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Monday, August 10, 2015

Reason and free debate are the life-blood of innovation and democracy

US President Barack Obama characterized Kenya as a country on the move. This is evidenced by unprecedented expansion of the middle class and the associated consumer culture that it begets; malls, fancy neighborhoods and traffic gridlock.

However, there are two other ways to characterize our society. We can be silent, dreadfully and ominously silent. We can also be noisy, annoyingly bellicose, irreverent and arbitrary. Kenyans are capable of deafening silence and hollow loudness on critical national issues. It is possible that the path of logic, reason and free debate in the public square is narrow path and not many of us find it.

In The Republic Plato writes, “A ship's crew which does not understand that the art of navigation demands knowledge of the stars will stigmatize a properly qualified pilot as a star-gazing idiot, and will prevent him from navigating”. These words, written circa 380 BC, ring so true in our society. In my view, we are in the era of a dominant national culture, which scorns logic, reason and free debate and it manifests as deafening silence and or thoughtless loudness.

The public square is comatose. Both TV and radio talk shows trawl this land for the least enlightened, most provincial talking heads. The universe of Twitter and Facebook is dense with narrow tribal zealots and ethnic lynch mobs. A majority of so-called columnists in mainstream print media are revolting in their partisanship. Columnists who write about politics and policy abhor objective, reasoned commentary. The National Assembly; Senate and Parliament offer little inspiration and only reaffirm what is a full-blown assault on reason, logic and evidence in decision-making and governance.

It is no wonder that consequential public policy choices such as what technology is appropriate in our classrooms, the new law on public benefit organizations, priority infrastructure investments and models for countering violent extremism have elicited little enlightened public debate and logical or reasoned reflection. The economic growth and development narrative now seems to subjugate and undermine the legitimacy honest, logical and thoughtful questioning of public policy decisions. We have become hypnotized by the doctrine of “Maendeleo chap, chap” or development now.

Our exam-centric education system might explain what in my view is a dominant culture of abhorrence of reason and intolerance for debate and evidence. Our school system, from primary school to postgraduate level inculcates blind obedience and unquestioning subservience to the authority of the teacher or professor. And I do not encourage disobedience by student to the professor or the teacher. What I mean here is the inability of students to engage with the subject matter, formulate and argue their own points of view.

What is lacking in our school system is a tradition of critical thinking and analytical reasoning. Our children, and later as adults, do not have the capacity to evaluate arguments and evidence. As young adults, and later as leaders, they take offence at honest and fair challenge to their views and believe disagreement is a sign of bad faith and plainly disrespectful. This might explain why we are such a violent society. This might explain why for instance the disputed outcome of the 2007 elections sparked an orgy of shameful ethnic cleansing.

We have become a rather parochial society, where single-minded men and women of one inclination or another are the undisputed dominant voice. Ordinary citizens, the so-called intellectuals and the political class talk at each other, rather than with each other. I believe like Karl Popper that truth or evidence is not manifest, but extremely elusive. Hence society need above all things, open-mindedness, imagination, and a constant willingness to debate and reason together. Moreover, a commitment to vibrant and varied culture of free thought and open thoughtful public debate is critical to civility, enterprise, innovation and democracy. We must guard against the culture of anti-intellectualism and demand nothing but fidelity to reason and evidence from intellectuals who occupy the public square.

As the Bible says in the book of Isaiah, “come now let us reason together”, all Kenyans; young and old, men and women, rich and poor, gay and straight, Christian or Muslim or Hindu, all 42 tribes.

Now is the time to deploy the power of collective thought and reason to confront our most urgent challenges, including deep and worsening ethnic division, a ponderous constitution, unbridled corruption, unemployment, mediocre public education, poverty and rising inequality.

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