BINARY APPLICATION OF SOCIETAL VALUES

Okot Nyormoi, Editor

If you were to ask people if they have values, the answer will without hesitation be in the affirmative. They have national, cultural, traditional, religious, moral values, on and on ad nauseum. The September issue of Nile Journal is devoted to discussions of different aspects of social values. People are always forced to choose between which values to respect and which ones to violate, when, why and how. The excerpt of John Otim’s novel, “The General and the Doctor” shows how a dictator can obliterate all that is normally considered important values in society and at the same time behave perfectly normal around his enabler, the doctor. Bobi Wine’s response to President Museveni shows how a ruthless ruler violates the value of fairness when it comes to opposition politicians in Uganda. The case of massive demonstrations in Belarus by Johnathan Power is a case of how the people respond when they feel that the value of honesty, trust and accountability are abused by their leader. Punam Khosla gives us a window into how Indians in the Diaspora struggle with the issue of what constitutes Indian values.

Here, I will discuss the contradictory nature of how values are applied. Due to the influence of many interconnected factors including the environment, ethnicity, language, food, history, beliefs etc., many countries and various religious and ethnic groups appear to have their own unique values. Within groups or between friendly groups, such values as fairness, authenticity, justice, honesty, freedom, compassion, and kindness are generally observed, though not necessarily 100% of the time.

Interestingly, such values also exist in equal measures even within individuals, organizations or countries known to be sworn enemies between them. If there are values which are accepted universally, one would expect the world to be in harmony. Yet, the world is awash with internal as well as external conflicts because the same values embraced by every society are rarely observed when it comes to dealing with anybody who is considered an enemy. Therein lies the irony of societal values.

The simplest explanation is that people tend to see other things and people through binary lenses: friends or foes. If they are friends, decency and values apply, but when they are perceived as enemies, then the values they cherish within their own group or between friendly groups do not always apply. 

Surely, there are legitimate reasons for regarding someone, a group, or country as enemy. Similarly, there are also unjust reasons for doing so. In the latter case, some people are driven by greed to accumulate property. To do so requires physical or psychological domination which in turn generates resistance. It is within this context that we can understand the behavior of individuals, organizations or governments which are contrary to the values they claim to hold so dear within themselves.

Physical domination usually involves military conquest while psychological domination relies on ideological conquest. In most cases, both methods are used. For example, European colonialists went to potential colonies with a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other hand. To enslave Africans, they laid claim to the superiority of their religious beliefs and civilization, and they used their guns to suppress resistance and to exploit the colonies for the purpose of property and wealth accumulation.

When dealing with enemies, even basic human decency of acknowledging the existence of another human being often ceases to apply. Instead, they ascribe non-human values to the person or groups they dominate. By so doing, they permit themselves to ascribe all the good values to themselves while denying that such values even exist among the “enemies”. It is instructive to read how this system worked in the Jim Crow era in the southern states of the USA. Another example is a suite of legislative laws in Apartheid South Africa crafted to subjugate non-white South Africans. 

 Though the practice of the Jim Crow code of conduct in the USA is now illegal, it is difficult not to believe that some of such behavior still exists among some of the white policemen. To them, a black person has no right to question and much less, resist their authority. Otherwise, how else can we explain why, despite the recent massive global condemnation of police brutality against black Americans, the brutality still goes on seemingly unabated.

On August 28th, another black man, Jacob Blake, was shot in the back 7 times in Kinosha, Wisconsin while being held by his T-shirt trying to get into his car while his three children watched from his car. Contrast that with a white man who hit three parked cars while driving drunk; yet he was allowed by white policemen to enter his car freely and then walked away undeterred without even being ticketed for driving while intoxicated. Also, compared that to another black man, Rayshard Brooks, whose request to be allowed to walk to his sister’s house was denied and he was eventually shot to death.

One would expect that a president of a country would act like a leader of all citizens in terms of upholding what are considered the hallmark values of democracy claimed by his country. No! It is not the case with the current president of the United States. Whereas most Americans believe that systemic racism exists in the USA, which they abhor, President Trump and his base supporters seem oblivious of it to the point of denying its existence altogether. Instead, he weaponizes demonstrations against police brutality to score political points. He claims that he is for law and order and blatantly lies compulsively, sides with his associates and white policemen who are charged with criminal offenses. To President Trump, values cherished by most Americans: freedom, fairness, equality, compassion, and justice exist only for him and his supporters but not for other people who may not agree with his brand of politics. No wonder, some people call him the President of the Divided States of America.

Despite carefully crafted national constitutions meant to protect liberty, freedom to assemble and organize, rights to own property, leaders in many countries have no qualms in violating them. Draconian rules such as Uganda’s Public Order Management Act of 2013, are created in the name of public order when in fact they crafted primarily to hamstring the opposition. The modus operandi for prolonging their stay in power are premised on rigging election, using corruption and force. Current leaders who rely on these tyrannical approaches to overstay their tenures in power include: Teodore Obiang of Equatoria Guinea (41 years), Paul Biya of Cameroon (38 years) and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (34 years).

Similarly, such methods of governance allows leaders like Kagame of Rwanda to win his 2017 election by 99%. In some cases, as was in Zimbabwe, the ruling party carried out an internal coup to wrest and retain power from an aging leader.

Africans are by no means the only dictators who violate acceptable norms to extend their tenure in Power. The late Saddam Hussein of Iraq put Kagame to shame by winning his 2002 election by 100%. Putin of Russia managed to win a referendum on a constitutional amendment to extend his rule to 2036 by a whopping 78%, while reform activists are regularly persecuted. Currently, a high-profile activist, Alexey Navalny, is hospitalized having been allegedly poisoned by President Putin’s intelligence agents.

Nevertheless, sometimes citizens get fed up and topple dictators by staging sustained massive demonstration. In 2010, the Arab Spring uprising shook the Arab world. Other toppled regimes include Burkina Faso in 2014 and Sudan in 2018. This year, Thais defied their monarchy in a massive demonstration demanding reforms. Currently, the people of Belarus are trying to do so. 

While there are universally accepted values, they are not always universally respected across ethnic, religious, political, gender or nations. As the cartoon here illustrates, the challenge of our time is to move from value choices based on "us against them" to one of "us with them" in which  universally accepted values are also universally respected. We can at least imagine its possibility though it will undoubtedly be a long and difficult challenge to confront.