December 13, 2018

The Quest for Morality


“Man can choose to be bad or a liar until he receives his punishment”. Zera Yacob(1599-1692)

Avatar: Robel Mulat
By Robel Mulat

ሮቤል ሙላት በሐዋሳ ከተማ የሚኖር ለከተሞች ልዩ ፍቅር ያለው የማኀበረሰብ ጥናት ባለሙያ ነው፡፡

The Quest for Morality

“Man can choose to be bad or a liar until he receives his punishment”. 
Zera Yacob(1599-1692)

“Who must we blame for all these wild changes? Obviously, it is the black man himself”.  
Joseph Bantu (1989) 

Meskel Square, a place found in the middle of the city is known to host different historical, cultural, political and economic activities for more than half a millennium. Following the fall of the monarchy in 1974, Meskel Square was renamed "Abyot" or Revolution Square and witnessed a popular political demonstration. In the early hours of 21 May 1991, Lt Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, President of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, took off from Addis Ababa where the President went into exile in Zimbabwe, ending seventeen years of military Marxist rule and the so-called Dergue regime.  The short-lived government of General Tesfaye Gebre Kidan restored the original name of Meskel Square. Nowadays, the square is often also used for other secular purposes, such as concerts, parades, car races, and various other government and public events. Despite all of that, in July 2018, Meskel Square became the last place to snatch Mr. Simegnew Bekele's soul.

It was a shocking incident for the general public. The death of Simegnew, ex-chief project manager of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, took the hopes of many Ethiopian children, youths and elders. For the funeral procession, all Addis Ababans, irrespective of religion, language, ethnicity, or gender, headed to Meskel Square.  It was a heartbreaking situation for the people. 

Matina Stevis-Gridneff, Africa correspondent for the Wall Street Journal who knew Mr. Simegnew, told to the BBC’s that; “He was not a 'big man,'" referencing Mr. Simegnew's honest nature. "He behaved as if he was one of the laborers working on the project." This reminds me of the slogan, “She was like one of us”, displayed after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

In the early hours of the morning, on Sunday, 31 August 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales, died in a car crash in Paris. Within hours of the news breaking, people started to gather outside Kensington Palace, bringing with them flowers to lay at the gates. Images of these early mourners, visibly shocked and often in tears, and vox pop interviews instantaneously filled television screens around the world, as saturation media coverage was unleashed, and the drama of Diana’s death began to unfold. 

Sasha Roseneil (2011) reminded us that the tone of the extraordinary week that followed was presaged in those first few hours, by the strikingly various individuals who expressed their emotion in public. Despite their differences in origin, ethnicity, age, or gender, crowds demonstrated their reaction to the news, and their diversity placed its imprint on the occasion from the outset.

In the immediate aftermath of Diana’s death, there was a huge commentary and reflection on various aspects of that week. Journalists, historians, psychologists, political scientists, feminist theorists, as well as drama, communication, and cultural-studies writers were among those who analysed the situation.  Much of this had to do with Diana herself, and the stories that were told of her, through exploring her iconic, celebrity status and the radicality of her position as a woman and in relation to the monarchy (Barcan 1997, Blackmann 1999, Davies 1999, Nunn 1999, Attwood 1999, Cox 1999).

Some writers have addressed wider questions about changing attitudes to the monarchy and about the constitution and governance of the nation (Barnett and Bourne Taylor 1999, Gibson 1999, Hey 1999), while others have discussed the question of the meaning of the public’s emotional response from a wide range of viewpoints – left and right, feminist, psychoanalytic, optimistic, pessimistic, and agnostic (Rose 1999, Watts 1999, Wilson 1997). 

Although it has been four months after Simegnew’s death, I still can’t find a well- articulated piece of work regarding his legacy, commitment, discipline, and mystery of death.  Why? For how much longer? In my opinion, it is crucial to check our moral and related affairs. After his sudden death, I had expectations for the society, the institution and the government to come together in solidarity. I was wrong. Why are things falling apart? I wonder many times, are Ethiopians doomed?

Moral Bankruptcy

As historian Eric Hobsbawm (1994) observes, the years since 1975 have seen ‘the greatest, most rapid and most fundamental [set of changes] in recorded history’. Similarly, as an anthropologist, I observed that in the past three years, unprecedented and unimaginable things are happening in Ethiopia. Our demographic change has shaken the social interaction of urban and rural life. Unemployment and hopelessness have cracked the ruling political organization. Moreover, history and social media have also played an irreplaceable role.

Moreover, change is now such a crucial part of life that no-one expects things to remain the same for decades. On the contrary, we live with the expectation that our ways of life are unstable, and that the only surety is that things will continue to change. Frank Webster (2001) argued that within its symbolic meanings and social interactions, our senses form into a patterned sensibility, our movements meet resistance and find directions, and our subjectivity emerges, takes shape, and reflexively shapes our local world. 

Currently, in every corner of the country Ethiopia, people feel insecure. Uncertainty has controlled the mood of our society. The public's trust in religious, governmental, traditional institutions and NGO’s is very low. The most concerning questions for me are , where is the fate of our moral philosophy? Why does society turn its back on those moral rules? Where are our moral leaders?

Some of the greatest contributions to the study of morality and human rights were the result of reflections by philosophers and social scientists that lived in periods of turmoil in their countries. For example, Thomas Hobbes fled to France and provided translations into English of his earlier works in Latin and wrote new books at the time of the civil war in England. His contributions to the state of nature, ethical egoism, and social contract resulted from his reflections of the political turmoil in his country (internet access 2018). 

At about the same time Philosopher Zera Yacob has made great contributions to the comprehension of ethics and morality. He lived a century when Ethiopia faced religious conflict, and exactly when emperors of Orthodox were replaced by those of Catholic faith and back again by those of the Orthodox. He was tormented in the reign of Susneyos, the Catholic emperor, and was self-exiled to a remote part of Ethiopia, Infraz. He argued that will is the ultimate source of morality and he inferred that God is revealed to reason and debunked organized religion as the way to comprehend God. 

In the cave, Dag Herbjørnsrud developed his new, rationalist philosophy. He believed in the supremacy of reason, and that all humans – male or female – are created equal. He argued against slavery, critiqued all established religions and doctrines, and combined these views with a personal belief in a theistic Creator, reasoning that the world’s order makes it the most rational option.

According to James W. Gray (2010) morality within the ordinary language can be illustrated by comparing moral and nonmoral standards. Morality involves what we ought to do, right and wrong, good and bad, values, justice, and virtues. Morality is taken to be important; moral actions are often taken to merit praise and rewards, and immoral actions are often taken to merit blame and punishment. Additionally, morality is about making good choices that promote certain good rather than impedes them. Most people accept that certain good, such as human life and happiness, should be promoted and not impeded.

Gamo’s Guidelines

On the job, Zambian supervisors are "only looking out for themselves." Unlike the white colonial supervisors, many informants insisted that the black Zambians are corrupt and selfish and have no regard for their workers. Moreover, there was a consensus that these same moral flaws could be located in the workers, who, I was told, are "lazy," "thieving," and "selfish." The government, of course, received its share of the blame: informants considered civil servants corrupt and "out for themselves." But such moral blame was by no means restricted to government and industry. Indeed, what was most striking was the way that the cardinal fault of "selfishness" was applied most vigorously to the "self." The most sweeping moral judgments often began with the word "we."

The above paragraph was quoted from a book called “Expectations of Modernity” by James Ferguson (1999). It clearly shows that how the current Ethiopians moral crisis is similar to the former Zambians. I heard many times the words “who cares” “I don’t care” “It is not my business bro” “they and us” ...this is in our daily life and daily narrative.

So, what shall we do?

The death of Diana was a moment of moral remaking, which enacted a collective reaching, a yearning, for a new moral order, and that it can be read as an instantiation of a postmodern ethics-politics. I want to suggest that it is of importance to understandings of contemporary politics, where ‘the political’ is understood as thoroughly imprecated with ‘the cultural’, and where cultural politics, performed outside the conventional institutions of ‘politics’, have at their core a concern with ethics. Correspondingly, we should use the same thing after the death of Simegnew Bekele, the project manager of the multi-billion-dollar Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Durkheim (1915) also suggests that moral remaking cannot be achieved except by the means of reunions, assemblies, and meetings where the individuals through unity, reaffirm their common sentiments. Family, religion, and schools are major institutions in which to develop our moral knowledge and experience. However, through time our institutions are becoming dysfunctional.  A big assignment awaits researchers and other professionals regarding the investigation, analysis, and interpretation of the institutions. It will be good to restore our local institutions into their previous quality. Thanks to the Gamo elders, I am hopeful that this will be achieved. They remind us that our beloved country, Ethiopia has and will continue to have a great tradition, wise cultural leaders and a bright youth. Yes, I am hopeful for one day... 

“God the master of morality created man to choose to be good or bad”.

Zera Yacob(1599-1692)