By Femi Olugbile
This column, in its last incarnation for the year 2021, was devoted entirely to Desmond Mpilo Tutu, a man who carried no arms and threw no stones in street demonstrations – though he joined a few in his time.
Although he was a well-read man, he often spoke directly from the heart. One of his famous quotes goes as follows:
‘Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument’.
Desmond Tutu was a small statured man who spent all his life battling against giants, literally and metaphorically. He lived to see his argument prevail against the giants, even in the face of ever-present danger to his life.
Loud intemperate argumentation, filled with abuse, invective and threat, has become the order of the day in public discourse across the world. The explosive expansion of the social media, along with the power and reach it has given for ‘citizen journalism’, has been a major driver of this process. It has led to the growth and increasing power of ‘populist’ right wing political movements in Europe and the Americas.
Donald Trump rode on the back of such a wave to win the Presidency of the United States of America. He made abuse and name-calling – including use of nicknames such as ‘Sleepy Joe’ and ‘Crooked Hillary’ for opponents, into staples of American public discourse. Picked up and amplified by millions of passionate supporters, it had the remarkably strong effect of whipping up anger among supporters and howling down anyone inclined to argue against the ‘popular’ narrative. They picked on convenient targets, such as foreigners, blacks, people of non-Christian religions, such as Muslims and Jews, people with disabilities, and other popular ‘bete noires’ including gays and abortion activists.
The same tactics of high noise and low-quality argument have worked remarkably in advancing the fortunes of the extreme right in places as diverse as Austria, the Philippines and Brazil.
It is easy to assume that the use of noise in the promotion of weak argument is exclusive to conservative ‘populists’. But this is not true.
One of the more bizarre features of the present-day public space is that ‘idealists’ and ‘social activists’ have insidiously slipped into the attitude of employing the same hectoring, bullying tactics to advance ‘progressive’ causes. More and more, there is a ‘take it or leave it’ and an ‘us and them’ aspect to their agitation for ‘good’ causes. ‘Progressives’ condemn and harass writers who say things they don’t like. They carry out public demonstrations to ban speakers who make contrary arguments from speaking on university campuses. They de-market companies whose CEOs express unpopular positions on abortion, feminist or gay rights. A word against a ‘progressive’ cause, and the speaker could be out of a cushy job.
The poor modern-day citizen finds himself crushed between two contending tyrannies – Right and Left.
In Nigeria, a couple of quick examples may illustrate the universality of this sinister trend. The ENDSARS protest was the most relevant, and most significant youth-led cause in a generation. At a point, it seemed poised to begin to achieve at least some of its lofty dreams. A sitting governor conveyed protesters’ demands to his principal, a leader normally perceived as hide-bound and reactionary. The principal immediately agreed to the demands, proscribing the hated group and making a show of setting up mechanisms to implement changes demanded. Perhaps he was gritting his teeth and biting his tongue, but he did the optics.
At that point, a basic strategic imperative required that the struggle move to the next stage of the script. Only there was no leadership, no strategy script. Just more of the same.
The social media inhabited by youthful avatars of the struggle till today speak with perfect conviction about a murderous government and concede no learning points concerning the failure to have identified leadership and end-to-end strategic thinking. Anybody who raises a nuanced argument is a thief and a robber. No lessons have been learned that may guide the conduct of inevitable future protest movements.
The recent unfortunate death of a young student after allegations of bullying in a school’s boarding house supplies another example. So great has been the popular ire that the school was shut by government fiat and remains shut to this day, dislocating the lives of students and staff. The outrage is based on a single narrative which has gone viral and morphed in the traffic. First it was bullies beating up the poor boy to a pulp. Then it was cult-members seeking to forcibly induct him. Socially conscious, upstanding citizens found themselves conducting a public lynching in newspapers and social media. Someone even suggested the school be bulldozed to the ground. Some have advised that boarding schools be cancelled in their entirety.
In such a fevered atmosphere, it is difficult for anyone to ask that all the facts be established before judgement, or to query such minor details as the logic of a father taking his sick child from school and ferrying him hundreds of kilometers over some of the most terrible roads in the country, then sending him to a traditional bone-setter, before finally getting him to a hospital for assessment and treatment.
Sadly the reality is that bullying is a universal scourge that society is fighting against. It is logical and appropriate that anyone found to have done wrong or acted in negligence in a suspected bullying incident, especially one that has resulted in such a catastrophic outcome, after due and competent investigation, including in this case, postmortem examination and toxicology, should face the full wrath of the law.
But that is not the same as jumping to conclusions or acting peremptorily, or using one incident to condemn the boarding school system out of hand. It is doubly awkward where officialdom finds itself taking early action in tandem with the public mood, only to find itself walking back several paces when the facts emerge. An even worse scenario is when it is decided that scapegoats have to be made in a manner out of tune with the fully emerged facts, in order to pacify the public and avoid accusations of ‘collusion’. At that point, the question is apt to arise – ‘Has the cause of Justice been served?’
One reason why alumni of the best schools – the Kings Colleges and Government College Ibadans are continually raising funds to rebuild and improve their boarding schools is because they would like present and future generations to get the benefit they themselves derived from their experience in the boarding system. A well run boarding house is an ideal environment for youthful character development. Period.
We may end this discussion with a slight modification to Desmond Tutu’s dictum, as a working message for 2022.
‘Reduce your voice, improve your information, and improve your argument.’
Then, and only then, may the socially concerned citizen be sure he is positioned to do some good.
The risk for ‘progressives’ in not adhering to Tutu’s dictum is more dire than for right-wing populists, for whom such behaviour is natural stock in trade. In America, a failure by ‘progressives’ to heed the injunction may so alienate the mainstream citizenry that a majority may resolve to hold their noses and vote, again, for Donald Trump.
In Nigeria, hectoring, bullying noise in service of weak or incompletely informed and thought-through argument may simply help to entrench and perpetuate the structures, attitudes and entities that almost everybody agrees need to change for the nation to truly discover itself.