THEY VS US: ON OTHERINESS
By Pius Adesanmi, PhD.
Thursday, September 3, 2009.
In the postcolonial and cultural theory part of my work, I teach something called the production of otherness at the graduate level. It has to do with how people, voices, or forces who perceive themselves as normative at certain points in history have represented those who do not look like them as anomalous, primitive, and inferior. Those producing ‘the other’ always see themselves as the norm. In postcolonial theory, we call them “the self”.
For much of the last six hundred years, for instance, the white race has been the most active producer of otherness, operating as a self that represents all other races - especially the black race - as its inferior others. Everywhere you turn to in human history, you encounter the phenomenon of otherness production.
The self needs and breeds otherness in order to have value or even to exist. For instance, to satisfy that necessity, Apartheid produced the kaffir; Islam produced the infidel; Christianity produced the unbeliever; heterosexuality produced the fag; Israelis produced the Araboushim; Americans produced the nigga; European colonizers produced the native; patriarchal man produced the hysteric woman. Even in Nigeria, the nightmare known as the PDP is a self actively producing and victimizing otherness: the other of the PDP is otherwise known as the ordinary Nigerian.
Those who produce otherness always feel compelled to manufacture and acknowledge the rare exception who is then severed from his source and hoisted as a trophy on a pedestal. The production of otherness is a process that does not tolerate things in the singular. Rather, it always strives to be a broad, all-encompassing basket into which the othered is dropped and stereotyped.
Hence, all the negative traits that dominant white America churns out while othering the “nigga” or the Native American are not designed to describe just one “nigga” or one Indian. Niggas are all like that. Indians are generally lazy. Kaffirs are thieves. Africans are all diseased and poverty-stricken. The Araboushim are all terrorists who want to destroy Israel. My broda take am easy. Shebi you know women, they are all like that jare.
The list of blanket stereotyping is endless in the production of otherness. The self that produces the other possesses a tongue that can only victimize an entire people or an entire group. It is always “they are all like that except…”
Except LaShawnqua, my good African American female neighbor, who is not like the rest of them. Except Dakota Black Horse, my Native Indian friend who is so hard working and has nothing in common with, you know, other Indians. Except Abdelmalik, my Araboushim friend who abhors terrorism. Except Abdul Yahaya Jaiyeoba Okonkwo, my good Nigerian friend who is not into 419.
Welcome to the world of the exception that is created, perhaps as a conscience-salving proposition, by the self and made to represent everything his people or group is not! The world of this exceptional creature is, however, a lonely one. Created by the self and perpetually hoisted as a trophy of exception, this character, who is not like his people or his group, is usually the entry port of a generalized process of denigration of the very people who sired him. He is the first victim of the very people who think they admire him by othering him!
This is Wole Soyinka’s lonely and curious world in Igbo cyber discourse, raised to a cacophonous pitch recently by Soyinka’s rightful disagreement with the cream of Yoruba leadership over their unbelievable and mischievous attempts to ethnicize the freedom action undertaken by MEND against the Atlas Cove Jetty in Lagos – a property of Nigeria’s oppressor-aggressor Federal Government.
Soyinka’s disagreement with certain voices in Yoruba leadership became an open sesame for so many Igbo voices on the net – with a sprinkling of south-south voices – to manufacture him as “the good Yoruba”, thus tragically making Soyinka the latest addition to a long philosophico-historical list of othered and inferiorized subjects such as “the good Indian”, “the good nigga”, “the good native”, “the good kaffir” and, of course, “the good Muslim”.
Before making another foolish post on this subject in Nigerian listervs, before writing another silly blog, before making another uninformed chat room comment, I will advise non-Yoruba who admire Soyinka by describing him as different from his people to urgently read Dorothy Hammond’s and Alta Jablow’s The Africa that Never Was: Four Centuries of British Writing about Africa, Syed Hussein Alatas’s The Myth of the Lazy Native and Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim, Bad Muslim in order to gain some awareness of the historical and philosophical dimensions of the production of otherness.
In The Africa that Never Was, our friends will discover how the bloody British spent four centuries manufacturing lazy and dishonest Africans – except the good African. In Alatas’s book, they will discover how, in over three hundred years of contact, Western colonialists blanketed out the Malays as lazy natives, a process in which they always systematically allowed just enough room for the “one good Malay” who is not like the rest.
In Mamdani’s book, they will read how, in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, it became the ideological strategy of a crusading Christian West, led by the crazy neocons around George Bush, to manufacture that good Muslim who, in the nature of things, is not like the terrorist rest! These are some of the introductory texts to my graduate seminar on the production of otherness.
One must make the concession that those non-Yoruba internet voices who are hoisting Wole Soyinka as their trophy Yoruba genuinely believe that they admire and respect the man, being blissfully unaware of the insertion of their discourse into a broader frame of historical production of otherness, which ironically makes Soyinka the very first victim and target of their insults. Hence you encounter such silly sentences as “Soyinka is the only Yoruba with a truly nationalist outlook”, “Oh, how I wish other Yoruba people would emulate him”, and other incrementally foolish and annoying statements in the same direction.
One must also conclude that Soyinka’s emergency admirers have simply never mentally self-projected into how they would feel if Nigerians from other ethnic groups suddenly began to hoist Chinua Achebe on a pole as the one good exception to his own people! To his own otherwise what people? Bad people? Useless people? Otherwise what people? And doing it in a most patronizing and condescending manner to boot!
If there are folks who should be aware of the insulting nuances of otherness, it is precisely the Igbo internet warriors who are now trafficking in Soyinka’s otherness and so-called difference from his people. The Igbos have been such egregious targets and victims of this same process that it has become a near-permanent feature of how they are represented on the net by non-Igbo ethnicist jingoists.
Ever so often, you encounter foolish statements by so many non-Igbo emergency specialists of Igbo people and culture blanketing out an entire people and culture with all the uncomplimentary epithets they can find in the dictionary. Such Nigerian racists would of course be quick to brandish the one Igbo friend they have or a previous sojourn in Igbo land as immunity against charges of being anti-Igbo. I addressed this phenomenon squarely in my essay, “Acultural”, when a Washington-based Yoruba intellectual and regular trafficker in needless inter-ethnic exchanges of muck almost convinced himself that acultural and Igboness are synonyms.
This, in essence, is a terrain that those now trafficking in Soyinka’s otherness and insulting him and his race in the process know only too well. And I wonder where they got the idea that Soyinka is a lone Yoruba voice in support of the agitations of the Niger Delta. By which abracadabra did they arrive at the conclusion that Soyinka is the only pan-Nigerian Yoruba nationalist? Where and when did they conduct their polling in Yoruba land? Just what is the empirical basis of their ‘authoritative’ submissions?
Since most of those othering Soyinka as the only Yoruba avatar of Nigerian nationalism are in fact known Igbo irredentists, we must ask: wetin concern those who scream daily about the rebirth of the principles of Biafra – and whose sentiments one is fully sympathetic to – with anybody being a pan-Nigerian nationalist in the first place? Wetin concern the agbero of Igbo irredentism, rooted as it is in separatism, with the overload of pan-Nigerian nationalism? How and where do the two meet?
Quite frankly, with regard to MEND, Soyinka’s voice pales beside that of Yinka Odumakin, human/civil/Yoruba rights activist and national publicity secretary of Afenifere Renewal Group whose principled support for MEND and the spirit of the Niger Delta struggle is near-legendary. Although it is not yet ascertained, the recent death threats Mr. Odumakin received may not be totally unconnected with his support for MEND and the aspirations of the Niger Delta.
The quiet hands of the nest of killers in Abuja may not be far from those threats. If this turns out to be true, what could possibly be more nationalistic than this Yoruba icon of the younger generation receiving threats to his life for his principled position on the Niger Delta question? Why is Odumakin not hoisted as the exception to his people? Ah, he has no Nobel! He is a less attractive candidate for otherness than a Nobel laureate. Soyinka is even far from being the most consistent Yoruba supporter of the legitimate agitations of the Niger Delta for equity, fairness, justice, and humane treatment within the Nigerian federation. He is just the most famous.
Soyinka has in fact not been totally free of the occasional outrageous prevarication on the Niger Delta question.
As recently as 2008, Soyinka advised the freedom fighters of the Niger Delta to lay down their arms and engage the federal government in what he called “intellectual militancy”! I was alarmed and disappointed that such a hollow statement came from Soyinka at the time. What the heck is intellectual militancy? What then did Ken Saro-Wiwa do if not pacific intellectual militancy? And what was the response of the corrupt criminals running the Federal Government of Nigeria to Saro-Wiwa’s intellectual militancy? How do you even begin to put anything intellectual and the charlatans of Abuja in the same bracket?
Although, one owes nobody any explanation, suffice it to state that I personally do not know any Yoruba in my own immediate intellectual and ideological spheres who isn’t in full support of MEND and the spirit of the Niger Delta struggle.
I am yet to encounter anybody in my own networks and circuits of Yoruba intellectual like-minds who has any sympathy for the Federal Government of Nigeria. We are all unapologetically in support of the struggles of the peoples of the Niger Delta and all other Nigerian victims of the congenital criminals in Abuja. Have our friends even been reading Yoruba public intellectuals of my generation such as Professors Wale Adebanwi and Ebenezer Obadare?
Those two friends of mine have been vocal and they are not unknown quantities in public discourse. Have they been reading Qansy Salako? As is, the Nigerian state is a criminal organization in the hands of a cabal of deadly criminals in Abuja holding all of us hostage. From Umuechem to Agge, from Gbaramatu to Odi, and Zaki Biam the criminal actions of that state collectively dehumanizes us, her victims. What then is so spectacular about Soyinka’s principled call for a de-ethnicization of the Atlas Cove freedom action that could possibly warrant the orgy of othering and insults that one has witnessed thus far?
I have stated time and again that those who invest in the production of otherness are often blind and deaf to the intrinsic humanism of their own cultures, starting with those odious Yoruba and Igbo characters who spend their lives exchanging unprintable and unhelpful rubbish about each other’s ethnic groups online. They don’t know how to read and listen to the great narratives of their own culture.
What, for instance, does Chinua Achebe have to say about insulting anybody as the exception to his own people? Well, there is this guy called Ezeulu in Arrow of God. He tells the truth according to the ancestral protocols of his people – my father told me that the land does not belong to us.
Just because Ezeulu’s perception of the truth coincides with the white man’s perception of things and goes against other versions of the truth by his people, Captain Winterbottom and other ignorant white men in the novel are quick to hoist him on a pole as “the good Igbo” who is not like his people. The exception to his people! And because Ezeulu is somewhat light-skinned, the Europeans even surmise that his is able to tell the truth because there must have been a mix up in his blood line – some light-skinned people must somehow have penetrated Ezeulu’s blood line along the way. The closer one is to whiteness, the better one is able to tell the truth. Of course!
What Winterbottom and the ignorant Europeans in Arrow of God do to Ezeulu is exactly what some of Soyinka’s Igbo admirers online are doing to him! What part of Arrow of God have they not read? What on earth do they imagine Achebe is saying about the production of otherness? I am only waiting for them to surmise that there must have been a contamination of Soyinka’s bloodline along the way. Maybe some non-Yoruba blood was accidentally infused in the bloodline?
And they have already started on that path by seeking extraneous explanations outside of the Yoruba world for Soyinka’s genius. One listserv commentator hinted and very nearly stated that Soyinka’s genius devolves from his long history of association with Christopher Okigbo and Chinua Achebe. We just merely narrowly escaped claims that Okigbo and Achebe helped him write Death and the King’s Horseman! Ever since I encountered that outrageous listserv comment, thankfully dismissed by the irrepressible Valentine Ojo,
I have been wondering if my ability to string together a few sentences in English prose is not due to my brotherly association with other Nigerian writers such as Obi Nwakanma, Okey Ndibe, Chika Okeke-Agulu, Unoma Azuah, and so many other Igbo writers. You never know!
Pius Adesanmi is a writer, scholar and literary critic. He teaches at the University of Toronto.