“Barbarism or Civilization: Which Way Liberia?”
By Tarnue Johnson
April 29, 2004
This essay is a critical account about some of the underlying causes of the breakdown of order and civility in the Liberian society. It is also a narrative about the reasons for hope and a possibility of social transformation in a land of false starts and second chances. After more than 150 years of national existence, the vision and task of building a black civilization based on order and a distinctive national consciousness remain elusive. The situation in Liberia today demands that the social analyst must revisit some of the great debates that took place at the beginning of state formation in the middle of the 19th century. In undertaking this task, we must proceed armed with our openness, permeable and inclusive perspectives. We must also do this with the emotional readiness and tenacity to anticipate organizational and structural change.
Thus it is significant to view and bring into critical awareness, the relationship between the assimilationist ideology of Hilary Teage (1840s) or of C. L. Simpson (1960s) and state failure in Liberia. The assimilitionist ideology of Hilary Teage was propagated in the spirit of the French revolution of 1789 and the European enlightenment--which proclaimed a superior western civilization that Africa could, aspired to (see Dunn and Tarr, 1985). But with what degrees of confidence could one argue that our failure to build a nation at ease with itself results from the earlier “consensus” among a core of repatriate political rulers-- that assimilation was better than integration--- under the banner of an authentic African consciousness?
What is the meaning of civilization within the particularistic Liberian context? To what extent have our attempts to uncritically assimilate the historical and cultural experiences of the West resulted in a miserable failure? How can we deconstruct the ahistoricism and some of the myths about the lack of vitality and pertinence of African culture? How could we possibly do this in a deliberate attempt to fashion a new interpretive framework amenable to the challenges of a modern epoch? These are some of the issues that have preoccupied and seized my attention in this article. I will provide some clues to the aforementioned questions departing from the lessons of history, tradition, culture and transactional relations between the two major ethnic and socio-historical entities that came to constitute the Liberian polity over the span of many decades.
A theory of history and social progress
For over 15 decades the Liberian experiment in development or social progress has been a tortured one. This is not to suggest that this noble enterprise at historical progress could be deemed as being humanly impossible. Such assumptions would be further from the truth. There is no other way to describe them. This great historic mission to unlock the mysteries of progress cannot be deemed as a fiat accompli indeed. For to argue that would amount to ignoring the general trend of historical progress over many years of existence, which leads to more enlightenment and not less, albeit often in a nonlinear fashion. As when we saw a total breakdown of any semblance of civilization under the aegis of national socialism in Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s and 40s.
The general trend of historical progress leads to new and improved ways of being, centering belief systems, validation, cognition and the elaboration of more complex and conceptual principles of action. It inexorably leads to the development of economic and institutional rationalization and cultural foundations. Progress leads to the development of social relations and the refinement of techniques that enable harmonious coexistence and all forms of democratic pluralism. Progress further leads to the development and refinement of constitutional frameworks to regulate economic exchange and monitor the perversion of society by putting breaks on all forms of deviance that challenge our notions and commitment to a moral heritage. It also leads to the regulation of all forms of authority and the bureaucratic system so that they may become enablers not fetters on the further development of individuals, civil society and the state system.
The tendencies of historical progress have led to the formation of universalist ideals such as liberty, solidarity and the notion of natural rights. It has led to the unprecedented accentuation of agency and new articulations of global forces in the spheres of social and economic relations. These tendencies or processes of becoming have seamlessly seen the withering away of the old and the coming into being of the new in accordance with governing laws and principles of history and nature. Frederick Engels (p.3) is very eloquent on this notion of change and continuity in his treatise on Feuerbach:
…Truth lay now in the process of cognition itself, in the long historical development of science, which mounts from lower to ever higher levels of knowledge without ever reaching, by discovering absolute truth, a point at which it can proceed no further, where it would have nothing more to do than to fold its hands and gaze with wonder at the absolute truth it has attained. And what holds good for the realm of philosophical knowledge holds good also for that of every other kind of knowledge and also for practical action. Just as knowledge is unable to reach a complete conclusion in a perfect, ideal condition of humanity, so is also history unable to do so; a perfect society, a perfect “state”, are things which can only exist in the imagination.”
The process of historical development is always imperfect as are the categories of thought and action. I am inclined to emphasize that it took the West almost a thousand years from the Greek city-states, the Magna Carta in 1215 to the continental United States, to give us what we today perceive as liberal democracy. Even at that, only a few would argue that liberal democracy among the Anglo Saxons, Celtic, and Germanic peoples is not vastly a work in progress. Who would argue that the constitutional monarchy in Japan is at most imperfect? Who would argue that liberal or capitalist democracy by canonizing the logic of competition engendered the worst forms of colonial exploitation and plantation slavery? Cultural and historical imperfections are facts of life because they powerfully reflect the unsettling nature of human reality.
But cultural, institutional and historical imperfections do not signal preordained cataclysms and uncontrollable disruptions in the path to a humane and civic order. Not even in Liberia, which has seen too much chaos in these last 14 years. What one must realize is the existence of potentialities and possibilities as ontological facts. In effect, the theory of chaos as one might express through the unity of opposites is also a theory about the constitution of order. This assertion is predicated upon an understanding of the imperatives of practical reason in the explanation of history and society. It is an understanding of chaos that suggests that where there is chaos and barbarism, there is every possibility for the emergence of social order and civilization. And no human society is exempted from the workings of this null hypothesis. The existence of dualism within the very nature of Liberian society is an empirical fact.
Dualism as a constitutive variable suggests that in Liberia, you have
a modern sector of education and socialization complimented by a traditional
sector that carry out more or less similar functions in specific cognitive
and conative domains. These two sectors tend to interact negatively
or positively pending on the nature and structure of the interaction.
Thus in this formulation one views an almost mathematical identity in
the form (x=y) between order and civilization on the one hand, and chaos
and barbarism on the other. Another way of looking at this formulation
is to evoke the basic propositions of Hegelian logic. This concerns
the logic of an identity condition that postulates that two contradictory
phenomena may have the same referent but a different mode of presentation.
Michel Foucault (1961) refers to this as the hermeneutic conundrum from
which we can conclude that the accepted notion of reason can be defined
by the negative qualities of unreason. The challenge of virtually recreating
the Liberian state and all its social and authority systems in the face
of great historic failures consists in this singular realization. What
is important here to note is that all societies go through social change
and how they manage or mismanage such change makes a difference between
being in a state of barbarism or a state of civilization and social
order. I will return to this point later in the section on the secular
and the divine in transformation.
The search for civilization and social order
Throughout history mankind has always sought for the most optimal system that engenders a sense of community and shared identity. In the history of humans the transition from hunter-gatherer to communal and civic consciousness was a remarkable process and achievement. I would argue that there was a seed of progress rooted in the very nature of human cognition and social reality that would facilitate this process. Never in the evolution of our social consciousness could one envision that this seed of progress would come to bare fruits thousands of years ago. The germination of this seed inexorably led to the dawn of civilization and the consolidation of forms of order. We have also seen higher forms of cognition and linguistic consciousness, and their attendant social and historical contradictions, as we perceive them to be. All these natural and socio-historical contours have solidified the movement of human beings since the dawn of civilization to more complex and elaborate forms of understanding of cause and effect, order and civility.
This process of the search for order or normal existence has been crystallized both in the temporal and spiritual dimensions of human existence and essences from antiquity up to present. We see this in the so-called primordial forms of religion. We see it also in the more systematic and rational theologies as well as mythologies of the ancient Hebrews of Western Asia and inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent. We also see this attempt to impose spiritual order on a chaotic universe through the teachings of Jesus Christ as handed down to us through the canonical gospels and the Gnostic tradition. In their attempts to impose order and explain the origins of the universe, the ancient Egyptians held that the universe evolved from chaotic matter, which was in essence the equivalent of non-being.
This is a concept of the evolution of matter and its manifestations from being created in potentiality to being created in actuality. All matter are said to be created in potentiality before being created in actuality, which is the same as in Plato’s “the Same and the Other” the theory of reminiscences, etc. or Aristotle’s matter and privation, potentiality and actuality etc. (see Diop, 1991) The materialist component of Egyptian thought would also later prevailed among the Greek and Latin Atomists, Democratus, Epicurus and Lucretius (ibid).
We see that the Egyptian cosmogony is materialistic up to this point by professing a materialist stance when postulating the existence of an uncreated matter, “excluding nothingness and containing its own principle of evolution as an intrinsic property” (ibid, p.311). However, with the appearance of the demiurge or Ra the cosmogony of ancient Egypt takes on a new dimension with the infusion of an idealist component. In this new cosmological framework, Ra achieves creation through the word as in the objective idealism of Hegel or the Judeo-Christian paradigms. Indeed, in the book of Genesis Moses says “ in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, or void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said let there be light: and there was light.” (Genesis, 1:1-3). Thus in this formulation the universe is created through the word and not from the category of potentiality. It is created from a state of nothingness. This explanation is to demonstrate the antecedent or parenthood of Egyptian and African civilization in terms of subsequent evolutions in the varying fields of intellectual and social thought especially in classical times. Hence, the indelible imprints of Africa on all of classical scholarship and religious thought is historically self-evident.
John Henrik Clarke (see Diop, 1981) has suggested how great masterpieces of Egyptian history was for a long time deliberately ignored by mainstream western historians in their bid to construct the false assumption that Egyptian civilization was white. These works include but not limited to the following: Gerald Massey’s great classic, Ancient Egypt: The Light of the World (1907); Politics, Intercourse, and Trade of the Carthaginians and Ethiopians by A. Heereen (1833) and The Ruins of Empire by Count C. F. Volney (1787).
In his work, Egypt, Sir E.A. Willis Budge comments (ibid, p. xix):
The prehistoric native of Egypt, both in the old and new stone Age, was African, and there is every reason for saying that the earliest settlers came from the South.
He further goes on to comment:
There are many things in the manners and customs and religions of the historic Egyptians that suggest that the original home of their ancestors was in a country in the neighborhood of Uganda and Punt.
In the realms of ontological and objective existence, we know that we cannot proceed with the requisite certainty within a class system or a system of power and social relations, without a profound sense or some degree of confidence in the stability of the social order. This social order or normal forms of existence or what I would civilization is often challenge by the lack of equilibrium between private and public interests in the most varying social systems. This lack of equilibrium can lead to chaos, social revolutions or the dethroning of the earlier civilization. Max Weber has captured this process in terms of the nature of power and forms of authority through ideal types as standard analytical constructs.
The consequences of the breakdown of order come to life through the imaginations of William Shakespeare in one of his numerous plays and poems. In Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida written shortly after Hamlet (1600-1601); Ulysses speaks of the ideal natural order while at the same time plotting to employ stratagems based on the realities of power. In the opening lines to the passage Shakespeare writes:
The heavens themselves, the planets, and this center (earth)
Observe degree, priority, and place,
Insisture [constancy], course, proportion, season, form,
Office, and custom, in all line of order.
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered……Force should be right, or rather right and wrong
Between whose endless jar [battle] justice resides
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then everything include itself in power
Power into will, will into appetite,
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.
(Troilus and Cressida 1.3.85-124 also see http://web.uvic.ca/shakespeare)
In Ulysses world, power has become the center of everything. Shakespeare tells us that the trappings of his perceived might within the social order blind Ulysses, but it is this blindness that ultimately leads to his undoing. In this play we read a process of ascendance or an allegory that speaks to the dark side of power especially when it is abused and misused. Recent Liberian history tells us a thing or two about the decomposition of power within a social order especially when its primary nature and limits are misperceived. The downfall of the True Whig Party, Doe regime, and of the Taylor regime reveals that blatant disregard for the rule of law by erecting illigimate structures of domination does not last long. It can be only a passing fad and it has tremendous consequences for the building of social order and a civilization.
The lesson to draw from these episodes is that all illigimate forms of authority that are constituted outside a popular consensus are doomed to fail. This is the Liberian historical experience. I would assume that the decomposition of such authority is occasioned by the very logic of the process of rationalization and enlightenment in history. Weber has commented on this question of the dissolution of illegitimate authority as we can see in the remark by Parkin (1982,p.75):
“Weber was most aware than most that the history of political systems was not exactly a chronicle of the affections displayed by the lowly towards their masters. His assumption seems to have been that regimes cannot exist by coercion alone, and that some degree of moral support from below is necessary to the long term survival of any authority system…Regimes that fail to establish such claims are presumably distained for the rubbish-tip of history.”
Politics and the development of consciousness
The exercise of politics suggests that it is not only the art of the possible but it is also the product of consciousness. We generate our strategies and tools, symbols and mental models for problem solving from within our minds both intuitively and rationally. Contemporary neurological research conforms the place and centrality of consciousness in all human actions and learning. Gustavsson and Harung (1994,p.1) have indicated that “previous research indicate that there are a number of distinct stages of psychological development of an individual’s consciousness, and that the level of development has a direct bearing on a person’s perception of reality and his ability to perform—professionally and socially.” Consciousness in this heuristic context is therefore the source of all misery and misconceived actions, and yet the source of all happiness and organizational well being. Thus, what we feel through our sense perceptions is ultimately what we do as actors on the historical stage. This is the thought-praxis nexus that we must understand along the path to greater enlightenment and higher levels of cognition, reflexivity and self-examination.
I have argued that the gateway to social change in Liberia requires a foundational and radical transformation in our consciousness both individually and collectively. My central message in critical analysis for the past four years in the particular fields of learning and social action is that our frames of reference, which underguide our thoughts and actions, are determined by our consciousness. I see the role of consciousness as one, which might alternatively energize or corrode the enterprise of recreating the Liberian state. Thus in this vein it is reasonable to affirm that at the heart of the challenge of national renewal lays a critical awareness. Now what is this critical awareness? How does it affect the equilibrium between private and public interests in the constitution of order in the Liberian case?
Critical awareness is a particular type of awareness arising from our consciousness that yields self-examination and reflective judgment in response to a continuum of experiences. Relying upon Mead’s ideas of mindedness, Goff noted that the capacity for critical reflection requires a developed mind and life experiences (Haddad, 2003). Mead intimates that the initial development of the mind and our sense of self, which develops through social interaction, must begin by internalizing existing knowledge structures (ibid, p.53). As such the existing meanings and social arrangements into which each child is born become part of the earliest definitions of self and world. For social transformation to occur Goff noted that the actor must not only actively protest against internalized images and ideas about reality and self, but must also communicate this to others and engage in the difficult task of convincing others to oppose accepted definitions of self. This conclusion to me is the challenge of both activism and scholarship in Liberia today. We must develop appropriate institutions to arrest the process of alienation, which is so pervasive among the youth and many of our current factional and rebel leaders. Alienation and chronic illiteracy are the two most corrosive factors that undermine the forging of a collective national consciousness. In a rather curious way one could postulate that alienation is a source of selfishness because it leads to a lack of hope in the principle of common destiny and collective interdependence.
Goff (ibid, p.53) has further proposed that in order to understand how reified structures predominate over reflexivity based in praxis, analysts should examine the extent to which structural arrangements isolate individuals from direct and lived experiences that challenge reified structures. Such structural arrangements are manifested in formal institutions of socialization (such as schools and religious institutions) that transmit values outside concrete structures in which they have meaning and in institutionalized structural arrangements that serve to separate individuals into small cliques that isolate them from larger communal realities and interests. As the result of this process of alienation from communal realities, the interest of the few is placed above the interest of society. Parochial notions of protecting the interest of the tribe in this equation becomes more important then the interest of the nation. The interest of the self becomes a rallying call as being antithetical to the interests of the Other.
Constructive developmental theory suggests that a form of knowing always consists of the relationship or temporary equilibrium between the subject and the object. This is a developmental process by which what was subject in our knowing becomes an object. This is the same as transformational learning because it focuses on the process of meaning becoming clarified. It leads to greater control over thinking, feeling and will. It makes the actor to become more reflective in their decision making so that they may act when it becomes feasible.
The subject-object relationship always forms the core of an epistemology (Kegan, 2000). The object describes the thoughts and feelings we have. The subject refers to the thoughts and feelings that we cannot separate from. It is those thoughts and feelings that exist within us (ibid). The process of development of consciousness becomes a process of transformation of subject into object in terms of our ways of knowing and validation. Such transformation can be reflected in all aspects of our lives including politics, professional commitment and the commitment to one’s family and community. There is a famous late 19th century literary example of transformation adopted from the closing scene of Ibsen’s play called a Doll’s House by Robert Kegan---and it reads as follows (pp54-57):
Nora: I mean, and then I passed from papa’s hands into yours. You arranged everything the way you wanted it, so that I simply took over your taste in everything- or pretended I did- I don’t really know. I think it was a little of both- first one and then the other. Now I look back on it, it’s as if I’ve been living here like a pauper, from hand to mouth. I performed tricks for you, and you gave me food and drink. But that was how you wanted it. You and papa have done me a great wrong. It’s your fault that I have done nothing in my life.
Torvald: Nora, how can you be so unreasonable and ungrateful? Haven’t you been happy here?
Nora: No; never. I used to think I was; but I haven’t ever been happy.
Torvald: Not- not happy?
Nora: No. I’ve just had fun. You’ve always been very kind to me. But our home has never been anything but a playroom. I’ve been your doll-wife just as I used to be Papa’s doll-child. And the children have been my dolls. I used to think it was fun when you came in and played with me, just as they think it’s fun when I go in and play games with them. That’s all our marriage has been, Torvald.
Torvald: There might be a little truth in what you say, though you exaggerate and romanticize. But from now on it’ll be different. Playtime is over. Now the time has come for education.
Nora: Whose education? Mine or the children?
Torvald: Both yours and the children’s, my dearest Nora.
Nora: Oh, Torvald, you’re not the man to educate me into being the right wife for you.
Torvald: How can you say that?
Nora: And what about me? Am I fit to educate the children?
Nora: Didn’t you say yourself a few minutes ago that you dare not leave them in my charge!
Torvald: In a moment of excitement. Surely you don’t think I meant it seriously?
Nora: Yes. You were perfectly right. I’m not fit to educate them. There’s something else I must do first. I must educate myself. And you can’t help me with that. It’s something I must do by myself. That’s why I am leaving you.
Torvald [jumps up]: What did you say?
Nora: I must stand on my own feet if I am to find out the truth about myself and about life. So I can’t go on living here with you any longer.
Torvald: Nora, Nora!
Nora: I’m leaving you now, at once. Christine will put me up for tonight—
Torvald: You’re out of your mind! You can’t do this! I forbid you!
Nora: It’s no use you’re trying to forbid me any more. I shall take with me nothing but what is mine. I don’t want anything from you, now or ever.
Torvald: What kind of madness is this?
Nora: Oh, Torvald, I don’t know what religion means.
Torvald: What are you saying?
Nora: I only know what Pastor Hansen told me when I went to confirmation. He explained that religion meant this and that. When I get away from all this and can think things out on my own, that’s one of the questions I want to look into. I want to find out whether what Pastor Hansen said was right---or anyway, whether it is right for me.
Torvald: But it’s unheard of for so young a woman to behave like this! If religion cannot guide you, let me appeal to your conscience. I presume you have some moral feelings left? Or---perhaps you haven’t? Well, answer me.
Nora: Oh, Torvald, that isn’t an easy question to answer. I simply don’t know. I don’t know where I am in these matters. I only know that these things mean something quite different to me from what they do to you.
Nora is not just changing her mind in the sense that she is becoming
less persuaded by formerly held ideas and beliefs and more persuaded
by an emerging set of ideas. She is coming to a new set of ideas about
her ideas, about the sources of these ideas, about who authorizes them
or make them true. In effect, Nora is rejecting her identification with
prior assumptions, feelings and beliefs as given truths. The forms of
knowing that gave rise to her beliefs have been transformed from external
identification to internal authority (ibid, p.58-59). It is this type
of cognitive transformation that is synonymous with critical awareness.
Critical awareness, which is the gist of critical consciousness counterpoises
Marx’s or Geuss’ formulations of false consciousness. Geuss
(as cited in Mezirow, 1985,p.145) has identified false consciousness
as a falsely perceived ideology that fosters dependency relationships
through the force of tradition and external identification.
The secular and the divine in transformation
This section seeks to elaborate on the secular and spiritual dimensions of traditional systems and methods of socialization in Liberia. There are elements of personal and social transformation within these systems that have been used for many generations to secure order and civilization. What is important to stress, however, is that these methods of personal and social transformations can be misappropriated pending on the predispositions and ideological orientations of political and social agents. In 1991 at the height of the civil war in Liberia—Cuttington University College administrator Mr. Henrique Tokpa made this observation about the behavior of young rebel fighters on the Cuttington Campus during the early stages of the war (1991p.87):
“Many of the men wore wedding gowns, wigs, dresses, commencement gowns from high schools, and several forms of ‘voodoo’ regalia. All rebels wore cotton strings around the wrist and around the neck and shoulder. They all displayed black tattoos on the arm, slightly below the shoulder. They believed that any person who wore these talismans and tattoos, and strictly adhered to the laws of not eating, pumpkin, having sex, touching lime and taking bath, could not be killed in battle by enemy fire. Because of the importance of this ‘bullet proof’ protection, there was a medicine man in residence at the Cuttington training base to administer these medicines at the end of their military training.”
These recruits had undergone a process of ritual initiation typical of traditional initiation schools that stress the symbolic nature of ritual as a manifestation of the transformation of children into adulthood. The process of transformation has both secular and spiritual implications in the initiation schools or societies particularly those of the Poro. Apart from the educational and spiritual track, both the Poro and Sande also have a political dimension. They have served as stabilizing elements whose religious and social control were conducive to maintaining public order in the pre and post republican era in Liberia. The Poro since its emergence around the sixteenth century has displayed amazing flexibility and “ capacity for accommodation, seeking often to validate adaptations and thereby securing its continuing legitimacy.” (Sawyer, 1992,p.50).
Sawyer (ibid) citing d’Azevedo has intimated that the Poro “provided a sacred and secret arm of political authority and intergroup diplomacy that helped to maintain stability through appeal to the gerontocratic and hierarchical principles derived from the ideal model of the ranked-lineage structure.” The Sande has been used as an instrument to inculcate modern conceptions of maternity and childcare as well as traditional ones. But what is of significance in this section is the role of the Poro as an instrument of personal and social transformation. This developmental process of change into adulthood is also usually perceived as a person entering the spirit world and returning to his community as a new being.
One distinguishing characteristic of people undergoing such experience is that they are regarded as being potentially dangerous because they do not fit into a specific category of behavior (Ellis, 1997). Elias Canetti (cited in Ellis, 1997) has described this state of being as one of a liminal condition. This liminal condition is exceptional in that “ it is often marked by ritual drama, which is in effect an attempt to manage change through religion.” The liminal condition is an intermediate zone of identity transformation. It is highly delicate and therefore many things can go wrong when it is poorly managed as we saw in the case of the terrible atrocities that were committed by adolescent boys while dressed in women’s clothing.
Ellis (ibid) has addressed the distinctive dress style of initiates as a symbolic feature of the elements of spiritual and ontological transformations. Young rebels wearing such regalia are saying that they are going through an intermediate zone of transition and therefore they are dangerous. What is important to note here is how the warring factions in Liberia from the 1990s up to present, have misused the rituals of initiation of our traditional societies to their selfish ends. There is the reality or mystique of the diving king that speaks to how symbols of the Poro have been misappropriated for the wrong reasons. The divine king is the one who directs the transformation of others but he by all accounts is not subject to self-transformation. And herein lies the mystique of his powers- he changes others but he cannot change (ibid). In other words, he has unlimited powers to determine the rules of the game while at the same time not subject to those rules. Canetti (see ibid) believes that the figure of the divine king has had a decisive influence on our modern conception of power in that the state could easily usurp the powers of the divine king. The divine king in the context of conflicts in Liberia and West Africa could be a rebel leader (Charles Taylor, Alhaji Kromah, Sekou Conneh) or the zoes hired by them to do their biding.
At the end of the process of transformation or rite of passage occasioned by the Poro is rebirth whereby a person becomes born again. The expectation of this new person is to be reintegrated into society on the basis of the new outlook. This process is akin to other modern concepts of personal transformation in some respects. For example, the last stage of Mezirow’s perspective transformation involves the reintegration into society on the basis of the conditions dictated by the new perspective or critical consciousness. This critical consciousness which one receives after perspective transformation makes one a productive member of a civilization and a more civically responsible person opened to new perspectives and change. Labouvie-Vief (see Brookfield, 1988,p.323) believed that one of the structural transitions of adulthood was to achieve new integration in which initially de-contextualized logic was to become re-embedded in its social context. An example of perspective transformation through critical reflection can be cited at work in the mind of the African Patriot Nelson Mandela (Daloz, 2000,p.57):
“I was struck most forcefully by the discrepancy between my old assumptions and my actual experience. I had discarded my presumptions that graduates automatically became leaders and that my connection to the Thembu royal house guaranteed me respect. Having a successful career and a comfortable salary were no longer my ultimate goals. I found myself being drawn into the world of politics because I was not content with my old beliefs.”
This is another example of perspective transformation of one of the informants I worked with at a local college in Chicago in 2003:
“Going to college has allowed me to grow up in a way that I never expected. I used to have a short temper but I no longer have that. Everything I am learning in college has helped me to see things in a different way. I apply what I am learning to solve real life problems and that is great.”
Although the volitional and rational nature of perspective transformation makes it different from the Poro initiation and its esoteric rituals, there are similarities in terms of the educational end product of all personal transformations in both the spiritual and secular domains. These educational values include respect and care for the elderly, consensus decision making, as well as respect for spiritual and secular authority. Beryl L. Bellman (1984) in his book the Language of Secrecy had this exchange with an informant regarding some aspects of the training that Poro society initiates undergo:
BLB: I was told that there are certain laws that, let’s say, if you are walking in the bush like this and someone comes this side, that you always go to one side and you do not split up into two sides and let the person pass between you. I was told that was a law of Poro.
BLB: What other kinds of laws are there?
Flomo: Like for a typical example, if I go back there and I get there, any of those boys see me, they have to bend down until I pass. That is the respect and the training they undergo. Two, when you are walking on the road and you find someone coming and you people are two walking, you go one side and they pass one side; they shouldn’t pass between you because the person that has the bad luck carrying and he passes between you, it will stay on you. You see, these are the things. The next thing for respect, again because they are more likely teaching that they have to respect people on it, those are some of the things. If you see someone coming with a load on his or her head, you excuse the person’s pass; you don’t allow the person to get into the bush; you go to the side of the road and the person passes. And then you get there.
BLB: And what other kinds of things do they learn for respect?
Flomo: The kind of things for respect? Like if I see any of my elder, some old Pa, uh, and I want to shake their hand, I take off my hat and I shake the person’s hand. You see I don’t leave the hat on and shake the person’s hand. You see only a Poro man should do that. Like a typical example, when I am sitting, I see any of the old people, coming I get up and let them sit down. I am supposed to stand. When we are eating, I am supposed to hold the can with my hand and we eat.
Western education in Liberia is the most important criterion or component of civilization. But what this assumption ignores is that civilization as I am describing it predates western education. For example, the Babylonians, Nubians or ancient Ethiopians did not have a system of western education, as we know it and these are precisely the antecedents and sources of western civilization. A civilized man is also one who wears western dress and shoes and lives in a western styled house with western styled furniture in it (Moran, 1990). These are the outward signs of civilization in Liberia, which can be described at best as superficial. For, the business of civilization is much more serious then one’s taste in clothes and shoes. There is also a gender construction of civilization, which in most instances works against the economic and social empowerment of women. Moran has stated (ibid, p.70) that “ A civilized woman without an employed man, however, is in the unenviable position of being virtually unable to support herself and her children, and there are many in these straits who depend on relatives and boyfriends for a precarious existence.”
One can see that in the past there was a system of acculturation whose
basic premises and assumptions were wrong. Hence, where weak and blundering
policies failed to accomplish acculturation, they created opportunities
for exploitation by the ruling elites and their henchmen in the interior.
However, President Arthur Barclay, like Blyden and John Payne Jackson
had argued, tried to fashion a policy of government that would be amenable
to the demands of an African setting. Barclay argued for wider and deeper
culture and an intimate intercourse with indigenous culture (Johnson,
1987). Although the form and content of his approach may not have been
properly conceptualized, it came closed to anything resembling a cultural
synthesis as a blue print for social policy. Today one can argue that
the basic framework of this cultural synthesis places premium on the
possibility of social and personal transformation--- such as the hope
and faith that human beings can become better and improved actors on
the historical stage in terms of their thought and action. The basic
logic imbedded in this assumption is that a civilized society is one,
which manages all forms of transformations as an elementary principle
of self-preservation and achieving what I would call functional equilibrium.
This is what at a deeper epistemological level the esoteric rituals
of the Poro and Sande are all about. It is also what the rationalist
tradition and perspective transformation in the corpus of adult development
is all about.
Which Way Liberia?
Today there is a complete breakdown of order in Liberia even as the current interim administration and the United Nations take some positive steps toward creating a new future. The international community can play its part to change Liberia, but Liberians must be willing psychologically to facilitate this process. Thus, the fundamental question of which way we should proceed in building a viable and sustainable path to the future is purely a matter of enlightened choice. It is a choice to be made for civilization or barbarism as I have described them; it is a choice for anarchy or for a stable social order.
There is no doubt that the post-independence period in Liberia began with a false start as I have alluded to in the introductory section of this paper. Freepong (http://www.valt.helsink) has argued that one of the reasons for which Liberia failed to attained successful statehood was its inability to confront the crisis of identity at the beginning of its formation. He has suggested that this crisis of identity is one of several crises that must be resolved at the beginning of state formation (ibid). The author goes on to assert that by confronting this issue of cultural identity, people learn to identify themselves as citizens of the nation state, rather than as members of provincial entities and particular ethnic sub-groups.
Regrettably, the type of effort and existential exercise emphasized by Freepong was not successfully undertaken at the beginning in Liberia, but this task must now be reevaluated in approaching the future. This task involves new approaches, perspectives, consciousness, and a new pan ethnic civilization that values civil and communicative democracy and action. It also involves the creation of a new covenant with the Liberian people undergirded by a cultural synthesis that ensure economic security and the infusion of a moral purpose in the historical project of recreating the Liberian state. Thus the post war cultural situation must transcend the impediments of the old divisions and reified economic and social structures put in place by men who did not understand the finer details and vitality of African culture.
The democratically elected government must take these actions to set the country on a path of sustained and democratic development. This democratic government should be constituted on the basis of open and fair elections without prejudice and biases in favor of a particular political party. There are many policy and private decisions that will follow the building of a post civil war society in Liberia. But these are some of the actions and practices that must be eventually encouraged at this current stage of historical development in Liberia in order to create a climate accommodating to social change:
i) There should be concrete policy action to promote linkages between various levels of education in the country. There must also be efforts to promote peace and civic education to promote peace and to develop capacities for national reconciliation and long-term political sustainability.
ii) Postsecondary institutions should be given financial and material incentives to develop and implement curriculum frameworks that incorporate the value of experiential learning and the cultural knowledge of those participating in educational programs at all levels including adult and professional education. These efforts may also be geared at improving and making more relevant the accelerated learning programs that are currently being supported by international donor agencies.
iii) Recognize the fact that a theory of consciousness is critical to understanding the foundations of the breakdown of institutional practices as have occurred in Liberia. My doctoral research (see Johnson, 2003) has reaffirmed the essential thesis and rendering of critical theory that communicative learning through critical reflection and rational discourse are important in a civilization. They are important because they are critical elements in fostering cultural and civic competence. These two categories of communicative learning are significant to understanding the psychology of personal and social transformation and forms of construal. One essential ingredient to further highlight is that this type of significant learning can be carried out in formal and informal educational contexts. Thus, the policy implications of this are obvious. And it is that the Liberian government should empower the forces of civil society both in the private and public sectors to encourage communicative learning and its various concomitants. When we use dialogue and reasons in our culture to build consensus and as a problem-solving tool in civil conflicts, the possibility of war becomes minimized.
iv) None of the current presidential contenders and their respective political parties has yet call for overarching constitutional reforms before the next elections. I would argue that this does not auger well for the imperatives of social change in Liberia. All political parties and presidential contenders must throw their weight behind the clamor for constitutional reforms even if that means a constitutional convention as some have argued before the next elections. What Liberia needs now is a reassessment of presidential prerogatives as envisaged in the constitution in terms of limits on presidential terms (from six-to four years for example) and the full range of presidential powers and authority.
There is a strong rationale for localism and decentralization that allows people in the subdivisions to elect their supredendents, paramount chiefs and village heads without undue interference from the office of the president. This would lead to more accountability and civic responsibility that are absent in the current arrangement. It seems there is a dash to power where every politician is prepared to talk about change only to placate the support of the populace---but not many are prepared to contemplate the burning issues, which consist in laying a road map to change. Hence it seems it is always easy to talk about the land of Canaan, but it is difficult to adhere to the moral obligations and duty that that land demands.
The land of Canaan in this context is a metaphorical description of civilization. Sigmund Freud’s psychological construction of civilization was in terms of the achievement of pain and pleasure. The calculus of pain and pleasure was at the heart of Victorian Utilitarianism. Although Freud had a pessimistic view of civilization for the most part, he nevertheless, agreed with Thomas Hobbes and social contract theorists that an argument could be made for it. But the important political question to pose here is---how many of our current political leaders and presidential aspirants are willing to minimize their pleasure in the cause of constructing a rational order of society? How many conscientious folks out there would put their private interest beneath the enlightened interest of the nation in the service of humanity? The aspect of the political process that deals with constitutional reforms in Liberia is so important that no presidential aspirant must be allowed to gloss it aside. It must be treated as a litmus test (or L test) for support of any presidential aspirant or group of political leaders at this point in history. I am not oblivious of the fact that the written constitution is a mere piece of paper that is useless without a practical and historic commitment to uphold its most cardinal principles. But I believe that we must now try something that we have never tried before such as clearly redefining without ambiguity; the parameters of presidential powers and authority in an unfolding configuration of socio-political forces.
v) The Liberian government should take policy action to encourage curriculum reforms and improve the financial management of tertiary educational institutions like never before. The government in return must demand higher standards and accountability from these institutions. Action must also be taken to educate the general public about the critical link between education, honesty and a stable and vibrant society through public relations campaigns and the use of information technologies.
vi) The country must fashion a new national identity that integrates the best traditions of its triple heritages: the African, Christian and Islamic heritages. Hence, we must now abandon and move away from the anachronistic renderings of the likes of Hilary Teage and C.L. Simpson—who because they did not understand the finer details and esoteric cannons of the African heritage, failed to see the similarities between some aspects of our traditional cultural practices and the western tradition and modernity. What is required in current conditions is the formation of a logical synthesis, which extols the practical value of personal and social transformations imbedded within the culture.
vii) The postwar national administration should pay more attention to the health and nutrition needs of the general population especially the most venerable ones including young children and the elderly. The special education literature demonstrates a strong correlation between the lack of proper nutrition and cognitive and developmental problems among pre-teens and young adolescents. I am certain that this process is already occurring because of the chronic economic problems and food shortages. But the good news is that it is not irreversible especially when there is a visible and coherent policy to address it.
Summary and conclusion
This article has outlined some of the reasons for hope in the future and in the possibility of social change in Liberia after so many false starts. These reasons are imbedded in the realization that through critical consciousness we can energize the process of structural and institutional change. The article discussed the progress of history and of liberal democracy in a quest to consolidate forms of order and engender a much more deeper meaning of civilization that is situated and given form to by the nature of our consciousness. To this end I have argued that the search for civilization is essentially a search for social order. This search can be impeded or enhanced based on our ways of knowing, the quality of our insights, and modes of validation of our feelings and belief systems. I have also intimated that the nature of our consciousness is central to this process. While chaos or barbarism might exist within the womb of civilization as suggested by the law of the unity of opposites, our ability to manage change through appeals to reason or various forms of secular and transcendental authorities demonstrates that there is an enduring tendency in history that inexorably leads to civilization.
The article has also highlighted the conception of an indeterminate status or liminal condition as a delicate status in the process of personal transformation according to the esoteric rituals of the Poro societies in Liberia. Civil conflicts in Liberia have offered opportunities for exploitation of this ritual by warlords in their senseless assaults on innocent victims. What this shows is that any institution or forms of authority relations can be exploited by callous individuals in their quest to subjugate others. The civil war in Liberia has also led to the arbitrary demystification of the power of the Poro and Sande as enduring cultural institutions. This is not a surprise as the war has also had tremendous effects on other historical institutions and challenged our commitment to a moral heritage as a nation. Thus, the challenge of post war development is to restore the influence of these institutions by building upon and refining those aspects that appeal to our rational instincts and sense of modernity, such as the need to change or improve the way we interpret the meaning of our experiences, so that we may become productive and civic members of society. This in the final analysis will lead to a notion of common destiny, a cultural synthesis, and a civilized nation at ease with itself.
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