Values and identity; what constitutes society?

We have all been there, moments when you felt out of place within a certain group, moments when you felt that you were looked at differently or even questioned about something you did, why you did it the way you did it, why you prefer certain things, why you eat certain foods, why you dress a certain way, what is the significance of a certain item of clothing to you? The list goes on. What appears normal in a given context or environment may be entirely queer in a different set of contexts or environments.

In parts of Asia, and much nearer to home in Nigeria, men do wear wraparounds instead of pants as normal outfits. If Gambian men do the same, they will be questioned or worse, there will be gossip that maybe something is wrong to warrant that choice of dress.

In my days as a tour guide, I had a conversation with a British tourist who was curious to know what kinds of food we ate in The Gambia. After hearing a long list of local staples, he inquired if we ate snakes, dogs, donkeys, birds of prey and other forms of life. My response was, “you can’t eat those things, they are not edible.” Why would anyone eat a snake, I thought to myself. His response was that the right answer would have been to say that we don’t eat those things in The Gambia, but all of what he listed were eaten in other parts of the world. To say that I was shocked will be an under statement, blame that on cultural naivete, but simple things like what is considered edible or inedible is a product of nurture rather than nature. The societies we live in set the norms for what is right and what is wrong, what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.

What then constitutes society?

According to the Science Daily magazine, a society is generally a group of people who do not merely share the same geographical or social territory, they are “typically subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations.”

The watch words for the purposes of this article are dominant cultural expectations. Laws are indispensable in any society, the political authority derived from the legitimate consent of the people designs such laws and subjects everyone within society to the law equally. Equally important is the fact that no society’s laws will be upheld or respected where such laws do not reflect the values of the society they are prescribed for. When such laws that disregard cultural norms are enforced on a people whose values have been proscribed, the law then serves only to oppress and the people will uphold only that in which they see value.

When laws are disregarded because they do not reflect the values of a people, such a society will be anarchist at best or completely unstable, especially where the majority are the ones feeling unrepresented by political authority. It will be equally wrong for the majority to expect everyone within that society to subscribe to every aspect of the society’s norms in exactly the same way, so a balance has to be struck.

Where individuals within society do not subscribe to majority views on what societal norms are, their views should be respected just as much as they should respect the larger society’s views on what values to uphold and what is unacceptable. That is not oppressive or tyranny of the majority as some will espouse. Seeking to upset that balance of norms by imposing political authority that is apprehensive of societal values is in fact tyranny of the minority and that never augurs well for any society.

If you live in a majority Muslim country, whether you were born into it or you adopted it as your home, you should expect to hear the call to prayer when it is time for prayer. Seeking to silence that in the name of “noise pollution” will not be received well. Similarly, if you grew up in such an environment and then relocated to a secular society but expect to have loudspeakers mounted on minarets because you expect to hear the call to prayer when its time in the name of “religious rights”, then you are in for a reawakening through jail time.

No society deserves to be imposed upon or dictated to on what is right or wrong. As societies grow and interact with others, they learn and adopt new and better ways of doing things, slowly the old ways fade out. That sort of change is organic. When enough people accept certain things, such things become normal, but such acceptance cannot be forced or imposed overnight. Some aspects of society are more enduring than others and they last for many generations, any attempt at seeking to change those is met with hostile push back and that is when the sensible ones know to back off.

The European Union’s current representative in The Gambia’s attempts to “break the silence” around gay rights in The Gambia is experiencing such a push back and rightly so. A diplomatic representative is expected to have cultural sensitivities and respect for cultures he may not agree with. No one should be persecuted for their sexual preference and all should be ready to fight against any form of persecution, but attempting to “break the silence” around an issue so negatively viewed in a poor conservative society like The Gambia is not only dangerous for those who will expose themselves as so inclined but could potentially lead to a breakdown of the machinery of state and our state administrators will be foolish to not see that.

Societies like The Gambia are not ready, culturally for the embrace of certain ideas as part of their mainstream culture and that is not to say individuals cannot subscribe to such ideas, but they need to respect the fact that the society they live in is not ready to hold them in embrace just yet, the fault-lines for a forced embrace through political authority are too many and that needs to be recognized.

People cannot afford to be cultural refugees in their own lands.


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