The breakdown of civil discourse in Kenya

Sometime late last year, I went to buy clothes in Muthurwa, a market on the south-eastern fringes of the Nairobi CBD. At one of the stalls, where I had just picked a particularly good pair of trousers, the seller asked for my name as he fumbled in his back pocket for change. When he heard it, he said with a toothy grin, “The Presidency is yours this time round.”

I barely knew the man. But I knew the assumptions he had made to come up to the conclusion he had just voiced out to me. I also knew he wanted to start a conversation. A political conversation. But I didn’t have anything to tell him, so I gave him an awkward smile in response and walked away with my change and new clothes. The Presidency could wait.

It’s a truism, but Kenya has been in a political mood for quite a while now. The obvious cause, which I will appear dumb for even mentioning, is that it is an election year. A slightly more subtle cause is the simple fact that we like talking about politics, like that good vendor in Muthurwa. Politics is a great way to start a conversation (for some of us), and an even better one to revive a conversation that has sputtered out (for the rest of us).

But any keen person must have by now made the worrying observation that, although we love politics and we enjoy talking about it, we are not very good at it. Our political conversations — on all the platforms on which we have them — have this incredible tendency to devolve into shouting matches and insult-slinging festivals, where we mercilessly claw at everybody we disagree with and all they stand for, seeking to wipe them off the very face of the earth.

It’s often entertaining, sometimes not so, but always barbaric. Because we create proxy battles and fight each other on those, while forgetting the solid grounds on which the conversation started and should have remained all along. And boy, do we have a talent for making a mess of it.

There’s nothing as shocking as seeing two men slugging it out in comments on a Facebook post, then going to their profiles and seeing that one got married ten years ago and the other just graduated from university; in short, two people who ought to know, through experience and education, that it profits one little to throw around words he’d be ashamed to say to himself in the dark.

Why is this so? Why are we so terrible at political conversations? Is it perhaps because we are unable to listen to one another? Somehow, when someone begins speaking, we already know what he wants to say, and we jump in with a response before he is even halfway through with his point.

Although, let’s admit it, many times we are correct in predicting what the others want to say, we also have to admit that there is something childish about not letting someone complete their statement nevertheless. Listening is an important component of any conversation, if for no other reason than that it lets one person know that their opinion is at least worthy of another’s eardrums. And that counts for a lot.

Perhaps we are also bad at political conversations because we are experts at raising our voices. For whatever reason, whenever we have these conversations, we tend to drag along all the emotions the good Lord endowed us with, heating up the air so much, you can literally see blood vessels dilating on foreheads and necks to let off the excess heat.

Needless to say, shouting is counterproductive; to borrow the timeless words of the venerable Professor Higgins from the classic musical “My Fair Lady,” you will get much further with your friend if you first learn not to offend his ears with your cackling. Cackling is best left for barnyard animals. We are human beings, and, at the very least, we can control the decibels our vocal cords muster. That’s not asking for too much, is it?

Furthermore, in these conversations, I think we tend to forget that there’s always the possibility that we could be wrong. In fact, because this is politics, it is not just possible, but also quite probable, that we are wrong. So, perhaps we should be more open to the possibility that the other person’s opinion has nuggets of the truth. That way, we can build up the truth and discards those elements in our opinion whose relationship to the truth are like oil’s to water.

And finally, even if all the above observations are as hard to accept as a big pill down the throat, we should at least respect the people with whom we hold political conversations, even if, nay especially if, we disagree. That opponent is a human being, with a mind of his own and hence the freedom to hold whatever opinion makes sense to them, even if we can’t understand why that patently mistaken opinion would make sense to them.

We are all children of Mother Earth, and I think it’s only fair that we don’t defile our planet with spittle and worthless fire in the name of political argument. We have already done enough of that with other things… like plastics. If we only got more sober in the way we discuss politics, our problems would be half solved.

Feature image: Unknown source.

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