By Dominic Atika
These are interesting times. And that’s interesting, because I’d like a discussion on the interesting times we live in today to be … um … interesting. Enough with the pun. Now, it’s difficult to put a finger on the exact ideas and beliefs that define our time. How would I describe the spirit of our generation’s time? Good question. But while I may not be in a position to exhaust the answer to that question, I know the general mood of our time is replete with a number of rather undesirable smudges – rancor, contempt, snobbery and derision. And I know our politics suffers the most as a result. We all agree these things need not define us, which is why, in this opinion piece, I set out to explore just how we can actually go about healing the divides all these blots help engender in our society.
Part I: Confronting ‘Confirmation Bias’
Never before has a generation been more educated, more informed, more empowered, more equipped and more prepared for success. Our generation’s got it all – we’ve got technology to help us solve almost all of our problems, and our belief in not just our own abilities, but in the power of community as well, is unrivaled. We are free to think what we want, say what we want, and write what we think without as much as swaying the gait of a single hair on our well-kept bodies.
But what we sometimes fail to recognize and appreciate is the fact that with all this information, and empowerment, and emancipation, and freedom comes responsibility. To borrow from the Bible, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” We need to recognize that an ‘information glut’ can be just as dangerous as an ‘information deficit’, that we cannot afford to leave it to others (and especially the media) to think and make decisions on our behalf, and that the true measure of our freedom and progress will always be the degree to which reason influences our choices and decisions. Yes, reason actually does matter.
I say this against the backdrop of significant shifts in thinking and decision making exhibited in voting patterns around the world – in America and in the Philippines in 2016 and, more recently, in France and in the U.K. In Kenya, we have a general election scheduled for August 8, 2017, just under two months away. Every time I talk with people, every time I scroll down my social media feeds, I encounter many worrisome cases and instances of ‘confirmation bias’. Also referred to as ‘confirmatory bias’ or ‘myside bias’, confirmation bias is defined as the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses. I want to be clear: This presents a threat not just to our democracy, but to our very existence as well. Because we can’t build and nurture meaningful relationships with others if we can’t appreciate a basic sense of diversity and experiential differences amongst ourselves. Believe me, the price of confirmation bias is just too high, both for individuals and for society. Because for as long as we choose to embrace only information that suits our way of thinking, we will keep talking ‘past’ each other, instead of talking ‘with’ each other.
In Kenya, especially as the election fever catches on, you need not look far to notice just how much of confirmation bias puppets we’ve become. We’re a people known to take hard line stances when it comes to politics. Now, that in and by itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Because, like I always say, “Politics is big, and only participation assures an individual of parity.” What is, however, disturbing and dispiriting is the way in which we often tend to “hop on the political bandwagon, see no evil and say no evil.” Simply put, we choose political sides, entrust politicians with all aspects of our wellbeing and, rather precariously, auction off our reason and rationality. We go for the jugular every time ‘the other’ political side is accused of misappropriating public resources, but are quick to label as malice and slander virile protestations against perceived corruption on ‘our’ side. We carefully and meticulously choose to propagate and snowball information that paints our opponents as unworthy of leadership [Oftentimes, whether or not such information is substantive in the first place is a discussion we’re just not willing to have.], all the while ignoring ethical lapses in those establishments we favor. And we are quick to criticize our political leaders without examining our own role in electing them. All these things are a recipe for chaos and instability, and they’re self-defeating.
Now, I’m not in any way trying to paint an apocalyptic picture of an irredeemable society. On the contrary, I believe confirmation bias is a threat we all are well-equipped to handle. Only it won’t be easy. Opening ourselves up to a process of continuous learning would be a good place to start. Now, more than ever, we need to appreciate the fact that we won’t always meet and interact with people who think like us, or believe what we believe, or share our experiences. And we need to understand that that is not always a bad thing, and that there truly is beauty in diversity. It’s imperative that we understand a variety of different dimensions often come together to help shape our beliefs and our way of thinking – own experiences, culture and upbringing being some of them. Disagreeing with government doesn’t always equal unpatriotism, just as support for government doesn’t necessarily equate to patriotism. And so what we need is to start having these discussions – to start talking with [and not past] each other. The way to do that is by first embracing listening. And I mean listening in the deep. Let others feel free to explain what informs who they see themselves as, who they really are, and what they stand for. This is precisely why reason matters. And with all the education and information availed to us, it is incumbent upon all of us to ensure we foster discussions that help move our society forward.
Part II: Choosing Hope over Fear
I also want to talk about our generation’s rising contempt for expertise and informed opinion. [I know I’ll be walking a tightrope here, and the only thing I might get out of it is … well … contempt! But I choose hyperthymia – hope over fear, any day!]
We have these words thrown around a lot these days, more like money in a Kenyan political campaign. I don’t know about you, but I know something’s up to no good when it elevates resistance above vision. Ring a bell? Don’t allow yourself to be pigeonholed as someone who’s always looking for something to oppose; it’s much more rewarding carving out a vision and injecting positive energy into it. I mean, if you make your life all about undoing your parents’ legacy, you won’t have time to create your own!
See, all over the world, elections are fast becoming a platform for the electorate to vote against something, not for something. Sure, it’s not the first time in history that this is happening. But while it’s happened before, it’s always been the exception rather than the norm. And what’s even more disturbing is the absolute disregard for competence, capability and expertise that’s increasingly becoming prevalent among the general public today.
Now, I believe Americans didn’t essentially vote ‘for’ Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election; they more or less voted ‘against’ ‘the establishment’. Make no mistake: This article is not a vindication of establishment or elitist politics. Rather, what I seek to address herein is the spate of rancor, hatred and fear our politics today seems to be tapping into.
The ideal in a democratic politics is that we identify representatives from amongst ourselves, hold them to a certain standard [of which I like to believe integrity and accountability should be a part] to decide if they measure up, and ultimately, in the event that they do, entrust them with both the privilege and the obligation to serve. So it’s important that we evaluate those who would want to lead us. We have an obligation to hold them to a higher standard, especially because they seek a higher mandate. Now, don’t get me wrong: Whatever we want in our leaders, we have to live out ourselves in the first place. And if we hold different would-be leaders to different standards, that’s a slap in the face of fairness, and it makes a mockery of the very idea of justice. We need to stop shifting the goalposts when assessing the suitability and capability of those who would want to lead us.
Part III: The Task Ahead
Kenya is nowhere near where we would like it to be. The world is nowhere near where we would like it to be. That is why we must not waver in our commitment to take our rightful place in the story of our advancement – that of defining, inspiring and driving positive change in society. It’s time to re-write the script of the essence of our politics.
And to those who would want to distance themselves from the scent of politics, the great German playwright, Bertolt Brecht’s words are as reprimanding as they are awakening: “The worst illiterate is the political illiterate. He hears nothing, sees nothing, [and] takes no part in political life. He doesn’t seem to know that the cost of living, the price of beans, of flour, of rent, [and] of medicines all depend on political decisions. He even prides himself of his political ignorance, sticks out his chest and says he hates politics. He doesn’t know, the imbecile, that from his political non-participation comes the prostitute, the abandoned child, the robber and, worst of all, corrupt officials, the lackeys of exploitative multinationals.”
We are called upon to hold our leaders to our highest ideals – accountability and integrity. But for us to do that, we have to first live out these values ourselves. And we need to understand voting is not just a form of expression; it is an opportunity for us to see ourselves in each other. Because at the end of the day, we are all one people, sharing a common destiny. Listening to one another, taking care of one another isn’t just a moral obligation; it safeguards our society’s political, social and economic stability.
The writer is an Associate Partner with Savic Consultants and a Programme Officer at the Centre for Enterprise Development & Innovation in Nairobi.