Kenyans must learn to debate on reason, sycophancy will bury us

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David Onjili

The essence of free speech is that we permit people with whom we differ to speak. Wrongheaded views will be aired. But free speech means no one gets the last word. We can, and indeed we should, use our own right to free speech to challenge expression we think is obnoxious or wrong. To do this, we must be ready to argue in public and also be allowed by the same public to express ourselves, however right or wrong they may feel we are.

The truth is, Kenya is a nation where dogma, stereotype, tradition and authority are held higher than reason, debate or even institutions of truth seeking.

Abraham Lincoln is a man whose name stands tall in not just American history but world over. He inspires many, especially because of the personal obstacles he had to overcome to reach the top. His character is inspirational, and he continues to be hailed as one of America’s greatest leaders. Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her book Team of Rivals, paints the picture of a man whose early life was characterised by a thirst for knowledge and rigorous debates and public speeches complete with masterful story telling. He was tolerant of divergent opinion even when he did not agree with the subject at hand. It is his ability to debate and sit with his fiercest of rivals that inspires my writing today. Lincoln was so comfortable in his own skin that he appointed to cabinet men whom he knew held a very low opinion of him; he chose to overlook this and work with them because of their competence.

In Kenya today, debate is being muted and thus the nation is losing a central part of civilian participation on important national matters.  Whenever it has occurred or tried to, both the proponents and opponents of the subject matter come to the table with closed minds. Nobody comes with the aim of win the other party over through reason; instead it ends in name calling and becomes a show of sycophancy to whatever side butters the bread for the debating participants.

A nation that cannot objectively hold to account its leaders and their bad practices, whatever side of the political spectrum they come from, is not helping itself. Sad is when the so-called highly learned from society appear aloof and deluded to the plight just because they want to be politically correct, or need to score political points before their masters. I have a particular problem when the culprits tag themselves as experts and opinion-shapers when all they are, are puppets being manipulated from afar. Close to four events in the recent past have left me wondering just how bad we have become and would rather character assassinate people than interrogate their thoughts objectively.

For instance, how do several politicians stand before the electorate and be cheered when they say that rain comes from the skies and that the felling of trees is okay just because they want to make another politician from another region look bad? As well, what are we supposed to make of a man who prides himself as a voice of reason, on national television, says that Moses Wetangula, Stephen Kalonzo and Musalia Mudavadi were duped by Raila Odinga into switching off their phones and await a call from a Nigerian number? And the fact that all the talk show host could do was burst into gleeful laughter instead of interrogating that evidently asinine assertion is pathetic.

In the run up to the General Election last year, President Uhuru Kenyatta gave the presidential debate a wide berth. His main challenger, Rt. Hon Raila Odinga was left alone to have a monologue with the panel. While blind loyalty to the President and sycophants saw it as a masterstroke, the nation lost a moment to interrogate the President, and to challenge his record. Is it that the President was being contemptuous, or did he understand that the exercise was not worth his time?

During the campaigns, Odinga zeroed-in on graft under the Kenyatta administration, and cast himself as a man ‘clean’ of any corruption in his attempt to woo the electorate to stand up against this vice. One would have expected Kenyatta to counter this by tabling facts about how funds were used if he believed his opponent was being dishonest. Instead, vengeful words like lord of poverty and pombe-bangi (that drunkard) were coined and used by the one to infer on the other, to spur up emotions and character-assassinate and thus extinguishing the chance for a debate. The media too played a role by failing to dig up facts; even when they had them, they never cared to bring them to light.

Greek philosopher Aristotle considered logos (logic) is the most important element in any debate – over and above emotion (pathos) and ethos (character). The subject matter that was to be debated had to be won on the content of its merits as debated by its proponents. However, this did not mean to him that ethos and pathos were not important; they just were inferior to reason.

Kenyan institutions have it within themselves to keep debate alive but that solely depends on their credibility. It is no secret that a number of media houses sold out, as they often do, during the elections period. Media personalities had no problem expressing open bias towards politicians, as long as their pockets were lined with cash. Social media space too was not spared.

Moving forward, as Aristotle would have envisaged it, is for Kenyans to open up their minds – put politicians on a scale of ethos, pathos and logos and determine the best amongst them. The same treatment should be extended towards the media houses and journalists.

If, for example, the citizenry demanded thorough scrutiny on matters of national importance, we wouldn’t have charlatans advising us on economic matters or policy. Then we would have time for serious talk.

I am all for free speech, but, in the same breadth let us not allow people to take matters that are keen to national interest waste our time. Look at Kenyatta National Hospital and the circus it has become. For decades, the capital, Nairobi has been unable to sort out its drainage and water problems. How is it that we do not take these issues as seriously as we do politics and other shenanigans?

We must henceforth determine to seriously and correctly vet our politicians, who we trust to make the policies and allocate resources for our utilities and development, not by dismissing them but by subjecting them to a thorough audit; in the same vein, media too must objectively play its part, to moderate and inform.

The ball is now in our court – mine and yours. ^

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