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Opinions of Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Columnist: Ato Kwamena Dadzie

The upside of the 'insult'

President Mills says “insults will not help us to produce potable water.” As he fumbled – as usual – over his words at the commissioning of the new Accra-Tema rail shuttle, the president advised Ghanaians to stop what he described as “the politics of insults”.

As someone who has been accused a lot of being insulting and disrespectful, I’ve been pondering over the president’s words and asking myself: what is an insult? And I’ve come to the conclusion that, perhaps, the president chose to speak about insults because he had nothing to say, really!

Will the unending rancor in the NDC get us potable water? No, it won’t. Will the president calling for an end to the so-called politics of insults reverse this country’s retrogression? Your guess is as good as mine.

Coming so closely on the heels of the controversy over Kobby Acheampong’s ‘cocoa ase’ remarks, I suppose the President was only trying to take a pre-emptive step to prevent an avalanche of invectives, some of which will doubtless fall on him. It was a smart move. But it would only delay the avalanche – not stop it. The insults will start flying all over the place all over again and no one – no president, no fetish priest or monk can stop it.

You know why?

First, insults defy definition. One man’s ceiling is another man’s roof. What you consider to be an insult might not necessarily be an insult to me. For example, if I describe the president as incompetent is that an insult? I don’t think so. I also don’t see why anyone in government should take offence at Nana Akuffo-Addo’s description of President Mills as “Prof. Do-Little.” How does that amount to an insult? If I say a man acted “unwisely” have I insulted him? To me, I haven’t but you may see it differently.

Secondly, in any competitive political arena, it should be expected that harsh, painful words will be thrown around. It’s part of the game. When the NDC’s general secretary, Johnson Asiedu-Nketiah, stood on a political platform in 2007 and described the 17 men vying for the NPP’s presidential slot as “thieves going into a contest to elect the chief thief” was he insulting them? When NDC activists scream “Naa Nana, Naa short” in reference to the perceived diminutive height of the NPP presidential candidate, are they insulting him? I am not so sure. But in either case, I think the words were harsh – almost uncalled for – but in the arena of party politics, such comments are inevitable.

Everyone in a political contest will play up his strengths and good qualities whiles going to great lengths to diminish his opponent in any way possible. Before the 2008 elections, then candidate Mills spoke a lot about corruption and thievery in government, was he insulting his opponents? When Rawlings blames John Kufuor and his administration for the murder of Yakubu Andani, is he insulting his colleague former president by referring to him as a murderer? Not exactly. But it pointed out certain weaknesses in the ruling class at the time and this, doubtless, won the NDC some votes.

Instead of trying to do the impossible by stopping the inevitable tide of uncomplimentary remarks that accompany competitive politics, I think the president should rather have used the opportunity to urge tolerance – “the act of putting up with somebody or something irritating or otherwise unpleasant.”

Anyone who decides to take active part in the political game should have a tough skin and a heart and mind made of steel. Hurtful things will be said about you. If you so desire, you can respond in kind. Alternatively, you can take legal action to seek redress. You can also choose to switch on your halo, act like an angel and not allow yourself to be affected. What you can’t do, however, is to visit violence on the person who has spoken harshly against you. Even the Bible says “a prudent man ignores an insult”. That’s tolerance.

Politics is hardly a pretty game. Harsh uncomplimentary words hurt but I believe strongly that they help a lot. And I disagree with the president that so-called insults will not bring development. If Kufuor and his ilk had not been ‘insulted’ as thieves and a band of wasteful nation wreckers our president today wouldn’t be called Mills.

In my Cultural Studies classes in the early 1990s, I learnt that our ancestors taunted people to get them to change their ways and contribute meaningfully to society. If this was done in the very conservative societies our ancestors lived in, how much more in the liberal democratic sphere we have now?

The moment we stop taunting each other, as the president wants us to do, democracy will suffocate and die, our leaders (both in government and opposition) will become timid zombies and praise-singing zealots engaged in an orgy of political masturbation, patting each other on the back at the least opportunity. That would breed sycophancy whose only fruits are incompetence and complacency. The fact is that in a democracy a certain healthy amount of harsh exchanges is good just as doctors deliberately introduce disease-causing agents into the body to boost immunity.

If you asked me, I’d say keep the taunts flying and especially at the politicians – right from the president up above to the assembly man and unit committee chairman down below. If you decide to get into politics and/or public office, you will be lampooned, ridiculed and caricatured. They do it even Barack Obama. Why can’t we do it to John Atta Mills? If the kitchen is too hot for anyone who can’t stands public ridicule and lampooning, let’s just tell that person to get out. If you choose to stay and you don’t want people to say hurtful words about you and your family and friends just stay on the narrow path and do what is right. And you would be among the first to reject any suggestion that insults will not move us forward. Insults hurt but they also help a great deal.

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“The only graceful way to accept an insult is to ignore it. If you can't ignore an insult, top it; if you can't top it, laugh it off; and if you can't laugh it off, it's probably deserved.” – J. Russel Lynes

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