Time to return to the rational past is right now

By: JOHNSON SAKAJA

Pope Francis is, quite evidently, a good and holy man. Now that he has confirmed that he’ll visit Kenya, it’s becoming clear to Kenyans just how irreconcilably opposed to him some of his flock remains.

For older Catholics — at least those born and brought up before the advent of social media — the complete disregard for fact, evidence or decorum among the Pope’s critics has been an unpleasant revelation.

This is what social media — and the widespread conflation of freedom of communication with freedom itself — has wrought.

In fairness, they should not have been.

For the same toxic mixture of resentment and rumour, hype and misinformation, has prevailed across Kenya’s media and political landscape for some time now.

SMEAR CAMPAIGN

Though the clearest example is what now seems like a campaign of misinformation and smear against the Cabinet Secretary for Devolution, there are many examples stretching back to the first NARC administration, and before.

Few of us will have forgotten the former Prime Minister’s recent presentation of economic growth figures which bore no relation whatsoever to any discernible economic reality, or his sudden and inconsistent swing from one day insisting that the government had all the money it needed to pay the teachers, to insisting that it had no money and was broke.

Fewer still will have forgotten a recent column by David Ndii, in which he analyses Kenya’s debt — and used an exchange rate of 1000 shillings to the dollar, thus rendering $230 million as 230 billion, and $580 million as 600 billion.

Things are in pretty dire shape when a renowned economist with an Oxford PhD is reduced to multiplying an already notional number by ten to make his scary sums add up.

And there can be no Kenyan who has not heard about some of the more egregious recent instances of hate speech, which need not be repeated here.

These may be the most recent and memorable examples, but, as I say, the instances go back to times now well past.

NYS MILITIA

John Githongo once distinguished himself by pushing the notion that the NYS was a militia, that it was called turihamwe, and that this name was derived from the interahamwe — the genocidal Rwanda militia which brought such suffering to Central Africa in the mid-1990s.

When a distinguished man, of serious professional accomplishment, is reduced to publishing such barefaced falsehoods, one reaches for a deeper explanation.

And, indeed, there is one available.

There is an old and honourable tradition of vigorous public criticism and political debate in Kenya.

That tradition was optimistic: it recognised the limitations and failings of Kenyan history, but it remained confident that Kenyans could be reasoned into achieving our highest ideals, and solving our most troublesome problems.

When criticism of government was necessary, vigorous criticism followed.

When vigorous criticism of the nation’s vices, or its foes, was necessary, it flowed.

PUBLIC DEBATE

And when celebration of what was best about us was deserved, it was given without rancour.

Those days are gone, by and large. What we have now is a cacophony of comment, prominent in which is a descant of cynicism and contempt.

Contempt for facts, and evidence, for reputations, and for the value of public disputation.

For where the older tradition was optimistic about persuasion through reason, a significant part of present public debate has despaired of that possibility.

And that despairing abandonment of reason is matched by an even more corrosive despair in the possibility of change by careful public persuasion.

But it may be best to return to an older, better way.

HATE SPEECH

We can begin that return by refusing to pay any mind to those who refuse to respect Kenya’s commitment to rational public debate.

For my part, I will work to persuade the political leadership of both coalitions, the inter-religious council, and media owners that we should sit together, and enforce a no-hate-speech rule.

If, during a political meeting, a speaker speaks in a manner that will incite or inflame ethnic animosity, or propagate hate, then I would ask the media not to air the offending speech.

I ask the media to make these decisions independently, but also to allow a team consisting of media, political parties and religious bodies to review any decision made under that voluntary rule.

It is time, in my view, to return to the sober, optimistic debates of the past.

SOURCE: DAILY NATION