Nigeria’s social media is not necessarily the brightest platform for intellectual engagement. This may sound like an insult, but it is not. This realisation is why I have, for some time now, been quietly sipping my tea and reserving my opinions on public issues for my barber. Yet, in the last few hours, the latest twitter “debate” has filtered to me in the form of friends and acquaintances pressuring me to share my thoughts on a no-holds-barred article by The Economist which, in a very amusing—if tragic—statement referred to former President Jonathan as an “ineffectual buffoon”.
My instinctive reaction is that the person whose unplanned shops are being demolished in Lagos markets doesn’t care what anyone calls President Jonathan. There are more pressing issues that affect Nigerians on a daily basis—under the current administration—and anyone who has time to seriously debate Jonathan’s character these days has either eaten yams to satisfaction or knows where the next plate of jollof rice is coming from.
Nevertheless, I am concerned by the blurring line between criticism and insults in our political discourse. We are at a point of our political history where criticism is quietly discouraged by interested parties but insults—against perceived opposition—is subtly and overtly encouraged. And this Economist type of meddlesome intervention by foreign observers is only likely to worsen what is gradually looking like a bad rash of political divisions.
I have noticed that, for a while now, The Economist has delighted in trolling Nigeria’s domestic affairs. Perhaps Nigeria has gotten more interesting, or perhaps the paper now has more Nigerians on its payroll (and, probably, vice versa) or maybe the rest of the world has become generally boring. But, on our part, one would expect that, even as we constantly seek economic, cultural and political validation from the Western world, we would, at least, attempt to be discerning between their criticisms of our affairs and their mockery of our situation.
It is bad enough that we have to rely on a foreign source as The Economist to dissect the economic policies of President Buhari, and it is worse when we also have to swallow, like humble pie, its mocking description of Jonathan who, despite his many—probably criminally liable—errors, held his office through the votes of millions of Nigerians. And, reading that line in the article from the standpoint of a non-Nigerian, one could just as easily extend that insult to all Nigerians.
To be clear, nobody in history, in the present, or in the future has immunity from insults—unless, maybe, Islam’s Prophet Mohammed. (And even he had to earn this respect across time; if history is correct he started his prophetic career at the receiving end of a lot of insults.) Yet, in intellectual discourse and international diplomacy, it is expedient that we draw a line between criticism and abuse. It is also sensible that we are able to distinguish between deserving insults and deliberate malice.
Criticism can be fair or unfair. But, in any case, criticism is generated from thought and, occasionally, intelligence. Insults, on the other hand, are instinctive—even if dressed in fancy modern language. Any fool can call another person a fool.
But insults can be necessary, too. Insults can act as an emotional release for a hurtful situation that cannot be remedied. Insults can be a last resort in irrational circumstances. Insults are the primeval instinct that follows our sudden knowledge of our intellectual or physical incapacity.You don’t reason with a rabid dog—you curse it to silence. Insults are what we rely on when we have no arguments left.
And, when Nigerians are tired of their governments, we resort to insults. To be candid, that’s our only effective civic right. We abuse our leaders because there’s little else we can do.
Yet, if we are to develop our democracy beyond the level of insults, there should be a space for criticism—especially in the early stages of an administration. And critical thought from foreign observers can help to sharpen critical thought at home. On the other hand, insults from foreign observers benefit nobody: those who are opposed to the insulted party stay opposed, and those who are supporting stay supporting.
But, again, Nigeria’s social media is not necessarily the brightest platform for intellectual engagement. No, I wouldn’t say Nigerian twitter is full of dumb people—that would be an insult. But the space is too lacking in nuance and too crowded with ego for anyone to have much meaningful conversation.
And so, social media people are not interested in all these theories about criticism and insults. They just want to know if you, this writer, thinks that Jonathan deserves to be insulted by The Economist or not. Choose a side.
Well, here’s what I think. Yes, Jonathan—and Buhari (may the gods help him)—can, and will, be insulted and abused by the people who feel hurt, betrayed, repressed or otherwise affected by their official actions in any way.
But, the last time I checked, The Economist is not one of these persons.
Follow @ayosogunro on twitter for more engagement, buy my books, and—if you really like stimulating, if sometimes annoying—very annoying—thoughts on socio-legal philosophy—enter your email in the right sidebar to get notifications of fresh talk on this fine blog.