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Pandemonium! The Pathology of a Pandemic

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The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the world’s wounds, scars, fissures and pressures. The fear of an impending catastrophe when the virus finally reaches zones of abandonment remind us of the violence and partialities that partition a world that should ideally be shared and held in common.

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Pandemonium! The Pathology of a Pandemic
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I. Pharmakon

The recent exposure of our bodies to foreign bodies has also exposed the cracks and limited sympathies that form the body politic. The COVID-19 pandemic has made us aware of a world that we all share. A world whose wounds, scars, fissures and pressures do not open up to an outside. A world where bodies and borders fold back into themselves, revealing the things that animate the current order, as well as that which is yet to come.

As we are told to distance ourselves from other human and non-human beings, let us remember that there are things that the act of distancing cannot prevent. That there are many separations and intimacies, as well as wounds, that it cannot heal. As we are encouraged to wash our hands and to stay at home, let us revisit the cultures of the home and dynamics of homelessness too. With critical care and compassion, with renewed passion and attention, let us question some of the presentist tales on retail and see the pharmakon — the remedy, the poison, and the scapegoat — that they entail.

For the past two years, the Kenyan political imaginary has been mediated and saturated by a dynastic handshake. A handshake whose supposedly reconciling touch has created new political alignments and theistic rearrangements. Like other diplomatic gestures aimed at repairing democratic fissures, the handshake has generated reports and initiatives of conjecture. For some, it is a breath of fresh air. For others, it is a political chokehold and a cause of breathlessness. For some, the handshake is a pay cheque.

With the current emergency measures being declared against the backdrop of an immunitary politics of touch and breathlessness, we should be wary of the emergence of untouchable officers who suspend or act outside of the law. But there is a doubleness to this untouchability. While it signals to the impunity and fear that marks our immunitary present, it also calls upon us to apprehend , embrace, and agitate with the millions that our political habits have abandoned and rendered precarious – the so-called “untouchables” whose everyday life and vision of the future is marked by hunger and breathlessness of one form or another, the millions for whom the curfew and other emergency measures carry the forces of life and death in equal measure.

In this time when faces sit behind masks or, as we have seen, so many black skins move without masks, we need to question the official protocols behind the disposal of the breathless dead in undignified ways. We need to heed the calls of homeward-bound travelers who are subjected to the familiar tools of repression while some —untouched by the familiar brutality of rungus and teargas —remain “safely” bound within their homes. As the home-bound people moralise and cheer on the few armed men who enforce the curfew against the so-called “undisciplined masses”, remember that home – that assumed space of safety – also causes premature death for others. Remember that on these streets some people do not need to commit an infraction; their very existence, their everyday movement, their way of being, is now an infraction. Today it is them, tomorrow it might be you.

It is during this time – when habitual forms of touch, breath, intimacy, or even desire can be fatal – that one must find ways of touching and connecting to others in other ways. Beware of the fear of exposure to foreign bodies that makes one fearful or suspicious of foreigners. Beware of the war metaphors and mobilisations that urge people to withdraw into themselves, cut the ties and veins that connect them to others, and plug the nodes and portals through which contact and contagion take place. Beware of the calls to take the politics of touch too literally, such that one cannot be touched by the plight and joy of others. It is when we are all masked up and everyday touch becomes lethal that one must remember the touching words of Frantz Fanon at the end of his Black Skins, White Masks where he calls upon us:

[…]to recapture the self and to scrutinize the self, it is through the lasting tension of their freedom that men will be able to create the ideal conditions of existence for a human world…Why not the quite simple attempt to touch the other, to feel the other, to explain the other to myself?

II. Care/Carefulness

In these times where we are called upon to shelter in place and distance ourselves from others, let us also distance ourselves from our habitual ways of being and the selves that they hold in place. Undoubtedly, the emergency modes of care and immunity generate regimes of carefulness that guarantee life and safety, but certain forms of carefulness also stand in the way of solidarity and attunement to the wailing and mumbling of the world.

With the recognition that solidarity is both a gift and a sacrifice that binds, we must ask what it means to stand with another without producing micro-fascisms and architectures of enmity that reduce difference to identity while subjecting it to dominant regimes of recognition. At what point, we might ask, do solidarities become sodalities or even a kind of new modality of being with others based on limited sympathies and forms of fear?

It is during this time – when habitual forms of touch, breath, intimacy, or even desire can be fatal – that one must find ways of touching and connecting to others in other ways.

As we witness abandoned African migrants being profiled, evicted, abused, and expelled from Guangzhou in China while African states receive personal protective equipment donations from China and test kits and masks from Jack Ma and as we see people of Asian descent being spat on, wailed at, and attacked on U.S. streets based on the notion that they are the originators and carriers of SARS-CoV-2 virus, how are we to respond? How can we attend to the double challenge that calls upon Africans at home to condemn the violence against fellow Africans in China as well as that which is waged against the Chinese and other Asians in the U.S.— a place where fellow black people are already disproportionately exposed to illness , injury, and death? How are we to ensure that we do not excuse or reproduce these violences here at home or anywhere else for that matter? Whither the spirit of Bandung? Insofar as this geography of pain and therefore ethics is concerned, Africans, it seems, are the behemoth that sees multiple sides of the violence, debt, gifts, and betrayals that summon us to condemn, mobilise, and sympathise simultaneously. Tragic as it may be, awareness of these layered precarities provides an orientation that remains crucial for negotiating and navigating the world of separations that is emerging in the wake of the pandemic and its related pandemonium.

***

Again, and owing to biocolonial and biopolitical concerns, the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus across the globe has led to new discourses on African lack and excess. In some of these narratives, the low incidence of the COVID-19 disease in Africa is attributed to the systemic disconnectedness of Africa from the rest of the world. In other discourses, Africans are said to be immune to a virus that is ravaging humanity at large, given that they are a species apart from humanity.

Within this second figuration, imagined African immunity serves as evidence of a superhuman or subhuman status, thus legitimising the creation of drug trial regimes or resilience-based systems of abandonment based on the notion that Africans will always adapt to conditions that other human beings cannot live in. Either way, the African scene — just like the camps and refugee holding centers in Bangladesh and Europe, Gaza, and prisons in the U.S. — is seen as an exceptional incubator of disease. Accordingly, the abandoned, displaced, walled-off, or exploited collectivities are considered to be the source of enduring threat and fear to the isolated, who might remain uninfected yet but is still affected by the disease. As COVID-19 reveals connections and disconnections that are often disavowed and living conditions that should never have existed in the first place, further moves are made to separate and contain the refugees, prisoners, Palestinian, and African carriers of difference rather than abolish the apartheid orders and structures of exclusion that make the prospect of disease in these places so lethal.

The fear of an impending catastrophe when the virus finally reaches these zones of abandonment – where political and health systems, as well as living conditions, aren’t conducive for the enforcement of social distancing or other measures required to contain the spread of the COVID-19 disease – tell us a lot about the “abnormality” and pathology of the spaces that we take as normal. The gaps — which in reality are a gaping abyss — remind us of the violence and partialities that partition a world that should be shared and held in common.

***

When we are called upon to clean the world, our homes, and ourselves, let us heed the words of Françoise Vergès who, in an essay on “Capitalocene, Waste, Race, and Gender” carefully illustrates the gendered dynamics of care and cleaning and the intricate economy and circulation of exhausted bodies that work in spaces of everyday life. Accordingly, our solidarity and our cares should lie with those who are rendered most vulnerable, superfluous, and injured by racial capitalism, patriarchy, and neoliberal logics today.

While the economy and ecology of care and cleaning are now recognised as essential to containing the spread of COVID-19, the periodic clapping and heroic chants still overlook the scars, hunger, sleeplessness, and liquification of the skins and hands of the people who clean the world. It also renders mute the very essential people that one claims to be talking about and does not protect them from being disposable or easily replaceable.

Beware of the narratives that commoditise and moralise, rather than politicise, the realm of care. Beware of the sacrificial fetishisation, rather than politicisation, of the labouring body that makes it difficult to contest the practices and dispositions that continue to lay so many lives to waste. Beware of those who turn the space of care into an extension of the policing apparatus or those who proclaim their individual freedoms to move and transact “normally”, thus putting undue pressure on already overstretched caregivers.

***

While the language of care is sometimes mobilised to speak of sustaining and rejuvenating practices of self-care, we have to ask ourselves what it is that causes the exhaustion that we are being rejuvenated from and what we are returning to in this re-energised state. In the time of the pandemic, the “care of the self” and the philosophical injunction to know oneself is not something that can be closed unto itself or cordoned off from worlds that any human being is entangled with. With this eroticism of carefulness, the condom – that erotic membrane mobilised to keep the outside outside in the wake of an earlier pandemic – is now joined by masks, gloves, and other membranes. The whole body becomes “condomised” and “sanitised”. The world becomes “moralised” as borders are enforced, as body parts and prostheses are sanitised, and as the fear of the other and suspicion of the self increase.

In New York, they have produced a guide to taking care during sex in the age of COVID-19:

Kissing can easily pass COVID-19. Avoid kissing anyone who is not part of your small circle of close contacts. * Rimming (mouth on anus) might spread COVID-19. Virus in feces may enter your mouth. *Condoms and dental dams can reduce contact with saliva or feces, especially during oral or anal sex. *Washing up before and after sex is more important than ever. Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. * Wash sex toys with soap and warm water. * Disinfect keyboards and touch screens that you share with others (for video chat, for watching pornography or for anything else).

In Nairobi, the Gengetone music group Ethic released their songs Quarantei and Soko, each articulating the violence, sex, and exuberance that accompanies this moment and that, unfortunately, reflects some fantasies and actual realities of urban sex life.

While the economy and ecology of care and cleaning are now recognised as essential to containing the spread of COVID-19, the periodic clapping and heroic chants still overlook the scars, hunger, sleeplessness, and liquification of the skins and hands of the people who clean the world.

In this time of care, and carefulness, in this time of sorrow, grief, lamentation, and burdens of the mind, let us take care of each other. Let us also be wary of the insidious moves that seek to take charge of politics, popular imagination, and desire or fear in the name of freedom. Let us beware of those that prey on vulnerable others and generate fantasies of male domination. Let us beware of the moralists who use these Nairobi scenes of excess to generate a moral panic that normalises and regulates or defines what counts as “proper” desire for everyone. For in the exceptional moment of enclosure, for in the search of a cure, a new “curia” can curate an order of heteronomous morality (unquestioning rule following) where their “orders” and even playful seductions re-order individual and collective life in the service of religious, misogynistic, capitalist, and even fascist ideals rather than amplifying an ethics of care predicated on a radical altruism and attention to more life-affirming practices (sexual or otherwise).

III. Exceptions/ Exemplarities

As we receive the communication on immunity and calls to wash our hands in order to prevent the spread of this microbial “agent”, remember those excommunicated from the sphere of ethical concern. Remember that the dry taps and inability to observe the stay-at-home orders or to even self-isolate in cramped living spaces are not geographical accidents; they are not the historical outcome of poor choices by the poor. They are the material manifestations of old and new structures of exploitation tied to the legacies of colonialism and neoliberalism as well as resilience governance in Kenya today.

When we encounter the unwashed hand or the overpriced jerrycan of water, remember the washed money and the laundered conscience that is baptised in holy water every week. Remember the attritional violence and white-collar crime which, unlike its red-collared counterpart, kills millions slowly, and with a clean conscience. Remember the dataism and algorithmic life that is becoming part of the Kenyan reality as a result of blockchain governance, biometric registration, Safaricom FinTech futures, and the popular and expert ethnic arithmetic, as well as Cambridge Analytica’s psychographics that supplement the idea of insurmountable differences or tyranny of one sort or another. Remember how the Moi era involved patterns of surveillance where the right to know every detail of individual life coincided with the sovereign right to rule in exclusion of others.

When we encounter the unwashed hand or the overpriced jerrycan of water, remember the washed money and the laundered conscience that is baptised in holy water every week.

While resisting technophobic conspiracy theories is necessary, one must recognise how the desire for more elaborate regimes of outbreak analytics and Integrated Disease Surveillance and Response Systems (IDSR) can help contain the spread of COVID-19 but also set the stage for other biopolitical and immunitary forms of governance that target and eliminate the dissenting political body. The crisis, as we come to see, is not one of immunity alone but also of community and its dynamics of superfluity. Let us question our limited sympathies and the discourses on responsibility and discipline that dictate how, or for whom, one must care, be accountable to, know, and even mourn.

IV. Spectacular/ Spectral Handshakes

With the disappearance of the handshake here and elsewhere, let us not forget how this habitual gesture became so common – how it has been banned and reinvented over time, and how it has shaken the world so many times. Remember Mussolini’s anti-bourgeois campaign that replaced the handshake with the fascist Roman salute just after the First World War and the devastation of the Spanish flu. Remember the Boy Scouts’ friendly left-hand handshake invented by Baden-Powell (now buried in Nyeri) as he colonised the Ashanti and subjected King Prempeh to the British crown.

The “genius” and deception behind British geopolitics and the colonial handshakes behind it is illustrated in Nicholas Rankin’s reflection on figures like Richard Meinertzhagen, who is well-known for his love of birds, his execution of the Haversack Ruse in Gaza, and the assassination of Koitalel Arap Samoei in Kenya. The killing, the fatal sleight-of-hand, took place when Koitalel reached out for a conciliatory handshake with the colonial officer who, in familiar anti-diplomatic fashion, denied him the privilege or immunity guaranteed to emissaries and shot him at point-blank range. Meinertzhagen also decapitated Koitalel’s body and took his head, his ornaments, and adornments as trophies of this colonial conquest.

Meinhertzhagen saw war as a metaphor for hunting, which he enjoyed immensely. The only difference for him was that in war you hunted men rather than animals. In Quetta, he used a polo mallet to bludgeon to death a worker who had mistreated his ponies. He then bribed the police to cover up the cause of death by claiming the man had died of the plague. Nearer home in Tanganyika, Meinhertzhagen and his troops searched the German latrines for soiled documents, which acted as “filthy though accurate information” in the service of the British Empire. He also killed birds and put them next to watering holes in order to deny his enemies access to the water, which was marked as poisoned. This man’s blood-soaked fingerprints and the spectre of his deceptive and man-hunting methods are felt from Kenya to Tanzania, Quetta and Palestine.

Beware of the ghosts and methods we summon when we hope to contain today’s deaths and maladies. Beware of the new manhunts, the surveillance, the handshake betrayals, the civilizing missions, the colonial logics of discipline, non-contamination, and the politics of water, toilets and toilet paper, that is sometimes never too far away from profiling, carceral, and other colonial practices. Beware of the desire for “tough” maternal and paternal love and discipline based on the notion that the only language Africans understand is that of brute force. Beware of the notion that the protection the collective is always achieved through sacrifice, punishment, and disregard for the meaningful practices, intimacies, and the little pleasures and compassion that define human and communal dignity. Beware of the interplay of customary norms and governmental exceptions, as well as the quest for a new normal that is to be built on negation rather than negotiation, or conversion without any space for conversation.

When the nostalgia for “the handshake” returns, remember how Fides, that old pagan mark of trust, reliability, and conciliation, became the ritualised sign of Christian pacification. Remember Romeo Dallier who “shook hands with the devil” in Rwanda and even “smelled him”.

Let us not forget those who refused the handshake and watched as opportunity slipped through their fingers. Remember sister Farah Alhajeh who sued and was awarded 40,000 Kronor by a Swedish labour court for discrimination after the translation company Semantix ended her job interview in May 2016 due to her refusal to shake hands with male workers because of her Islamic faith. If Alhajeh was lucky, this was not the case for an Algerian woman who, also citing her religious beliefs, refused to shake hands with the male official at the end of her citizenship ceremony in France, which led to a denial of her citizenship application. The court hearing her appeal supported the denial of her citizenship, noting that she had not assimilated into French society in spite of having been married to a French man for six years.

It is not surprising that now, owing to the COVID-19 outbreak, both countries have banned the handshake that was hitherto considered an indispensable part of their cultures. It is also not surprising that as part of a long-standing biocolonial hexagonal imagination, French doctors Jean-Paul Mira and Camille Locht suggested that new COVID-19 vaccines be tested in Africa. For the two medics, Africa is nothing but a zone of experimentation and insurmountable difference rather than a place of shared humanity.

As private hospitals turn away the sick, recall how the golden handshake of SAP-induced voluntary early retirement led so many to a hand-to-mouth existence. And remember the crafty business deals and pyramid schemes that emerged in that era of Goldenberg-induced uncertainty. Remember the era of privatisation that commodified life, normalised African privation, and gave birth to the side-hustler and the sufferer.

V. Banalities

So let us reassess the idea of the gentleman’s handshake and all the promises, bodies, and hearts that it has broken. From the unwelcome lingering or limp fish-like handshake to the firm grip that promises too much, duplicity and the sleight of hand has often accompanied this gesture. Here, inattentiveness to the lives of those who are not at the table where the agreements take place is the rule rather than the exception.

As private hospitals turn away the sick, recall how the golden handshake of SAP-induced voluntary early retirement led so many to a hand-to-mouth existence. And remember the crafty business deals and pyramid schemes that emerged in that era of Goldenberg-induced uncertainty.

As we are all told to wash our hands, remember there is a lot more to wash and that not all can do it the same way. Remember the dry callused hand whose labour is denigrated as the “farmhand” is called upon to be resilient. Question those tender manicured hands that have been washed, sanitised, and made supple by the softening touch of the business tender and laundered money. Beware of the soft blood-soaked hand that has just signed away the commons and now asks us to clap as he gives back the scraps as acts of personal charity or captures the commons as part of a glittery public-private partnership (PPP).

Beware of the sovereign handshake from the hand that remains unwashed after a bout of butt-scratching anger.

VI. Embracing Humanity/Animality

On ambitious and superfluous presidential handshakes, remember the U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) who shook hands with 8,513 people during the 1907 New Year’s Day White House celebration. But this shaker of hands was also a shaker of the world. He was a conservationist. In the company of his son, a team of naturalists, taxidermists, and African porters and guides, Roosevelt’s African safari expedition, taken shortly after his retirement, trapped, shot, classified, and chronicled over 11,000 animals from British East Africa, Belgian Congo, and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. The collected specimens were donated to the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum where they serve a pedagogical function. The collections educate some on nature conservation, others on the legacy of man as sovereign knower with dominion over nature, while others are reminded of the destruction of man, knowledge, and nature arising from a colonial order of knowledge and its ideal of man-the-collector and classifier.

Today, when some Kenyans decry the loss of safari tourism revenues, or when we look at big and small game hunters from other parts of the world, let us not forget the history and geography of this ecological catastrophe. Those who walk through the museums should remember that collection and theft are never too far away from each other. Let us remember the foundational con game that this conservationist performed and the cruel history of some of our knowledge practices and the fetishes that seek to capture the wild.

Beware of foundational conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt and Madison Grant who created public parks in the U.S., developed xenophobic policies, and caged and killed non-human beings in order to “conserve” them while preserving “their” ideal of man. Beware of today’s eco-fascists who see man as the virus on the planet and whose nihilistic desire for green spaces involves the elevation of white races and the idealisation of blood and soil in a world without us.

But Teddy Roosevelt was a man of contradictions. In a change of heart during a Mississippi hunting trip, he refused to shoot an injured bear that a guide had dutifully tied to a tree so as to please his by then exhausted master. The presidential pardon for the animal became an icon of pity, and thus the Teddy Bear was born.

Today, Western children and some Westernised Southerners go on a veritable teddy bear hunt to distract them from the COVID-19 lockdown. These, and other stuffed animals, adorn home and shop windows for children to spot as they walk around their walkable neighbourhoods.

However, others wait for the African peak of the pandemic so that teddy bears, trauma bears, and other stuffed animals may be sent to Africa as part of humanitarian teddy bear diplomacies or marketing campaigns, such as the Swedish “Teddybear Airdrop Minsk 2012”. Receive the bear, anticipate the bear hug for those seen as bare life, and beware of the bio-expectations they entail. These icons of sentimentality sometimes disavow the lived and material conditions of things or the simple fact that the night of bombs and gunshots is followed by the day of teddy bears, often sourced from the same place. Note how after the abandonment, after the disparaging remarks, after the deportations and incarcerations, comes the teary embrace — albeit for just a short while.

Today, when some Kenyans decry the loss of safari tourism revenues…let us not forget the history and geography of this ecological catastrophe. Those who walk through the museums should remember that collection and theft are never too far away from each other.

As one embraces and beholds the teddy bears in this time of zoonotic transmission of novel viruses, let us also remember and scrutinise the other things and knowledges that are going viral. The knowledge and conspiracy theories that are the rage of our age have many analogue precedents. For instance, the 1 April 1972 issue of the British peer-reviewed journal Veterinary Record carried an article about the diseases of Brunus edwardii — a species “commonly kept in homes in the United Kingdom and other countries in Europe and North America”. The article, which also carried sketches of the teddy bear (Brown Edward), warned that “the public health implications of this fact are obvious, and it is imperative that more be known about their diseases, particularly zoonoses or other conditions which might be associated with their close contact with man.” Beware of the hoaxes. Pay attention to the nuances. Let us read the stories of the animal and us and heed the reality of the animals in us or the animals that we are. Feel the disavowed animalities that make up our humanity.

***

The hand, we are told, is one of the things that makes the human being human. With the opposable thumb we get the tech of life, ranging from the fist, to tool handling skills, and all manners of gesticulating habits of crafting and communication. But hands are also carriers of difference. The privileging of dexterities and discrimination of those without hands or with limp limbs is part of the order of things.

Ours is the age of thumbs. The “all thumbs” awkward one of yesterday is now the master of the phone texting keyboard and drone controls. With the interruption of rhythms of work, school, and life, new forms of mutuality, aid, and care become imaginable in this new dispensation where we are told to keep our hands to ourselves. As we compose our worlds anew, beware of the pedagogies of apartness. Beware of those who speculate and gamble away the collective futures. Also remember those who have shown the commoner their middle finger as they feed off of our hands, bite them, and now try to keep us all at arm’s length— for our own sake, for the sake of others, but mostly for their own sake.

In the age of public notices and jeremiads, in a time of conspiracy theories and public orders, this lamentation on what we all see but sometimes shake away is a call for us to recall and recompose the things that we already know and experience. These are things that the invisible microbe forces us to look at and hold in our hearts even as the invisible hand tries to inscribe us as man-the-buyer and alienates our labour as the labouring hand becomes more restrained.

In a time where everyday touch, even when it does not bear any arms, is said to be potentially fatal, a time where touch is being virtualised for some and others have the rungu waving over their heads, remember that the ties that bind can be cut, created anew, or extended to generate a more life-affirming humanity with the possibility of a deeper mutuality.

But this time can also be captured by the forces of disaster capitalism or worse, those of disaster fascism.

So Beware! Be aware …

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By

Sam Okoth Opondo is Assistant Professor in Comparative Politics and Africana Studies at Vassar College N.Y. His research engages race, biopolitics, aesthetics and ethics in colonial, settler colonial and postcolonial societies with a focus on the dynamics of ‘mediating estrangement’ and co-habitation.

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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