In the early 2000s, my father gave me this book: “How to think about weird things: Critical thinking for a new age”. Although I flipped through its pages, I never actually read it – it was either too dense for my teenage mind or I was simply interested in other things – but it got me musing: Why this book? Why should we think about weird things? Am I weird – is that why I was given this book? Do I think about weird things? What happens when you think about weird things?
Nevertheless, the book I never read succeeded in having an impact on me for one very simple reason: Its title. Those twelve words on its green glossy cover would come to mind on numerous occasions, always when I was trying to think (outside the box) about an alternative approach to something, or to solve a problem.
That book, or more accurately that title, would be my first real introduction to the concept of critical thinking. Not because the phrase makes an appearance in the title, but rather because from the moment I encountered them, I questioned.
Now I’m not advocating that we all try to be weird – or maybe I am – but I am suggesting that maybe, like the book I never read, some questions serve their purpose simply by existing; even those that go unanswered. Why?
Questions introduce possibility, shift mind frames from one of arrogant certainty to humbled exploration, and make leeway for other thinking. How did all great innovations – many of which we now take for granted – come to be? Someone dared ask a (stupid) question.
The state of events in my beloved country keeps descending to new lows with each passing day, so much such that it’s easier to rest the pen and look the other way. And in the past year, I have. First because of self-censorship and other considerations related to maintaining a balance between my day job and my writing, and secondly because many of the issues we harp about, well, they don’t really change. What’s that Whitney Houston song? Oh yeah, same issues, same nonsense, same politicking and actors, different day. It’s easier to just click the share button and send a link to an article written years earlier.
But you see, that was borne, to a large extent, from personal decision. My choice. Not coercion, not suppression, not cyber bullying and attacks tinted by partisan politics. And yet, today, it seems that’s all there is to see in Ghana’s media sphere, particularly where social media is concerned.
For my masters dissertation I wrote about the role of new media in fostering democracy and increased citizen participation in West Africa. From the research, it was clear that social media could be the alternative space for discussing relevant issues, especially those related to socio-political and economic development. In my mind, this was a good thing – seeing that much of traditional media has been or is in the process of being usurped by political parties and/or figures, and the fact that most Ghanaian journalists seem to be more concerned about soli (“tips”) than quality reporting.
True, social media reach is quite limited due to infrastructure concerns, and there is need to educate or train on how to effectively use these tools as well as ensure interaction between online and offline actors, but ultimately, these things would be improved. I truly believed the discussions on social media would eventually move from personal updates and status posts, to discussing issues of national relevance.
True to form, this is happening – although not exactly as one would hope.
X event of national relevance happens. Y writes about it. Z doesn’t agree with what Y wrote, but instead of writing his/her own thoughts about X event, Z writes about Y, attacking his/her persona. Eventually, the other letters of the alphabet chime in taking sides, all eventually spelling two (honestly, tiresome) acronyms: NPP and NDC.
X event? Long-forgotten, lost in an abyss of distraction.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the new formula for discussing and dissecting policy and national issues in the so-called great democracy of Ghana. What about solution-brainstorming? Knowledge sharing based on practices and experience? Forget it, we never get there.
Time and again, it’s been played out: From the numerous corruption cases, to the recent religion-education debate, and now to the #DumsorMustStop campaign led by Yvonne Nelson and Sarkodie.
It is quite disheartening to watch. Not just because everything is colored by NPP or NDC, government vs. opposition, but also because it is engendering a culture of forced silence. Anyone who has a different opinion on anything is pegged – it could be a topic as trivial as what color waakye actually is and the political pundits and internet trolls will find a way to make it about those two political parties. All the while, the people who should be at the center of the discussion on policy issues, sit in their offices many floors above the ground and laugh. Can’t blame them, it’s a distractive mechanism, and it works well.
Now while this culture of silence and political party colored internet trolling is more pervasive on Facebook – it’s where the masses are – it has creeped into Twitterville as well, and this is what leaves me aghast. Twitter in essence is (supposed to be) the space for specialized discussions, for entering a pool of opinions as varied as the stars in the galaxy. And it has been. Until recently. I cannot point to one Twitter post to say this is when everything changed, but you can feel it. Where before the Ghanaian Twitter sphere was full of interesting conversations with the most unlikely participants thrown together and an unspoken respect for each other’s opinion, you now have one of two things: silence or responses purely out of spite. So much for a Twitter block party.
This could be because Ghanaians don’t have electricity and so cannot charge their phones or buy phone credit due to the increased cost of living.
It could also be because, for whatever reason, people are more interested in putting out whatever it is they think will get them more followers or help them position themselves on social media. Case in point: faking their own kidnapping.
I once wrote about how Ghana’s culture of “respect” ends up harming children, young girls especially. Well, the current phenomenon of one-track thinking and silencing of anyone who disagrees with us is ridding us of what similitude we have for progressive thinking.
“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” ― Frederick Douglass
It’s unfortunate that the potential tools for innovation could become the death grip that kills that innovation. That brilliant minds with equally brilliant ideas will retreat into the safety of the DM inbox because they have to consider the fact that their suggestion or idea could be regarded as anti this or that government or political party. That the public leaders who have succeeded in gaining constituency with Ghana’s youth through social media do not have the courage to actually interact, or worse, take to taunting these youth’s attempts to ask questions and get some answers. That women who dare to speak up have their integrity and womanhood questioned in dismissal of their opinion or ideas – by so-called ‘open-minded’ social media commentators and the very officials who should be addressing our problems.
Because, as unassuming as it may seem, the internet, and social media especially, introduces us to a world of information, or other and “weird” thinking which has the power to influence and disrupt the status quo in thinking and doing – something we sorely need when it comes to handling our national affairs and something that the powers that be wouldn’t know how to handle: the unknown has even the most powerful shaking in their boots.
We need ideas, a breath of fresh perspective, thoughts and opinions that challenge. By shutting the few who dare to put exactly that forth, we risk (further) stagnating our country’s development and jeopardizing any hope for a different future we might have. As Albert Einstein said:
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
If that is truly what we want as a nation – to overcome our problems, chart a new course – we need a new process. When someone puts forth an idea, a concept, a suggestion, an opinion, and it irks you, you should not knee jerk yourself into attacking the person. Instead, ask yourself: Why did this bother me? What element of it rings true within me to illicit such a strong response. How else would I address this? Once you figure that out, you put forth a summary of your own thoughts on the issue – leaving the other person’s genitals out of the picture, thank you very much. And sometimes, we simply just don’t understand each other – ask for clarification if necessary.
In so doing, we nurture not just a respect for each other’s opinions and valid experiences and truths, we also water the seeds for constructive dialogue and critical thinking, which our nation sorely needs.
To invite novelty into our individual and national experiences, we must have the courage to drop our guard of the status quo and sit, for a moment, in the disruptive possibilities of our questions, our weirdness.
Ask questions. Regardless, or rather, because of how uncomfortable it is.∗