The General Secretary of the Liberian Studies Association at Cornell University, New York, USA, Ms. Jackie Sayegh, is calling on Liberians at home and the diaspora to hold discussion on “What is Liberia’s COMMON GOOD”.
Serving as Keynote Speaker at a recent Town Hall Event held in Beltsville, Maryland,
USA,under the Theme “Detoxifying Our National Discourse”, and organized by Liberian Women
Advocacy to End Violence in Liberia (LWATEVL) and the University of Liberia Alumni Association in America, (DMV-Chapter), Ms. Sayegh said Liberians at home and its diaspora are all concerned about the current toxic environment that we find in our society today. Ms. Sayegh said toxins such as drugs, predatory officials and elders, rapes, corruption in high and low places, theft of services, hate speech, rivalries, are not as much a crisis as a symptom of the illness in our society and in ourselves.
At one point speaking metaphorically, Ms. Sayegh lamented how toxins in our society pollute, making foul the environment and the very air we inhale. “It thrives on fertile soil, in dark places, secret corners, growing by leaps and bounds, until it erupts, it corrodes. Toxins need access, entry into the vessel that will be destroyed”, she said. Ms. Sayegh described how Liberians have developed different ways of dealing with toxicity amongst ourselves. Some of us, she said, now tune out altogether, while others discipline themselves to take it in small doses, still others go all the way in embracing these corrosive agents. Ms. Sayegh stated however, that toxic discourse is not the domain of Liberia alone. She cited example of how lies, marginalization and hate speech have led to unimaginable horror as in the case of Rwanda, where Radio RTLM incited hatred of Tutsis through the airwaves eventually leading to the 1990 genocide where 500,000 people were killed in just 90 days.
Ms. Sayegh said while the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres has launched the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on hate speech, which recognises that over the last 75 years, hate speech has been precursor to atrocious crimes, they do not address the roots, the growth that occurs underneath before there is a need for a strategic plan or rules. “We need to mold morals so that whether we have regulations or not, we would still work towards the greater good”, Ms. Sayegh averred. The Keynote Speaker referenced a passage from Levitsky and Ziblatt “How Democracies Die”, in which the Authors explained that democracy most times die slowly through the gradual corrosion of norms and institutions when the glue they call guardrails that underpins morals and truth are not strong enough. Ms. Sayegh asserted no doubt that Liberia is at a crossroad, a critical juncture and the guardrails are not strong enough to stop it from going off the path or cliff. She said Liberians therefore need to build their own COMMON GOOD through Education, Civil Society, the Home, the Government, Diaspora Citizens and the
- Education: If the common good is to be restored, education must be reconnected to these public moral roots. Reich writes. Formal education teaches a person to be literate. That is all. In the process of obtaining an education, whether formal or informal, a well-rounded individual should be developing character as well, receiving the tools to rationalize, react and relate to his or her environment in ways that serve the common good. Educational institutions must incorporate civics, national service, and volunteerism. Institutions should not be ivory towers but be a part of a family- school-community partnerships working together for the good of the society. Toxins like sexual harassment, pay for grades, exorbitant fees for pamphlets, must be discouraged and punished.
- Civil Society – The behavior of Social grooming in animals and humans is a social practice that bonds and “ reinforce social structures, family links, and build companionships. Social grooming is also used as a means of conflict resolution, maternal behavior and reconciliation in some species (Henazi).” Civil society support is necessary in detoxifying our national discourse. Ataye shops, meeting places, palava huts fora, should all serve as detoxifying agents. Town halls, such as this one, should be regularly held and be inclusive. The church must be cardinal part of the grooming process. Many religious institutions and leaders have abandoned their duty of care and their credentials of concern. They have aligned themselves with power to hamper the common good in their quest for power. There needs to be a vetting of who is necessary for detoxification. Who are the elders we turn to for help on this path. Are they the right people? If we are to remove the toxic elements from the vessel, the vessel itself must be strengthened with the capacity to detoxify or stop the toxins from coming back in or make it harder for it to find its way back. Citizens should know their history and be proud of it, even with its valleys and low points (I visited the National Museum of the American Indian a few days ago and was struck by the breadth and depth of the collections. There were stories of life before the coming of the Europeans, the taking of the land, the sufferings of the people the trail of tears, the wars, the treaties, voices of survivors, and the final exhibit title “we never gave up.” Civil society must be civil. It must be a forum and serve as a platform for everyone. I go back to the Reich “Such an education must encourage civic virtue. It should explain and illustrate the profound differences between doing whatever it takes to win and acting for the common good; between getting as much as one can get for oneself and giving back to society; between assuming everyone is in it for themselves and understanding that we’re all in it together; between seeking personal celebrity, wealth, or power and helping to build a better society for all.”
- The home – this is the one place we let down our guard to reveal our true selves.
there must be a conscious, committed, and consistent effort to create an enabling an environment free of toxins. The home must maintain red lines of behavior, boundary lines of actions and non-negotiables contracts of trust. There is no doubt that in trying settings many of these boundaries are relaxed or removed. Parents and children now use each other to stave of hunger, or to get necessary needs or wants. Gossip, lies, and other unacceptable behaviors are often tolerated in the home which is fertile ground for toxins. The family must be strengthened and must be active participants in the lives of their children.
- The government – toxic mold eats at wood and fabric, gradually rendering what was once useful, useless. The government needs to create an enabling environment where schools, societies, families do not have to resort to dehumanizing behavior to survive. Leadership sets the tone and effect the change that trickles down to its citizens. When corruption, greed and impunity rule the day, toxins have free reign to every facet of our nation. Nonpayment of fees lead to pay for grade or sexual assault, injustices in the courts lead to distrust of the judicial system, impunity for a select few lead to anger and revenge, and lies, cronyism and nepotism lead to divisiveness. We should work towards creating an index that rewards acceptable behavior and shames the unacceptable ones, a dignity index like they have in other countries.
- Diasporic citizens must also be conscious that their lived experiences are different from our brothers and sisters back home. Judgmental comments, accusations of laziness made in the comfort of full bellies, adequate transportation, timely salaries, and an enabling environment will only widen the divide. If we have one common goal, that is to make whole our nation, we must work together.
- The most important ingredient necessary to stem the access and growth of toxins is the individual. As a child I often got afraid repeating the phrase “deliver us from evil.” I was aware that evil lurked in corners and crevices and sometimes even in the homes and I prayed for deliverance. But this phrase took on a different meaning as I got older. “Deliver us from evil” to me means deliver us not only from the evil outside but deliver us from the evil that lurks in each one of us, evil that we are all too aware we are capable of. Sharing harmful Facebook posts, spreading gossip, speaking ill of others, turning blind eyes to injustices, are all things we are capable of.
In the National Museum of the American Indian there is a saying “the surest way to kill a race is to kill its religion and its ideals, this is to kill the souls of a people and when the spirit is killed, what remains? – Peso , Apache 1976
A lot of the toxicity in our national conversation is grounded in our history. Past injustices, ethnic identity, contribute to division, hate speech and violence and even deaths. Educators, elders, parents, all of us need to be careful not to fan the flames that could so easily get out of control like it did in Rwanda.