What you need to know:
- Although I am “fully vaccinated”, I should not, and I will not, throw caution to the winds and carry on as if no pandemic exists.
- I will still keep my social distance, avoid crowded events and situations and faithfully keep my mask on.
Two rather unrelated books are on my mind. One is George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying and the other is Francis Imbuga’s The Successor. The latter, which is a play in which the pathological liar Chief Oriomra appears, is probably more recognisable to most of us, even if we have not read it or seen it performed.
As for the “Aspidistra”, George Orwell, its author, is certainly best-known for his classics, like Burmese Days, Animal Farm (Shamba la Wanyama) and 1984, where “Big Brother” (the ubiquitous state) “is watching you”. I only found out in the course of reading that an aspidistra is a hardy indoors plant that some people insist on keeping around despite its rather plain appearance.
The novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, is a satirical criticism of our materialistic tendencies to cling on to objects and lifestyles of little or no spiritual or intellectual value. That is the nature of classical writing, as exemplified in the work of artists like Orwell. What was topical in his days remains topical in our times and maybe in times to come. Don’t we still have money worshippers today, and some animals that are “more equal than others”? Burma, which was suffering from colonial bad governance in Orwell’s times, is still suffering from bad governance today, despite its changing its name to Myanmar.
Rather absurdly, however, my “aspidistra” is a mask, of the KN95 type. Maybe I had imagined an aspidistra as a kite that one could keep flying. But, to cut a long imaginative aberration short, the kite I will keep flying is my face mask. I will keep it up, not floating in the air, but snugly covering my “snout”, until I hear otherwise from the health experts that I trust.
Information and misinformation
I had my second dose of the anti-covid vaccine earlier this week, you see, and the experience has taught me quite a few important lessons. One of these is that, although I am “fully vaccinated” and I have a certificate to prove it, I should not, and I will not, throw caution to the winds and carry on as if no pandemic exists. I will still keep my social distance, avoid crowded events and situations and faithfully keep my mask on.
As for the masks, the past dozen-something months have left me wondering why we did not always wear them when we went out into the open spaces, especially of our disgustingly polluted cities and towns. Even at its best, the air in most parts of our surroundings is loaded with dust, pollen, fumes and particles of paints, metal and wood scraps, in addition to various smells and odours. Any shield or protection from all these should be a welcome boom.
Another lesson I have learnt is that I should be sharply attentive to all the “information” I receive, and I should be acutely critical of it all. Being critical means coolly and objectively assessing and evaluating the messages we receive and relating them imaginatively to other messages available to us, and to our general knowledge of the world. This, I now realise, is what critical thinking is about.
Critical thinking is probably the most essential skill for humanity’s survival today. It is literally a matter of life and death. To refer back to my own vaccination experience, I had told you that when the jab came round I would take it. But, it has not been as easy as I thought it would be for me and most of my friends, who are also now fully vaccinated.
The main challenge was not what vaccine to take or when and where to take it. Rather, it was the avalanche of “information” and misinformation, especially the latter, that kept circulating about the vaccines when they arrived. These, as you know, ranged from claims that such and such products were only so-and-so percentage effective through “evidence” (flimsy impressions) that they routinely caused blood clots or brain haemorrhages to accusations that some were spiked with brain-altering chips.
If you were not prepared to think for yourself, you would be trapped in the dilemma of damned if you took the jab and damned if you did not. In other words, would you rather avoid the jab and remain at the high risk of getting the Covid-19 infection or make the choice of getting vaccinated, with the rational knowledge that there is an element of risk in all medical treatments and procedures? Such choices are all the more complicated because of the veritable pandemic of misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories, enabled, ironically, by the communication revolution.
This, indeed, brings me to what we will call the “Oriomra syndrome”. Oriomra, in Imbuga’s play, is an ambitious schemer who is trying to grab the throne or “chair” of the Empire of Masero when its ageing ruler leaves. Remember that the play is called The Successor, and aspirants to power are never in short supply whenever a succession is pending. What is special about Oriomra, however, is that he believes the only way to ascend to power is through telling lies. In fact, lying is second nature to Oriomra. Every time he opens his mouth, he tells a lie.
Such characters are called compulsive liars. The dilemma for us laypeople is how to handle the situation when a compulsive liar tells you that he or she is telling you a lie, and that “that is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. Is there a problem there?
“The problem, as you call it,” Oriomra would tell you, “is very simple. We want you to tell a lie.” That is a direct quote from The Successor. The more fundamental puzzle, however, is why such large numbers of us today, with literally tons of accurate information at our fingertips, choose to believe fabrications, lies and conspiracy theories, to our detriment.
Is there an Oriomra chip inside many of us? Let us try critical thinking for a solution.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature. firstname.lastname@example.org