What you need to know:
- We have a history of calling our fellow human beings cockroaches, weeds, grass, snakes, wild animals, and all manner of animate and inanimate objects, all with the intention of stripping them of their personhood and leaving them open to attack.
- Whenever this argument is raised there are many among us who feel personally affronted by suggestions that we are a very barbarous society, and they rush out non-African examples of past and modern conflicts including meticulously planned genocides.
In March, Prof Fr Joseph Kahiga Kiruki of Moi University delivered an inaugural lecture titled Is a human being a person? Interrogating the meaning of human existence.
In this lecture, he reflected upon circumstances under which a human being may not be considered a person deserving of dignity and rights due to “accepted or recognised persons”. My take home message from the lecture was that being human is a given, but being a person is “granted” by society.
The importance of being considered a person cannot be gainsaid. Once a particular group accepts you as a person, they recognise your basic rights and are willing to engage you to tackle any social and even personal problems that may arise. A person has the right to life and the pursuit of happiness. A person has the right to be protected from the rogue elements of our society. A person has the right to associate with others and be treated with dignity.
Recent events in this part of the world have left me in no doubt that indeed not all human beings are “granted” personhood. While most of the world is moving towards an acceptance of the innate personhood of all human beings, some sections are still struggling with this concept and would like to first interrogate the characteristics of every new human being they meet before conferring personhood on them.
Going by count of sectarian conflicts alone, it is clear that African populations have a huge problem with “granting” all human beings “personhood.” Our first instinct appears to be to seek out the characteristics that set us apart, rather than those that affirm our common personhood.
Based on these differences, we are quick to deny our fellow human beings the status of personhood, leaving them open to harassment, exclusion and even extermination. We have a history of calling our fellow human beings cockroaches, weeds, grass, snakes, wild animals, and all manner of animate and inanimate objects, all with the intention of stripping them of their personhood and leaving them open to attack.
After delegitimising their claim to personhood, we have moved swiftly to attack them, evicting them from their homes and sexually assaulting their women without a twinge of conscience. After all who is morally bothered when a farmer clears his farm of weeds? Or when a man attacks and kills a dangerous snake? Or fumigates his house to rid it of vermin? Who spares a thought for the weeds, the insects or wild animals in times such as these?
Whenever this argument is raised there are many among us who feel personally affronted by suggestions that we are a very barbarous society, and they rush out non-African examples of past and modern conflicts including meticulously planned genocides. Indeed there is no doubt that all societies are perfectly capable of stripping a section of humanity of their claim to personhood and then committing all sorts of infractions against them.
The key point that keeps coming up, however, is that moral indignation whenever this happens is not the norm in our society as it might be elsewhere. Large homogenous sections of our population will find a justification for nasty things done to the “other”, who is not considered a “person”. Are we in Kenya ready to acknowledge the personhood of all other human beings?
Atwoli is associate professor of psychiatry and dean, school of medicine, Moi University; [email protected]