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Society has to 'whip' silly politicians


In a report based on a survey carried out in the run up to the 2007 general elections titled: “Still Behaving Badly” —the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) accused Kenyan politicians of using state vehicles illegally for campaigning, inciting violent youths and using “uncouth” language against opponents.

The National Commission also denounced “gross” text messages and emails demonsing candidates and tribes. Political leaders were accused of continuing to demonstrate a dearth of civility and decency through the use of vulgar, uncouth and at times inflammatory language. In its report, KNCHR strongly urges Kenyans to desist from being agents of hate speech by refusing to forward offensive texts or emails.

Is this a reflection of the society we have become? Is society unable or even incapable of dealing with such miscreants? Not at all. Social order as it is called is obtained through regulation of human behaviour according to certain standards.

All societies provide for these standards specifying appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. The standards which regulate behaviour have been termed social norms. The concept of norms is a central one in understanding the workings of society.

Students of society are concerned with social values. Social values are cultural standards that indicate the general good deemed desirable for organised social life. These are assumptions of what is right and important for society. They provide the ultimate meaning and legitimacy for social arrangements and social behaviour. They are the abstract sentiments or ideals. An example of an important social value is, “equality of opportunity”. It is widely considered to be a desirable end in itself.

The importance of such a value in social life can hardly be exaggerated. A social value differs from individual value. An individual value is enjoyed or sought by the individual which persons seek for themselves.

Even though these values are commonly shared, they do not become social values. As distinct from individual values, a social value contains a concern for others’ welfare. Social values are organised within the personality of the individuals. They regulate his or her thinking and behaving.

Social values

The process of socialization aims to include these values in the personality, the ethos or fundamental characteristics of any culture are a reflection of its basic values.

Thus if the American culture is dominated by a belief in material progress, the African culture is marked by spiritualism, the forgetting of self, abandonment of personal desire and elimination of the ambition. The “Kenyan way” is different from the “American way”.

The differences in social values result in divergent social structures and patterns of expected behaviour. Sanctions, as defined within sociology, are ways of enforcing compliance with social norms. Sanctions are positive when they are used to celebrate conformity and negative when they are used to punish or discourage nonconformity. Either way, the use of sanctions and the outcomes they produce are used to encourage our conformity with social norms.

For example, an individual who behaves appropriately in a given setting by being polite, socially engaged, or patient could be sanctioned with social approval.

An individual who chooses to behave inappropriately by acting out of turn, saying or doing strange or unkind things, or expressing rudeness or impatience may be sanctioned with disapproval, expulsion, or more severe consequences, depending on the situation.

Social norms are expected behaviors that are agreed upon by a social group. Social norms are part of society as a whole (like using money as a tool for exchange) and of smaller groups (like wearing a business suit in a corporate setting). Social norms are thought to be necessary for social cohesion and interaction; without them, we could live in a chaotic, unstable and unpredictable world. In fact, without them, we might not have a society.

Informal sunctions

Societies, cultures, and groups often use sanctions to enforce compliance with their desired social norms. When an individual conforms—or does not conform—to the social norms, he or she may receive sanctions (consequences).

In general, sanctions for conformity are positive while sanctions for nonconformity are negative. They can be informal sanctions such as shunning, humiliation, accolades, or awards to help shape the way individuals and institutions behave. Sanctions can be internal or external. Internal sanctions are consequences imposed by the individual, based on compliance with social norms. For example, an individual might suffer from embarrassment, shame, or depression as a result of noncompliance and associated exclusion from social groups.

Imagine a child who decides to challenge social norms and authorities by stealing a loaf of bread from a shop. Not being caught and without external sanctions, the child may feel miserable from guilt. Rather than eating the loaf of bread, the child then returns it and confesses guilt. This end result is the work of an internal sanction. Don’t our political leaders have internal sanctions to guard against the vitriol they spew day after day?

External sanctions, on the other hand, are consequences imposed by others and include things like expulsion from an organisation, public humiliation, punishment by parents or elders, and arrest and imprisonment, and more.

If a person breaks into and robs a store and is caught, there will be an arrest, an accusation of a crime, a court trial and the likelihood of being found guilty, and maybe jail time. What happens after the person is caught ​is a series of State-based external sanctions.

However, sanctions can be formal or informal. Formal sanctions are imposed through formal means by institutions or organizations upon other institutions, organisations, or upon individuals. They can be legal or based on an institution’s formal code of rules and ethics.

A nation that fails to comply with international law may be “sanctioned,” meaning that economic opportunities are withheld, assets are frozen, or trade relationships are ended. Likewise, a student who plagiaris*es a written assignment or cheats on a test may be sanctioned by the school with academic probation, suspension, or expulsion.

Uncouth politicians

Informal sanctions are imposed by individuals or groups upon other individuals or groups without the use of a formal, institutional system. Scornful looks, shunning, boycotts, and other actions are forms of informal sanctioning.

Perhaps, the uncouth and unsavoury political leaders, including the thieving ones, should be sanctioned by society to the pillory. The pillory itself does no harm to the victim, though it’s certainly not comfortable. In mediaeval times, the entire apparatus was usually placed on a stage in a public place, preferably Uhuru Park, the entire point will be to humiliate and shame the victim for his or her crimes. The crowd would then throw objects at the victim, such as rotten eggs, dead animals, sewage water or feces. Yes, society must be more proactive, vigilant and firm in sanctioning those politicians who vomit on our shoes.

Edwin Wanjawa Teaches Sociology at The School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Pwani University.


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