When shame and honour take the hypocritical centre stage

Friday, 19 October 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}




ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE: A sitting president threw down the gauntlet at a public rally recently, challenging his fellow politicos on their corrupt culture. (‘Who can claim to be clean?’ etc.) While his fusillade did not earn a standing ovation among a sceptical public grown increasingly cold to political posturing, it begs the question. Plus makes us wonder why civil society does not warm to the hot button topic of keeping our elected representatives accountable. And whether in allowing savvy one-upmanship to steal the show, we are all not culpable in some way of perpetuating a society in which governors mouth off while voters grovel 99.99% of the time…

As human beings, we experience a gamut of emotions. These help individuals to express themselves, and authorities to exercise control over entire societies. The most common feelings engendered by our race span a spectrum from guilt and shame to fear. That the political animals who rule over rather than serve us lever these deep-seated anxieties says as much for them as for us.

We live in a ‘shame culture’. A shame culture hides its face behind a mask of honour. It takes much pride in receiving honour and concealing causes for shame. The threat of rejection always looms over societies skirting cautiously around this worldview. That appearances count more than actuality is a sad fact. Shame comes not from doing something wrong but from being found out – it is an ‘honour balance’ out of which we dare not slide ourselves, or let our graven images fall off the perches they roost precariously upon. A driving force is the constant concern how we look to other people. Savvy politicos use this to their advantage in making staged proclamations. 

Born again cleanly 

It is why, for example, the president of our republic can clamber on a public platform and assert that he is Mr Clean reborn. He may not have said as such in so many words. But the implication was clear. That most if not all his peers are crooked in some way was the thrust of his recent assertion. It was posed to a less than smitten populace in the backwater of Mahara this week in the form of a question, as to how many politicians can claim they are not corrupt.

The phenomenon of political posturing is not new. Our island race did not invent it; it’s as old as civilisation. But the zany platitudes pronounced by sundry politicos on so many stages shows that the grand but empty gesture is not Greek to them. And when a once popular presidential figure feels like his star is waning, there’s no better way – he thinks – than resorting to the old shame shenanigan. “I’m Mr Clean. But my colleagues are as corrupt as they come. So you should consider only me as the only viable way forward for a socially acceptable leadership.”

This is the clarion call of a common candidate who’s burned his boats with the powers that be who brought him to the throne and is now desperately trying to build bridges with his erstwhile compatriots who might grant him the purple again.

That hiatus of civility

My concern in this column, however, is not about how power sharing will play out in the less than halcyon days ahead. It is more to do with why civil society lets such mountebanks off the hook. And the suspicion among anthropologists as much as apologists for realpolitik is that being a shame culture has a lot to do with it.

Our head of state publicly claims that the political culture he governs is rotten to the core. But rather than take up cudgels with him and his cabinet, the ranks of Tuscany close to safeguard the honour of the ruling class. Why? 

For one, he is a democratically elected president; and democracy is such a sacred cow that civil society needs to nurture and feed that blessed beast until it is a bloated idol of our best hopes for ourselves: represented in a dream that we know subconsciously will never become a reality. 

For another, we are all too busy anyway getting and spending – and if a dishonourable set of leaders want to indirectly blow their own trumpets about not feathering their nests, while at the same time adroitly manoeuvring for space at the next polls – why, it’s no skin off our back… 

And last but by no means least, we – all of us: academics, professionals, business, ‘civil’ society, the ‘free’ media et al. – subscribe to the shame culture. “Let us honour if we can the vertical man / though we value none but the horizontal one.”

As a matter of interest, there are two other types of culture. And in the short space of a single column I hope to offer a glimpse of what’s above the Plimsoll line in terms of politicians who subscribe to each of these.

Guilty as charged!

A ‘guilt culture’ hangs on certain behaviours that are condemned as a means of exercising control. So a society based on such authority tends to focus on individual actions and the role conscience plays in expressing power. The key question to be asked is: “Is what I did fair?” That predicates punishment here and now or at a future time. A key to deciding matters is the rule of law and the role it plays in reinforcing a sense of guilt. That, it is assumed, will ensure true justice is done by all.

Our prime minister’s recent address to the Oxford Union underlines this truth. He reassured his august audience that it is by no means easy to gain access to – much less dominance over – the Indian Ocean, unless you’re a littoral state. No doubt piqued by having to eat humble pie at handing over the Hambantota Port to China on 99-year lease because his government defaulted on a $ 1.4 billion loan, the premier was at pains to succour his Western allies’ wounds and preempt their sense that the Eastern Dragon was not quite playing fair with its alleged ‘String of Pearls’ strategy to control key global waters. (“Really, my dear fellow – it’s simply not cricket, what?”) It is quite safe, he suggested. Wait and see, will you? That’s only fair, he might as well have added as a rider. 

Well, slow and creeping imperialism rides a palomino horse these days. So much for safety’s sake… And if there is any lingering concern about whether it is fair, our de facto head of government only needed to remind his hearers that the ‘sale’ of Hambantota was not his fault; that other humbugs now out of office were guilty of gross negligence of national assets and mismanagement of regional wellbeing – to say nothing of overlooking international security concerns. 

Of course, our would-be statesman might not think it fair or sporting if an Oxonian heckler reminded him of his role in a former tenure under a previous administration – way back in 2002 – that first brought the whole southern port issue to the table. Whose idea was it then? Much like the Colombo International Financial City, the Port City’s ostensible success has many fathers, but the dangers it poses to our ecology and the threats we will face down the line are all orphans. While the premier’s conscience may not be clear on much of this, since it was his government that first entertained the Chinese overture but went on to decry it when in opposition, it is a later president who will always be held accountable for selling the national family silver. (“Guilty as charged, m’lud!”) 

I’m afraid it’s all over

In a fear culture the dominant mode of exercising authority is the fear of retribution. The powers that be seek to keep society as well as their opponents in check by constantly raising the spectre of repercussions. Savvy leaders insert the insidious questions – “What will happen if/if not? Will we get hurt?” – into the civic consciousness.

The former president is a past master at this enjoyable (to him) game. When in office, it was but a scowling look in the corridors of power or a growling threat at the podium that kept throats dry with keen angst and voices hoarse in clear bureaucratic assent. 

(Some of those bureaucrats are clearly playing a high price now for their compliance with his whims and fancies then. Wish some of the other strongmen no less culpable were also in stocks – if only wishes were winged horses, we’d fly; but today, it’s just that pigs might as well…) 

While in opposition, it’s been a threat by proxy tactic for this sabre-ratting rabble-rouser: will China buy us lock stock and barrel? are the Western powers as munificent as they seem? is India a big brother or a smiling assassin? – all with a straight face, this sterling son of the soil who operates in a shady spot and his stalwart scions, those latter-day paragons of virtue with short memories! 

End-piece: coda

But we do not call them out – all these posturing presidents and premiers; past, present, and possibly future; or their sycophantic lapdogs. And we perpetuate (for what – for posterity? for prosperity’s sake?) the shame-honour nexus for which South Asian political economies are notorious. Shame on us! 

If only civil society insisted that the president be made to name and shame (and prosecute) his corrupt colleagues, or that a former president be told to quit while he’s still behind, we could all live in peace with honour. As for our premier, we do hope his conscience is clear. And that recent rumours of a ‘great train robbery’ to snap at the heels of the bond scam are only scurrilous social media and meme-hounds doing the rounds. 

In today’s milieu of aiming for civilising sainthood or cultural canonisation but settling for another presidential term, it’s not news that separates the men from the boys… but fake news, false premises, and fantasy on a public platform or prestigious forum – and only shame be to him that thinks evil of it!

(Journalist | Editor-at-large of LMD | Writer #SpeakingTruthToPower)