Sharda Patasar writes a weekly column for the Newsday.
As a way of introducing his main argument in How the Vulva Stone Became a Brachiopod, scientist Stephen Jay Gould begins by presenting a condensed version of Francis Bacon’s analysis of psychological barriers to knowledge about the natural world. Bacon recognized, Gould says, that the study of nature entailed ‘a funnelling of sensory data through mental processes’ but he recognized that our own psychological barriers impair reasoning. Bacon therefore classified these impediments as ‘idols’. We are given four main categories: idols of ‘the tribe’, idols of ‘the cave’, idols of ‘the marketplace’ and idols of ‘the theatre’.
Gould begins with idols of the cave – the peculiarities of each individual. So for instance, one person may have exam panic while another has no confidence in his ability to be creative. Idols of the marketplace – ‘designate limitations imposed by language’. One culture for instance may have words to describe different colours while another may have only four words for colours because they also do not perceive more than four colours. Idols of the theatre deals with barriers to thinking because older systems of thought are so entrenched that they do not allow the brain to break through them. Those who believe in a god for example may have problems wrapping their minds around the idea of no god. Finally idols of the tribe –‘our tribe of Homo Sapiens – specify those foibles and errors in thinking that transcend the peculiarities of our diverse cultures and reflect the inherited structures and operations of the human brain.’ And in this category Bacon emphasizes two main examples: our tendency to explain all phenomena that occurs in the universe through our sense perception…and our propensity to make universal inferences from limited and biased observation, ignoring evident sources of data that do not impact our senses. And if we dig deeper into Bacon’s analysis, Gould suggests – and this is where I come to my main point – is our tendency to order things by creating dichotomous divisions – good/bad, heaven/hell, black/white and so on.
In the hours after this week’s announcement of Robert Mugabe’s resignation from his 37-year reign as President of Zimbabwe, I listened to Brother Valentino’s Stay Up Zimbabwe to hear again, the feelings of the era and I wondered, what would the calypsonian’s song be now?
When the images of Zimbabweans celebrating Mugabe’s resignation came across the television I thought about Mandela with whom Mugabe has often been paired when references are made to the most influential African leaders. From the inception, the methods by which each had attained an independent nation for his people is different –Mugabe’s founded on violence and force, Mandela’s on dialogue and an effort at balanced thought; Mugabe’s retention of power in the effort to create a black Zimbabwe versus Mandela’s stepping down after serving one term as President of South Africa in a show of his conviction towards democratic governance. It was inevitable that Mugabe’s reign would end by force, given that his struggle to ensure complete supremacy of his people began and continued with force.
The Mugabe story is a perfect example of Bacon’s analysis of internal barriers to knowledge. He carried on with a memory – a memory founded in fear and anger, two culprits that drive oppression. It was a memory of that vexing dichotomy – white/black. Those were the colours of his world and his drive to give prominence to one colour, blinded him to the fact that he was in fact inflicting on his people, the very oppression he had been fighting against. Black consciousness or any consciousness for that matter does not demand care only for your own group. It also demands reason and charity and care for others. Robert Mugabe is a product of his time and he continued to internalize that era. In his inner world, justice for African people continued to mean force, even if it meant violence against his own people.
As Valentino suggested ‘…you don’t get rid of the enemy, the enemy will get rid of thee’. But that was a different period. And this month the people spoke and sent a clear message that the ‘Father’s’ time was up. Circumstances create new memories. Zimbabwe had succeeded in its aim at independence. And this perhaps was Mugabe’s downfall - his failure to see that his title Father of the Nation was secure and that his work should have entailed ensuring the economic stability and wellbeing of his country.
As a leader, his responsibility was to the national good. But often times the personal ideals that shaped a great cause can easily descend into arrogance. Unfortunately, the story of Mugabe is just that – a great cause gone awry, an example of what happens when consciousness gets subtracted and egocentrism takes over.