Navigating the Obstacles
By Baba Galleh Jallow
Moments after I shared my article “Looking Beyond the Power-Grab” on one of the Gambian community list serves, a critic hit the reply button and called it “cowardly academic crap.” After contemplating his “cowardly academic crap” for a while, I hit the reply button and sent him an empty response. So unreasonably uncivil was the intervention that another member of the list serve could not help observing that while he respected the critic’s free speech, he was “also free to conclude that his interventions are rude and negative without adding anything of value” and that “Incivility without purpose does not serve us well.” There was no further comment on the matter from members of the list serve.
I of course did not expect my critic to understand why I responded to his “cowardly academic crap” with an empty email. And I don’t know how he responded to my empty email. He perhaps called it cowardly academic crap as well. Whatever the case may be, the bottom-line is that in the face of our current challenges, and considering that our objective is to nurture a genuinely tolerant socio-political culture in our country, we simply cannot afford to be intolerant of harsh opinion, or to engage in pointless and potentially acrimonious exchanges. We are not obliged to accept or agree with people’s opinions; but we are obliged to persistently respect them, however unreasonable, however mistaken and misgiven we think they are.
Several days later my critic hit again. Reacting to “The Disengaged Public” on the same Gambian community list serve, he kindly proffered a polite compliment followed by a polite demand to know what my “solution to the African problem” was: “So Baba,” he wrote, “fine words. What is your solution to the African problem?” His question struck me as odd, not because it was mysterious, but because there was something wrong with it. Again, I hit the reply button and sent him a silent response. “It doesn’t really matter, to you, does it?” he politely queried in a follow-up intervention. “Keep up the good work! And enjoy your money! LOL!” Again, I sent him a silent response. I respected his right to criticize my writings, but I reserved the right not to engage him in conversation beyond a silent response. My resolve to keep writing, to keep speaking out, to stay publicly involved in the search for answers to our pressing national questions remained totally unshaken.
I could have of course politely explained to my good critic that we simply cannot define a thing by what it is not; that we cannot transform the essence of a thing simply by calling it another name; and that regarding his question, there is really no such thing as “the African Problem”; just as there was never no such thing as “the White man’s burden” or “the Dark Continent.” I could have politely explained (no quarrels here!) that like any other continent, Africa has not one but numerous problems. I suspect everybody knows this. But while I refused to engage him beyond a silent response, I fully respected his right to express his legitimate if unpleasant opinion on my writings and to pose an odd question on what he understood to be “the African problem.” Or I could have admitted that even if there was such a thing as “the African problem”, it would be utterly presumptuous and mediocre of me to pretend to know what “the solution” to it was. We should be able to say we don’t know when we don’t know, but not to questions seeking answers to nonexistent phenomena like “the African problem.”
I could not blame my critic for calling “Looking Beyond the Power-Grab” cowardly academic crap. He probably looked in vain and could not find anything that looked like his understanding of revolution in a two-page article in which revolution is mentioned twenty big times. And indeed, the revolution that animates my contributions to our national conversation is not a revolution of the violent sort; which is perhaps what my good critic was looking for. It is a mind revolution, a revolution of ideas that at once seeks to academically deconstruct the power-grab and to enlighten and empower the citizens where it matters most. Ours is a cultural revolution embodying the actualization of an enlightened nation; a nation of politically empowered and creative citizens; a nation where citizens are respected and treated like family because they are citizens enjoying equal rights, ownership, and responsibility for their country; a nation in which the state happily assumes its rightful status and role as disciplined child and faithful servant of the people. It is a revolution that seeks to actualize a nation in which public opinion may be rejected and criticized, but never disrespected or shouted down, except when it insists on being the absolute, inviolable truth that must be accepted without question or else!
Actualizing such a nation requires that we not only tolerate unreasonable and unjustified criticism, but that we are able to deal constructively with it. In order to eliminate the ugly politics of insults, enmity and hostile intolerance that desecrates our national ethos, we must deliberately seek and exploit the merit in every instance of criticism and dissent we encounter, justified or unjustified. Since we yearn for and envision a genuinely democratic society, we must arduously cultivate and unfailingly practice the difficult art of civility, for only then can we encourage the creativity and popular expression necessary to build a potential-enhancing civic culture. Remembering that labels don’t necessarily define or transform their object helps. For instance, I know that not all readers of “Looking Beyond the Power-Grab” thought it was “cowardly academic crap.” I also entertain the possibility that some readers may call it worse than that. And I am perfectly happy with that. We cannot expect everyone to agree with our views, just as we cannot agree with everyone’s views. In a parody of the Golden Rule, I would say always do unto others as you would do unto yourself.
Many Africans, especially among African Diaspora communities, avoid publicly expressing their political opinions for any number of reasons. Key among these is the knowledge that they may be criticized for their views, often severely; that people may disagree with them and potentially drag them into pointless, counter-productive and acrimonious exchanges; that they may even be insulted for their pains. These are perfectly legitimate concerns. But they must not prevent us from exercising our right and duty to participate in our national politics, to contribute to our national conversation, to publicly join the search for much needed answers to our biting and most urgent national questions. It is counter-productive to repress our political opinions, to keep our political thoughts and ideas to ourselves if only because some of them may hold important and useful lessons for the nation. We must come out of our political closet and share our thoughts and opinions on matters of common national interest. Good luck to our fellow critics.
Our ultimate challenge is to cultivate, nurture, and personify a genuine spirit and culture of civility by freely expressing our own opinions while respecting every other legitimate opinion. Illegitimate opinion of course – the kind that insists on being the absolute truth that everybody must accept or else – must be staunchly opposed and called out at every possible opportunity because it is inimical to our national wellbeing. We must insist that injustice is evil; that the nation equally belongs to every citizen; that no loud protestation of personal supremacy can ever nullify our national identity, embodied by all the citizens of the nation. We must insist that no citizen has the right - legal, natural or otherwise - to impose themselves or their opinions over an entire nation, to claim ownership of an entire nation, to act as if the nation were created for them to the exclusion of everyone else, to insist that they have the answers to all our national questions, or to deny their fellow citizens the right to freedom of expression, association, and equal opportunity access to public resources and offices like national radio, TV, and State House. But beyond rejecting imposed opinion and injustice with all our might, we must tolerate disagreements and criticisms from our fellow citizens and from other people, however unreasonable, however unjustified, however much we think them motivated by bad faith, or by loyalty to certain selfish and parochial interests of a political nature.