Kiraitu wakes up to fact he is yet to become his own man
By Barrack Muluka
| May 2nd 2021
What does it mean to be alive?
It would seem that it is not enough to be physically awake, and bouncing and roving about the place. It does not suffice to be simply visibly sentient. Existential philosophers have told us that self-awareness is the mark of living.
Even the non-existentialist Wole Soyinka has famously said that it is possible to appear to be alive when we are, in fact, dead. “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny,” he says in his 1971 prison diary, The Man Died. Sentient persons who do not understand who they are, or what they stand for, are dead, we are told.
Is this the kind of circumstance that Meru Governor Kiraitu Murungi has been wrestling with? The need to understand who he is, to stand up for himself–to resurrect the intellectual soul and live again? For Kiraitu, an astute lawyer, has come out of a frightful hospital bed with some disturbing reflections on the life of the successful politician.
A harrowing encounter with the new coronavirus has set Kiraitu reflecting on the quality of life the Kenyan politician leads, with himself as the specimen. He returned a damning report. He said of himself, “Politics had robbed me of my life and my voice. Sometimes it had robbed me of freedom of thought.”
The need to be politically correct ruled him. “I had become obsessed with winning. In doing so, I had advocated and fought for ideas and anxieties which were not genuinely my own. If I had died of corona, I would have died alone. All that noise and bustle of politics would continue without me. I have made a decision to appreciate myself and reclaim my life. From now on, I (will) follow the desires of my heart.”
It is a cry from a pained heart, by a seeking soul, struggling for freedom from the slough of despond that is political and social correctness. The hostility between the individual mind and the collective social mind has occupied great thinkers through the centuries. It is a paradox that society yearns for freedom. Yet it limits individual freedom. It oppresses its individual members by tying them to ‘correct’ group positions.
If you do not conform, you are a madman, a traitor. You are a social monster. You may need to be punished for going against the social grain. The individual mind must, therefore, always surrender to the group mind. This is why Rousseau opens The Social Contract with the lamentation, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” These are social chains. He must marry and have a family. He must have a religion and worship. A girl who hits 35 while single is judged a social misfit. Chains here, chains there, chains everywhere.
Political correctness takes the social chains to another level. In The Myth of Sisyphus, French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus finds this social surrender to be absurd. He equates it to committing suicide. The individual will dies. The collective mind rules. We must, accordingly, lead meaningless routine lives.
The universal mind is not far from the groupthink that Kiraitu decries. William H. Whyte Jr was the person who coined the term groupthink in 1952. The desire for harmony in the group leads to irrational decisions. The independent thinker may not even be allowed to say a single word to justify himself before the charged group. She is violently shouted down for breaking the group code. All group members must always agree, at whatever cost. Dysfunctional decisions are made, of the type that Kiraitu laments having been a part of in politics.
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is considered the father of existentialist philosophy. The philosophy emphasizes exercise of free will as the mark of existence of the individual as a proper human being. Such a person makes his or her own decisions without caving in to social pressures. To sink into the will of the group is to reject personal responsibility. It is, in fact, failure to authenticate your own existence.
Another philosopher, Frenchman Renes Descartes, is famous for the expression, “I think, therefore I am.” Of course Descartes made this proposition in completely different circumstances. He was contributing to what philosophy has called the ontological problem. The problem of ontology is more fundamental than the mere existence of human beings. It begins with the very existence of God. The small ‘g’ is used. Is there existence of ‘a god’? Indeed, does anything exist? How do you know that you exist? His proof is that he thinks. But how do you even know that you think?
When you get where Kiraitu has reached, then you know that you exist. You think, therefore you exist outside the crowd. The German Hegel placed the crowd above the individual. “A man realises his true self or essence in proportion as he transcends his particularity and becomes a spectator of all time and existence as a moment in the life of universal thought.”
Hegel would make a good ideologue for many rulers, ancient and modern. He would especially be good for religion where an apocryphal Christian convert is reputed to have said in 1887, when asked whether he thought God was real, “I am not quite sure. But, I am going to trust and obey.” From this is supposed to have developed the hymnal that says, among other things, “When we walk with the Lord/ in the light of His Word/ What a glory He sheds on our way!/ While we do His good will/He abides with us still/ And with all who will trust and obey.”
Robert Bolt has dramatised the tragedy of Thomas More’s fall to King Henry VIII’s swordsmen in the 16th Century. The king craves More’s approval of his intent to divorce one woman to marry another. He wonders why More, the Lord Chancellor and head of the Church of England, denies him support, when “Everyone else does.” More quips, “If everyone else approves, then why does your Grace need my poor support?”
The answer comes swiftly, and in it the dilemma that independent thinkers must confront. Says the king, “Because you’re honest...and what is more to the purpose, you’re known to be honest. There are those like Norfolk who follow me because I wear the crown, those like Master Cromwell who follow me because they are jackals with sharp teeth and I’m their tiger, there’s a mass that follows me because it follows anything that moves. And then there’s you.”
The big man in politics is of course happy that the crowd listens to him. But he is especially happy when the intellectual is a part of the groupthink. For, as Kierkegaard has observed, “Even members of an enraged crowd are individuals.” Yet, in the mob, this individuality sinks into the pool of common mob consciousness. There is a common wild emotion that rules every member. Accordingly, the thinker in the mob is able to do, as a member of the mob, what he would not do as an individual.
Kierkegaard affirms that crowds are typecast. It does not matter that one is “a crowd of humble people, of rich, or of the poor.” Once the individual sinks into the crowd, he becomes irresponsible. To paraphrase Kiraitu, he is “advocating, and fighting for ideas and anxieties which are not genuinely his own.”
The mobster says things that he does not believe in. Thomas Paine says in the essay, Age of Reason, “It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving, it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.”
Paine concludes, “It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime.”
O’Brien, the chief torturer in George Orwell’s 1984 dystopia, says to a man isolated in the torture chambers, “Shall I tell you why we have brought you here? To cure you! To make you sane! Will you understand, Winston, that no one whom we bring to this place ever leaves our hands uncured? The thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them.”
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