The frightening loss of common decency

by Sunny Bindra on May 18, 2003 · 0 comments

in Sunday Nation

Whatever happened to decent behaviour? Where along the rocky road we have been travelling did we lose our civility? What became of the ancient virtues of kindness, gratitude and courtesy? I only ask because I fear they may be lost forever.

You think I exaggerate? Read on, and decide for yourself.

Are you a worker who feels that you deserve a pay-rise? Well, there is only one way to achieve it: you must gather your fellows around you, pick up a few stones, and pelt the windows of the company that has sustained you and your family for years. You must try to corner a few managers, and beat them senseless. Then, you must run out on to the street and pelt passing motorists for good measure.

Are you a student who thinks that parallel degrees are a bad idea? Why, there’s only one recourse: you must take it out on the common man. Pedestrians and passers-by are readily available; you must attack them en masse and relieve them of their wallets, spectacles and mobile phones. Then, you must rampage through your own libraries and laboratories, and destroy the tools of your own learning: computers, televisions and books.

Are you a member of parliament who feels that one of your not-so-honourable colleagues is out to undermine you? This is what you must do: accost the scoundrel in the hallowed precincts of parliament and start an argument. But be ready to escalate – you must land the first punch and floor the rascal before he decks you.

Are you a churchgoer who is allied to a particular grouping, and who feels threatened by another group under a pastor you don’t like? Well, surely it’s obvious: you must collect your brethren and beat the other group members to a pulp, so that they realise that they have no place in your church.

Are you a delegate at the National Constitutional Conference who is having difficulty in following the proceedings or in getting any attention? Easy! You must heckle and shout down every other speaker, and you must do it all day long so that the entire affair is brought down to your level.

Are you a politician who is on record as having made a specific promise to voters during the recent elections, a promise that was grossly unrealistic? Simple solution! You must lie and lie again. You must deny ever having said it in the first place. You must blame the media for misrepresenting you, and accuse them of having a secret agenda against you. You must shout your lie with such a loud voice that it sounds like the truth, even to you.

Are you an unemployed idler who hangs around street-corners for want of anything better to do? Have you just seen a young boy snatch a woman’s purse? Aha, the chase is on! You must corner the terrified little boy, and, in the safety of a large number of burly fellow wastrels, rain kicks and blows on his head and abdomen. You must pick him up and hold his thin little body in the air, and then you must fling it on to the hard pavement so that his bones break. Finally, you must kill him. Then you can go back to your street-corner, the exciting activity behind you.

Now, then. I’ve not made up these examples. All of these things have happened in recent times before our eyes. These are the daily events of our lives. They are the stories that fill our newspapers and television screens. Increasingly, we don’t even raise an eyebrow or bat an eyelid. We are becoming immune to the fact that we have lost the ability to engage in civil discourse.

Negotiation and dialogue are forgotten things. Talk is not only cheap, it is pointless. The only thing that brings results is violence; you must raise your fists and cudgels. You must hit out, you must hurt. You must instil fear in your antagonists. That is how results are achieved in today’s Kenya, is it not?

It seems the violence bug is in everyone. The mildest procession in Kenya is an accident waiting to happen. Either an overzealous protestor will pick up the first stone, or a trigger-happy policeman will fire the first shot. Whatever the cause, the result is absolute mayhem, in which anyone with the misfortune of being in the vicinity is in grave danger.

The most frightening development is in the schools and religious institutions. Children as young as twelve are learning the art of violence and senseless destruction. Church-leaders are fomenting hate and divisiveness in their flock. Nobody sees any horror in the fact that people are running amok within the houses of God. We shake our heads, and look away.

Even people on seemingly noble missions can’t stop getting carried away. Recently, we had a group of women who set out to demonstrate against the continuing presence of an illicit brewery in their location. Did they picket the premises, or petition the local administration? No, they marched to the brewery and destroyed it. In their righteousness, they pulled down walls. They found drunkards lying in stupors, and beat the remaining daylights out of them. They flung jerry-cans into the air. They jumped up and down, their faces contorted with hatred and hanger. It was difficult to tell the sinner from the sinned against.

Another thing: does anyone tell the truth anymore? Have you noticed how various politicians smile and hug each other in front of the cameras, only to engage in vicious hate campaigns behind each other’s backs? How double-speak is our common language now? How bosses lie about what the company can afford by way of pay-rises, and how employees lie about the deaths of assorted close relatives so as to get a few days off to engage in private business? How husbands and wives lie with utter impunity whilst conducting clandestine affairs?

How did we get here? We could blame the former government: it made us all so desperate that we became angry and duplicitous by nature. Desperate times call for desperate acts, after all. But that would be a shallow argument. My individual behaviour is a matter for me. I cannot blame my immorality on the people around me (although I do try). I choose to remain angry all the time. You choose to tell a lie, every time you tell it. I could choose to calm down; you could choose to tell the truth from now on, just like that.

Choose it we must. All our grand reconstructions and economic growth plans will never come to anything if we can’t face the disease in our souls. We can’t rebuild a country if all the time we’re just hankering for a good fight. We can’t develop institutions if they’re populated with pathological liars. We must rediscover humility and kindness. We must relearn tolerance and truthfulness. If we are to reform our country, we must start by reforming ourselves.

I must do it, and so must you.

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