THE WORDS, concepts, and messages that start a group eventually take on meanings that transcend the original ideas of the proponents. This phenomenon is not unique to any particular group or ideology, and it is something that has been observed across cultures, languages, and generations. In this article, I will explore this phenomenon and its implications in light of present day Nigeria.
The idea that the words and ideas of a group can take on a life of their own is not a new one. It has been observed in a variety of contexts, from political movements to religious groups to social organizations. In many cases, the original meaning of the words becomes diluted or distorted over time, and they come to represent something entirely different from what their creators intended.
One reason for this phenomenon is that words and messages are inherently malleable. They can be interpreted in a variety of ways depending on the context, the audience, and the cultural norms of the time. As a result, it is often difficult to control how they are received and understood by others.
Another reason for this phenomenon is that groups are dynamic and ever-changing. Over time, new members join, old members leave, and the group’s goals and priorities may shift. As a result, the original meaning of the words, concepts, and messages may no longer be relevant or applicable to the group’s current situation.
A classic example of this phenomenon is the way in which the American founding fathers’ ideas of liberty, equality, and democracy have been interpreted and reinterpreted over time. While the founders certainly had a specific vision in mind when they wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the meaning of these documents has been debated and contested ever since.
In the early years of the Republic, the idea of “liberty” was often interpreted to mean freedom from government interference in the economy. Later, it came to be associated with civil liberties such as free speech and freedom of the press. Similarly, the idea of “equality” was initially interpreted to mean equality before the law, but it has since been expanded to include social and economic equality as well.
This phenomenon is not limited to American history. In many other contexts, words, concepts, and messages have taken on a life of their own. For example, the concept of “democracy” has been used to justify a variety of political systems, some of which bear little resemblance to the original Greek model. Similarly, the idea of “socialism” has been interpreted in a variety of ways, from the Marxist-Leninist model of the Soviet Union to the democratic socialism of Western Europe.
What this does and what to do
What are the implications of this phenomenon for society as a whole? One implication is that we should be cautious about accepting the words, concepts, and messages of any particular group at face value. Just because a group claims to stand for “freedom” or “equality” or “justice” doesn’t necessarily mean that they actually embody these values in practice.
In Nigeria, for example, the idea of blind obedience has been used to justify a range of harmful practices, from police brutality to political corruption. Religious charlatans, fraudulent politicians and corrupt business leaders all demand unquestioning obedience from their followers. Unfortunately, the mass of people who are intellectually lazy, willingly follow this rule, while those who dare to use their own minds are labelled as renegades and disruptors.
To combat these issues, it is essential to cultivate critical thinking and intellectual curiosity, and to challenge dominant interpretations of words, concepts, and messages. This is true not only in Nigeria but throughout Africa and the world.
Critical thinking and intellectual curiosity are essential tools for navigating the complex and ever-changing landscape of ideas. Without them, we risk falling into the trap of blind obedience and unquestioning acceptance of the status quo within our groups or subgroups. By cultivating these skills, we can become more engaged and active participants in the ongoing evolution of ideas, and help shape a more just and equitable society. By engaging in critical thinking and questioning authority, all of us can help ensure that words and concepts are used in a way that reflects their true values and promotes equality and justice for all members of society.
Of course, the evolution of ideas is not always a linear or straightforward process, and there will always be those who seek to use words, concepts, and messages to further their own interests. However, by engaging in critical thinking and intellectual curiosity, and by using our voices and platforms to challenge dominant interpretations, we can help shape a more just and equitable future for all.
There are numerous examples from across Africa that demonstrate the dangers of blind obedience and the importance of critical thinking and questioning authority.
For instance, the Rwandan genocide in 1994 was fuelled in part by blind obedience to authority, as many Hutus were convinced by government propaganda that their Tutsi neighbours were a threat to their safety and needed to be eliminated. This led to the spread of violence and the loss of over 800,000 lives.
Similarly, in Zimbabwe, the decades-long rule of Robert Mugabe was characterized by widespread corruption and repression, as many Zimbabweans felt compelled to obey the government out of fear for their safety and well-being. Mugabe’s regime stifled dissent and silenced opposition voices, ultimately leading to the economic and social decline of the country.
In South Africa, the apartheid regime relied on blind obedience and fear to maintain its grip on power, with many white South Africans indoctrinated from a young age to view people of colour as inferior and deserving of segregation and discrimination. It was only through the critical thinking and resistance of anti-apartheid activists that the system was eventually dismantled.
The examples from across Africa demonstrate the harm that can result from blind obedience and the need for critical thinking. By independent thinking, education can help to prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future and promote a more just and equitable society. We cannot afford to repeat these tragedies.
In Nigeria, the #EndSARS movement highlighted the power of critical thinking and intellectual curiosity in challenging the status quo and promoting change. Through social media and street protests, young Nigerians challenged the dominant interpretation of blind obedience and demanded accountability from those in power. Their efforts led to the disbandment of SARS and increased scrutiny of police practices, as well as a broader conversation about the need for systemic change in Nigeria. It might well be time for them again to challenge what being obedient means among them.
As Africa continues to grapple with issues such as corruption, political repression, and social inequality, it is crucial that we promote a culture of critical thinking and mental independence. Most importantly, we must be tolerant – even accepting – of dissenting voices. Those who seek to change society must be careful not to become that which they seek to change.
By doing so, we can help to prevent the harmful consequences of blind obedience and promote a more just and equitable future for all Africans.
Gbenga Ajayi (PhD) is a change expert and social transformation strategist.
You can reach him at: email@example.com, Twitter: Gbenga Ajayi PhD, Linkedin: gbengaajayi, PhD