and universities, he also urges higher education institutions to insist on a greater role in shaping international and continental initiatives.

For example, citing an ambitious African Development Bank programme to provide up to 50 million young Africans with digital skills that can make them employable, he notes the disproportionate influence of external consultants, who can typically hail from the Global North.

The problem, he says, is that African universities are then asked to bid to participate in the implementation of these schemes “but without having been involved in crafting the vision or the agenda for the initiative in the first place”.

Funding of universities

This also brings into sharp focus the ever-pressing matter of university funding. Zeleza advises university leaders to place a greater focus on seeking funding from African philanthropic organisations and high net-worth individuals.

“The data indicates that higher education is not a priority for giving among this group,” he says. This is quite contrary to experience in other parts of the world and among leading universities, such as Harvard and Princeton.

“So, the challenge for African universities as part of their mission of engaging society is to approach and cultivate these individuals in a strategic way.”

Zeleza also embraces the benefits that technology may bring to higher education, although, he says, “universities should avoid adopting a technologist kind of viewpoint in which technology is viewed as a thing and an end in itself”.

“The issue has to be the extent to which universities are enhancing their value proposition in terms of deploying and developing new technologies in support of digital learning, research and scholarship, and public service and engagement.”

In this regard, he advises that “universities must ensure that students are equipped with the appropriate digital skills, [which are] essential to employability”.

“There is also a need to equip students with information literacy so that they can navigate the huge and ever-increasing amount of information that is available, mostly online.”

The new technologies can further be deployed to facilitate competency-based educational practices, personalising learning, and allowing individual students to move at their own pace, Zeleza says.

Meanwhile, the more democratic access to knowledge facilitated by online technology is leading to new pedagogic approaches, he argues, and a change in the role of teaching professionals. “Teachers, lecturers and professors are no longer the fount of all knowledge.

“Increasingly, the teacher’s role is to equip the students with the ability to engage in critical enquiry and critical discourse. Thus, the lecturing method is giving way to a more interactive co-learning process – a kind of coaching relationship.”

Alongside this, Zeleza says, a new curriculum must be developed that can take account of technological development, including through the continuing establishment of new science degree courses but also through promoting a complementary role for some of the arts and humanities.

“The 4IR is not simply about technology in isolation, but also about how it is integrated with, contributes to, and is transformed by creativity,” he says.

“In this regard, I prefer the acronym STEAM, which includes an “A” for arts, to the acronym STEM, which refers only to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

Creating a new African ‘library’

On the question of the role of indigenous knowledge in the African university, Zeleza envisages an increasingly sophisticated approach to indigenous and other systems of knowledge or ‘libraries’ as Congolese French philosopher and historian Valentin-Yves Mudimbe termed them.

“The tendency is to freeze the notion of indigenous knowledge to an imaginary point in our collective history … and, typically, this reference point is that of pre-contact knowledge, meaning before contact with Europe and colonialism,” he says.

However, he explains, this gives rise to a “banal” definition of African knowledge as an oral formation that stands in opposition to written European or colonial knowledge.

There are at least three streams in Africa’s ancient knowledges, which include the Christian library, the Islamic library, and the oral one, “for lack of a better term”. Zeleza argues that African academics and intellectuals need to claim these libraries which have co-existed for more than a millennium on the continent.

The real problem, however, is “the overwhelming nature of the colonial library in terms of its impacts on our political and intellectual economies”, he says.

“We have become so consumed – and rightly so, to some extent – by the colonial library that we have forgotten these other libraries.”

In response, a key mission for the African academy is to create “a new library out of the constellation of the continent’s diverse libraries,” he says, “so that we can provincialise, deconstruct and decolonise formerly centric knowledges and in their place create empowering knowledges that do not limit us to a formulation of our identities that, itself, is part of the Eurocentric episteme”.

This article is based on an interview conducted by Professor Crain Soudien for the ‘The Imprint of Education’ project, which is being implemented by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), South Africa, in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation. This project, which includes a series of critical engagements with experienced scholars and thought leaders on their reimaginings of higher education in Africa, investigates current and future challenges facing the sector, including best practices and innovations. The transcript has been edited for length and focus by Mark Paterson and Thierry M Luescher and the full interview will be available on the HSRC’s website.

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Heckling: Political Fine Art or Mere Intolerance?

Tradition gives the politician the power to talk down to the public. But where is the citizens’ voice and platform to register their disapproval and displeasure? Is heckling inherently wrong?

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Heckling: Political Fine Art or Mere Intolerance?
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Hakuna! Ongee! Tawe! Gũtirĩ!

The human being is a heckler. It doesn’t matter whether he’s a polished and refined bureaucrat or a rusty hawker in some dark and desolate alley along River Road. The accountant, when home from work and in front of his 40-inch TV, will still heckle and chuckle when he hears a disagreeable comment from a politician. The prize goes to the hawker though, who will attend a meeting and courageously make his feelings known.

The question as to whether heckling is right or wrong falls within the realms of nature. And nature, you’d agree, is complex. Questions of nature have no simple or simplistic answers. Nature scorns soundbites and clichés. And nature is not just about majestic forests, clothed in death-like stillness—or the power and poise of lions as their roar echoes and re-echoes across the rugged expanse of the Mara.

Finally, nature is not just about atoms and electrons.

When correctly comprehended, nature encompasses the metaphysical. It deals with ideas and ideals as well as values and virtues. In antiquity and during the classical periods, natural philosophy was a big scholarly tent under which men studied astronomy and beauty, physics and ethics—all side by side.

This is to show that to study heckling—is to study ethics—and to study nature.

In less than six months, Kenyans are going to the polls for an election that will usher in a transition. Politicians have many tools and avenues to pass their message across to the populace: a few refined town hall-like meetings, a dash of carefully worded social media messaging through platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and live TV interviews, where politicians and their apparatchiks smash phones and bang tables to emphasize their arguments.

Yet the truth is that a political rally remains the theatre of action and the real marketplace of political discourse. In a typical political rally, tradition gives the politician the power and prestige to talk down to the public. They clap and chant and then go home. The (un)settled opinion is that if a citizen does not agree with a politician or with his message, he should just stay away. Heckling, they are told, is immoral, uncouth, even criminal.

Fair enough.

However, where is the citizens’ voice and platform to register their disapproval and displeasure? Is heckling inherently and invariably wrong? Are there situations when heckling should be tolerated, even encouraged? What is the place of heckling in a free and democratic society? How does the law on heckling intersect and overlap with issues to do with free speech?

To understand anything, it’s important to travel back in time to its roots and origins. Before the 18th century, the word “heckling” as we now understand it meant an entirely different thing. A heckler was then a person using a tool called a heckle to comb and refine flax, or in some cases, hemp. Heckling involved drawing out the unwanted fibres from the flax so that it would be clean enough to be spun. A heckler therefore was an industrious worker, who, I should imagine, was dignified and respected.

It was not a coincidence that the Scottish town of Dundee, which was home to many heckler-workers, would emerge as the place where heckling was refined and transformed to become the proto-type of the heckling that we now relate to. Heckler-workers would choose one from amongst themselves to read the day’s news to the whole group. In response to politicians’ reported speeches that they deemed absurd or ridiculous, the rest of the heckler-workers would taunt and tease, scorn and sneer.

A heckler was then a person using a tool called a heckle to comb and refine flax, or in some cases, hemp.

In Scotland, even when the meaning changed with the times, it did not at first involve derisive catcalls, loud jeers, or disruptive boos. Instead, heckling referred to the intense questioning of politicians by the public. The Scottish story tells us that heckling is a legitimate tool that has the potential to improve the democratic tone and texture of a republic. In many other countries, heckling has been a successful device both as a political thermostat (to influence public opinion or government policy) and political thermometer (to reflect public opinion or government policy). Public speeches about the Vietnam war, nuclear weapons, clean fuel, apartheid, and civil rights have, for the same intent, involved some heckling-punctuated protests. This history is important. It shows us that heckling was a socio-political device invented by struggling industrial workers—the class we would call hustlers in Kenya’s current political jargon. Even more curious and exciting is the fact that, as a political device and innovation, it evolved in Scotland, the birthplace of John Stuart Mill, the foremost patriarch and prophet of civil liberty including free speech.

Many political leaders have since been heckled, even those upon whose graves history has put gorgeous wreaths of beautiful flowers. Nelson Mandela was heckled by Muslim adherents in 2001, when he paid a visit to the Grey Street Mosque in Durban, Kwazulu-Natal, because of his stand on the war on terror and the American military campaign in Afghanistan.

In Kenya, the most enduring story of heckling was President Jomo Kenyatta’s visit to Kisumu in 1969 where he was met with shouts of “Ndume, Ndume”—the approving chants directed to elevate his then foremost political nemesis Jaramogi. When Kenyatta rose to speak, his unprintable expletives provoked the crowd. Chaos ensued. Police started firing randomly. Official government records put the death toll at 11.

Without being insensitive to the victims of this incident, this figure, in the weighing scale of fatalities—does not answer to the subsequent description of a massacre. Prof. Macharia Munene, in his book Historical Reflections on Kenya, alleges that the term Kisumu massacre evolved due to the push by historians such as William Ochieng and Bethwell Ogot. But that’s a story for another day.

Many political leaders have since been heckled, even those upon whose graves history has put gorgeous wreaths of beautiful flowers.

As we can see, the cost of heckling was paid in blood and tears. Most recently, thanks to the expanding democratic space, heckling is increasingly tolerated. While on the campaign trail recently, Raila was heckled some places in Meru. William Ruto has also been heckled in parts of the former Western Province.

There are convincing arguments against heckling. One very seductive argument is that heckling limits free speech.

The gold standard for free speech—in Western thought and civilization—is Mill’s Liberty. In this Tour de Force, the student of politics will find perhaps the most elegant arguments in favour of free speech ever penned. Listen to this:

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

In issues to do with free speech, Mill argues, numbers mean nothing. The opinion and voice of a solitary man is equal to the voice and opinion of an impressive assembly.

When you silence a person, the cost to knowledge and social progress can be huge. And the person who “loses” is not just the person silenced. The loss is for the whole society, as Mill eloquently posits:

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. [Emphasis mine.]

Yet in the chaotic sphere of heckling, there’s a tension and struggle between the free speech of the speaker and the free speech of the heckler. If you give one the benefit of an uninterrupted speech, you shut down and deny the other. It almost looks like a zero-sum game. You might argue that the meeting has been convened by the politician and therefore is technically the politician’s meeting, and that he should hold the exclusive keys of free speech.

This was William Ruto’s argument when he lost his cool in the face of sustained heckling during a Laikipia tour.

Granted, we are wont to view the heckler as the aggressor who wants to take a place belonging to someone else. That, moreover, the people who attend a rally or some other public meeting come purposefully to listen to the speaker and not the heckler.

Well, not quite.

In the Heckler’s Promise, Lee Campbell, argues in his paper that the heckler wants neither to be the official speaker nor silent mute. And that without the heckler, public speaking is not democratic as should answer to the meaning of participative democracy. Campbell also argues that if we muzzle the heckler, there’s no genuine encounter between the politician and the citizen.

Moreover, I tend to view heckling as social release—some form of catharsis—that is absolutely necessary in a living and breathing democracy. For how do you muzzle a citizen and subdue him with fake batons of decency and decorum—when he comes to listen to a member of parliament who has squandered the constituency’s allocations on girlfriends—by telling him to listen passively or to request for an impossible chance to speak? Or how can anyone really fault the crowd for heckling President Moi at the burial of Robert Ouko?

Yet in the chaotic sphere of heckling, there’s a tension and struggle between the free speech of the speaker and the free speech of the heckler.

You can say that he can register his disapproval through the ballot. And therein lies the problem. The politician has a vote, a voice, and a platform. Yet the voter only has the vote. And we’re not talking about legislation—which the citizen delegates to his legislator—according to the canons of representative democracy. Here, we’re talking about public discourse and/or expression.

You can also argue that the citizen can convene his own meeting. However, who knows him? If he calls a meeting, who will attend?

If we fully grasp the power dynamics between Prince and Pauper, to borrow the title of Mark Twain’s popular novel, then perhaps the heckler should be congratulated—not criticized.

Yet, the truth is that the prince and the pauper are not equal and never will be. Adam Smith, the celebrated classical economist and moral philosopher, even argues that social inequality is good for society. Without it, there cannot be any meaningful progress. Egalitarianism is utopia.

So, we should perhaps admit that a citizen will not have the voice and the platform like the politician. Yet even if the platform is the politician’s, it is wholly against nature to be passive like a pebble; even a stone causes ripples when it is thrown into water.

There can be a compromise: We don’t have absolute rights—even when it comes to the right of free speech or expression. So long as the speaker’s right to speak is not drowned out and completely halted, you have not interfered with his right to free speech. If you heckle him spontaneously or at intervals that do not make speech impossible, you may have just achieved the democratic ideal that the majority should decide—and the minority be heard. This is as it applies to the voice, separate to the vote.

So the point is: you should not heckle with the intention of disrupting—but only to register your displeasure. Otherwise, you’re limiting the speaker’s rights and the rights of others—who came to listen to what the speaker had to say. As celebrated jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes would memorably aver, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”

Surprisingly, Kenyans have been practicing this kind of non-disruptive heckling as can be seen from video clips of Ruto’s and Raila’s meetings.

But some might still argue that it’s right to disrupt a meeting. Of course that’s correct—even if it’s illegal! This is because something can be legal but patently unjust and unconscionable. That is the field and sphere of civil disobedience in the tradition of such figures as Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi. Here’s what Martin Luther King Jr. said:

An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.

In any case, ideas are like commodities. For instance, if you found someone selling heroin to children, and if you had the strength, would you leave him right there, and go to report the matter to the police? You’d first disrupt the sale. It’s the right thing to do.

By that analogy, if someone is selling poisonous and dangerous ideas, you’d be duty bound to disrupt him or her by any means including heckling. The fundamental element of civil disobedience is that disruption must be civil.

Of course, violence and stone-throwing are acts beyond the pale and which the law and society should condemn.

While heckling is to a large extent acceptable, it can be used by political opponents to disadvantage rivals in the political marketplace. That’s the reason organized heckling is suspicious. However, organized hecklings are not created equal. For instance, I don’t believe that voters should not organize to heckle a politician.

“The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”

Politicians meet all the time to plan what they’ll tell us. This is organization. There’s nothing wrong if the people organize on how they’ll register their displeasure—provided they do this by themselves. The organized heckling that can’t pass muster is the one where a politician uses money to plan and heckle a rival’s meeting. This is corruption of political discourse which makes the political marketplace artificially un-even.

This treatise would not be complete without mentioning one other important function of heckling in a free and democratic society. Heckling tests the emotional intelligence and wit of a politician. It’s a bad sign for a democracy if a politician is easily rattled by hecklers.

The famous British parliamentarian John Wilkes was on the campaign trail when he met a heckler. This is how it went.

Heckler: Vote for you? I’d sooner vote for the devil.

John Wilkes: What if your friend is not vying?

Everyone, I can imagine, burst into uproarious laughter, while approving Wilkes witty response.

This is one area Deputy President William Ruto should probably work on.

Heckling can be fun, especially if it’s spontaneous. It can actually qualify as an artful form of expressing dissent.

So go and heckle—but don’t disrupt.

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