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Opinions of Friday, 21 August 2020

Columnist: Segun Gbadegesin

What are we?

Readers may have two questions regarding my title today. First, you may wonder what is the reference population, “we”?

Second, you may ponder what triggers my question. With regard to the second question, you may wonder “what is going on inside the head of the questioner?” These are legitimate questions, which themselves are triggered by the presumably strange nature of the question. How does anyone ask what we are if the questioner doesn’t also entertain a doubt about our humanity?

Your guess about the questioner’s motivation is spot on. But why that motivation? Why entertain doubt about our humanity? Kindly allow your imagination the freedom to cruise around like a bird in the air. Consider with me the possible competing answers to the question, and maybe we will come to a common understanding of our predicament.

That leaves the question “what is the reference population, “we”? Simply put, my reference population obviously includes me and it includes you, my reader, especially if you are perceived, and perceive yourself, as an African in general, but in particular, as an African descendant of the continent’s most populous nation-state, Nigeria. What are we?

Let us attempt a process of elimination. Are we stones and pebbles? On the face of it, this is insulting, isn’t it? Stones and pebbles have no blood running their veins. Damn it, they don’t even have veins! Why attempt to identify us with them? They don’t hustle as we do. They have no worries as we have. They simply follow the laws of nature without the ability to formulate any of theirs. They have no consciousness and no self-awareness.

We gloat in our superiority over stones and deal with them as we like. We crush and grind them for our use. We feel no guilt in what we do to them because we assure ourselves that they feel no pain. Therefore, it is alright how we treat them. So, a question: When we do to those of our kind what we do to stones, do we just pass them off as stones? If so, and if there is no difference between those of our kind and us, don’t we just then similarly identify ourselves as stones? Do we also will that we be treated as we treat them? Isn’t this what the logic of consistency requires?

How about logs of wood? They are inert and non-sentient, without reason or emotions, all of which we boast having as our unique properties. Therefore, we are not logs of wood, which we treat as mere means to our ends. But, without compunction, we treat others of our kind as if they are logs of wood. It is also important for us to acknowledge our role in the status of inertness acquired by logs of wood. After all, a log is a felled tree, thanks to human action.

But what are trees? Are they sentient or conscious? We are not used to thinking of trees as sentient beings. However, in the last eighty years, scientific research has provided ample evidence that, like animals and humans, trees are super communicators and sentient beings, with intelligence, and the ability to pass information inter-generationally. And this is not exclusive to big trees as botanists have also established that plants as apparently tender as tomatoes do produce electrical signals to cause change in other parts of the plants. This suggests that the lack of brain does not preclude intelligence. So much then for our superiority complex.

So, we are not plants or trees, but trees and plants are not necessarily inferior. However, we treat them as such. More importantly, we tend to treat those that share the same properties of brain intelligence with us as we treat plants and trees. We cut them down in their prime. We do to them what plants and trees don’t do to themselves.

One scientific research finds that plants and trees take care of their offspring by transferring signals for survival to them. For our kind, education happens to be one of the ways that our brain intelligence suggests we could ensure the survival of our offspring and preserve their future. Instead, however, we choose to deliberately fail their future. We are not plants and trees, but we behave less intelligently and more greedily and cruelly than plants and trees.

Moving to traditionally acknowledged sentient beings, from the tiny ants under our feet to the pets that we keep, there is even more glaring evidence of our depravity vis-à-vis those we despise. The Holy Scripture that endows us with that pride of superiority also directs us to learn from ants and follow their lead in the matter of industry.

But rather than see our greed as a clarion call to hard work, we see it as rationale for plundering or eliminating others. Hobbes was right. Our pets are more loyal than we can ever dream of being. The “me-mentality” which motivates greed keeps regenerating itself.

You say to me that we are not fish and beast of the water or wild animals in the forest. And I ask, how are you so sure? What do they do that we aren’t capable of doing at a more alarmingly damaging rate? The lions, tigers, and hyenas of this ecosystem of ours can even be exonerated of wrongdoing in the “crime” of cannibalism. They cannot help it because nature doesn’t avail them of alternatives. But how do we characterise human cannibals other than as animals in human clothing? More importantly, we know that animals don’t kill their kind for sport. So-called humans unfortunately do. A whole industry of weaponry is created for the purpose.

What is more, so-called wild animals sometimes show more kindness and empathy to their human cousins than we show to each other. A bear in a zoo was seen taking care of a human baby who accidentally fell into its den. A lion was seen in New York looking sympathetically at a young woman who taunted him in his den. In an adorable video, a baby elephant was seen rushing to help a human swimmer who he thought was drowning.

This nation is reeling under an unending epidemic of violence and insecurity in which we are victims, not of wild animals, but of human-on-human violence in the celebrated continent of “humane” animals.

Without warning, I opened a video from an elder and I will never be the same again. A young woman was in a tank top and a pair of shorts. She was struggling on the bare floor with her hands tied behind her back. Her attackers whipped her mercilessly. Then suddenly one of them, brandishing a machete struck her on the neck. Then a second time. Blood gushed out. She died.

Another young woman and her fiancé were returning from their farm. They were ambushed by Fulani kidnappers close to Lanlate. They tried to escape but were out-maneuvered by the hoodlums. The young man was gunned down for daring to escape. The woman was captured, taken to the bush and brutalised until ransom was paid. No one has been found or charged. A young dreamer’s life was cut short.

Rape is the new norm in the land of mega churches and mosques. Even not a few clerics see their calling as entailing the victimization of their women congregants. And many cases of incestuous rape have been reported. What has become of the humanity that we so much flaunt as a badge of superiority?

Hobbes observes that nothing distinctive should be read into human rationality because, left to itself, it seeks the good of the self. In the state of nature, which is simply a state without a controlling authority, individual reasoners will discover that it is in their self-interest to form a political association with an authority to regulate activities. This is the warrant for the state—to make and enforce laws for security.

What is the business of having a state without the capacity to secure the lives of its citizens? What we are is an imperfect specimen of humanity. The state exists as a bulwark against human imperfection. Ours is failing.

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