I was studying for my end of semester exams and as I was reading through the chapter on conformity, I came across this video. And it gave me pause on how far we are all willing to go at the right price. For some it is a little bit of cash, for some, it is an opportunity to do what you love, for some it’s the opportunity to believe in something. We all have our yielding points; it’s all a matter of someone knowing exactly how to get you there.
In the 2007/08 post-election violence that followed the Kenyan election of 2007, I heard the most bizarre and painful stories. These were stories of husbands killing wives or wives killing their husbands and children in the name of ethnic supremacy. I heard of magistrates in rural towns opting to kill for different conflicting ethnic sides based on the hour of the day when the ethnicities clashed, some by day others by night. The magistrate was of a completely different ethnicity from the majority fighting, but being neutral in the conflict, he realized, wouldn’t guarantee his survival, he had to act albeit against his actual beliefs to survive. He had to justify his actions to see himself in a good light to resolve any dissonance he experienced in his mind. Taking a life isn’t like buying groceries, there is nothing normal about it. But in a time of life and death, he made a decision.
This may seem bizarre, and expectedly so, what people do in times of conflict evade the best of us, the Rwanda genocide, the Bosnian Genocide, the Post Election Violence, Molo Clashes in Kenya, the Holocaust. Those all seem like freak acts of nature, but are they really?
When you have been fed with a lie daily for so long, it becomes the truth, it becomes a narrative, doctrine; a new belief system. “Kenya is corrupt”, “nothing can work in Kenya”, “all the government does is steal”, or “I don’t know what happens when you work in government you lose all sensibilities, you are out to watch out for yourself”. These are just a few of our national narratives. Now look at how government officials work in offices, how they engage with you, you will hear cases of bribe demands and unnecessary delays, endless theft, poor policy decisions to the detriment of future generations of Kenyans.
The narrative we have created and propelled is now a self-fulfilling prophecy. Think of any public officer you may have admired when they joined public office – be it a minister, politician, or a civil servant. Do you recall who they were when they worked either as a lecturer in the university or were a top performing corporate executive; have they changed now that they work in the government?
The answer at the top of your mind may be “yes” and there are very many reasons for that, we have heard it all, “government is run by cartels” and “mediocrity is the standard of government” these may be true. What happens is that in every environment there is a culture, the same way there is a culture of survival and violence in war, in the governance of this great nation we too have a decadent culture of operation. And that means when people of good intention walk in, they tend to succumb to the culture; in other words, they conform.
But why stay when you know that what is going on is wrong? That is a valid question too. In most cases what Social Psychology teaches me is that human beings are motivated to see themselves in a good light. And at times to maintain that self-esteem, we justify our actions and doing nothing in a corrupt system with notions like, “it’s just 5 years things could change”, “I can’t be seen to give up, it ruins my credibility” or whatever other statements you may have heard.
But things can still change if the individual chooses to do the right thing. The right thing isn’t necessarily expedient at the time, but it emboldens others to do the right thing they know they should do. And this is what starts waves of positive change. Kenyan history shows us how people did this, from Mekatili wa Menza to Wangari Maathai and most recently Chief Justice David Maraga’s ruling on the 2017 presidential election petitions. In the latter case, you now see that some select judges have now chosen to do the right thing, even when it makes no sense in such tainted society. Breaking away from conformity is a choice we can all make when we choose to see how it serves the greater good and be willing to understand that it won’t necessarily make sense now, but generations later will thank us for it.