I am a Malawian, and that means I grew up in a society awash with dark subtle humor. It varies from place to place, but it seems to center itself around the general futility of the entire of human endeavor, especially once, as human beings, we begin to buy into self-propagated ideas of our own exceptional greatness. This is painfully hilarious to a Malawian that we so dare fool ourselves into such a belief. On wider social and political matters, be they national, regional or global, there is always to the Malawian mind the never-ending tension between the visions of grandeur generated by these beliefs of our own greatness and the inherent limitations that such beliefs bear on prospects of respectful, mutual cooperation. It appears that wherever there is a great idea, there is also an ordinary human being in its way.
This outlook might be rooted in our history of colonial rule, and then our post-colonial independence replete with its contradictory notions of freedom, sovereignty and political self-determination while living under an African autocracy, going around to the same colonial capitols we rose against with a perennial beggar’s bowl. Come democracy in 1994, some 30 years after our independence, a chaos ensues so acute there is a de-legitimation not just of autocratic rule but also of social cohesion in general as it is sustained through certain central tenets of societal coexistence afforded by shared norms. Such a scenario in which a society seemingly has few strong pillars, be they economic, political, cultural or social, at least phenomenologically, baffles a people’s mind and produces this aura of dark, self-deprecating, cynical humor: the few things that remain self-evident in the society before, around and within them.
But this is not just a Malawian thing. I have seen it among Zambians and Tanzanians as well. It is not sadness as such – rather, it is sort of a grim realization that our ability to imagine wonderful things especially of ourselves is quite different from our ability to implement even the most basic of such imaginations, and not for a lack of will. And slowly, I am beginning to see the early forms of crises which could result in this type of attitudinal transformation in the Western world as well.
Just an anecdote to illustrate what I mean. The unfortunate violence perpetrated by terrorist groups and organizations is a daily occurrence in the non-Western world in spite of its near absence from Western media. In a talk between Slavoj Zizek and Yanis Varoufakis (found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjxAArOkoA0), Zizek makes the point that West’s ability to maintain distinctions between itself and the rest of the world means that terrorist and other obscene violence have been formulated as norms defining a non-Western reality, so that when such violence happens in the West it reinforces administrative and even politico-cultural attempts to locate the crevices through which such a non-Western violence sipped in, and to close it off. This is not done with overtly malicious intent – but it is nonetheless steeped in a certain dehumanization of the non-Western world as a place in which such violence and chaos are normal. It becomes a world from which Westerners protect themselves while also being a world from which a great amount of resources are sourced to sustain the Western enclave, such as the mass factories which function on the cheap labor of materially desperate people to produce affordable clothing, shoes and other goods that define and sustain the comforts of Western lifestyles.
The trauma therefore of terroristic and other types of violence is that when it happens in the West it conjures images of a loss of control, of allowing the non-Western wilderness in, and therefore, reveals this normalization of the suffering of the people who live in those non-Western places. People who live outside the West become, unlike Westerners, imagined as better suited to the daily violence of those places.
It is in such a state of attitudes that closer integrations between world regions can yield strong fears associated with the destruction of the previously seen-as-cocooned Western hemisphere, and more so when demographic intersections are forced by just the types of crises I alluded to. The images on television of floods of Syrians on boats, then storming borders is in some sense also the image of a wilderness full of its violence breaking through the Western barriers erected to keep it out. The images of one-dimensional Africans who, as Minna Salami aptly puts, only exist as strugglers, survivors or empowered survivors (especially and most critically, African women), enforce the need to provide aid and assistance to keep such calamities of disease and other horrors at a distance, far away from the Western enclave. And from this, I suspect, arise the deep tensions in the West today.
On the one hand, therefore, are the professed ideas of liberal democracy, human rights, openness and tolerance; on the other, felt anxieties associated with foreign influxes in the forms of culture, demographic transformations and as already mentioned, a wilderness. Consequently, a pragmatic politics of taking back control of our borders, toughness on crime, and immigration bans finds itself as at once relevant (in view of the encroaching wilderness on the west’s frontiers) and distasteful (in view of the demarcation of Western and non-Western worlds which such a pragmatic politics could then bring into full effect). Such full effects would tear down a fundamental moral economy which has smoothened the sharp surfaces of the distinction which persists in the western sphere: the subtle attitude that there is an intrinsic difference between people of the West and people of the wilderness encapsulated in a capacity to live in a state of permanent chaos and violence. At which point, should this attitude become bare to everyone, newer distinctions could then be erected within the West itself to differentiate different types of people from each other (a case in point, the EU and the controversies of freedom of movement).
This is also what essentially looms in the United States – as center-left liberals who failed to condemn in the strongest terms the expansion of extrajudicial drone violence during the tenure of a Noble Peace Laureate, Barack Obama, now find themselves without moral grounds to say how what Trump intends to do to minorities in America is in fact different from what they have consented to and has been done to people outside the Western hemisphere of the United States. To put it starkly, how is the extrajudicial killing of a black person in America on suspicions of their inherent tendency to be violent different from the drone execution of a brown man in the Middle East based on his inherent tendency to be a terrorist? How do they justify modest opposition to extrajudicial detentions at Guantanamo Prison alongside vigorous opposition to mass incarceration aided by plea bargains, racial profiling and poor legal representation experienced by minorities in the American justice system? How are these matters in principle different from each other? Well, I will suggest that the distinction is in the “wilderness” normed upon the non-Westerner and his or her non-Western turf, as a theater inherently defined by violence and those who can endure it.
And so, this is why as a Malawian, I see a coming to terms with the flat, universal ordinariness of the human creature along with all its attendant deficiencies in the Western world. This collapse of distinctions could be the beginning of a better way of living with each other on this tiny piece of irrelevant rock hurtling through a narrow band conducive to our form of life in the dark, hostile vastness of space. Perhaps we can learn from the Malawians, Zambians and Tanzanians, to take ourselves just a little less seriously, and in so doing, come upcoming this great idea: the intractable ordinariness of our common humanity.
Mphatso Moses Kaufulu is a political and cultural sociologist from Malawi concerned with questions about social epistemology in Southern Africa. He is a PhD student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He is interested in the idea of culture as “play”, culture as history, and culture as power.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia