Between Polemics and ‘on the other hand’ narratives



I did not set out to make this a philosophical inquiry, though by its nature, it is bound to be. The spur for this piece were reactions from some of my readers, who would sometimes challenge me to ‘come out and take a bold stand’ on issues instead of hiding behind words and academic semantics. One of the comments to my last week’s piece, by one Musa Aliyu, on ‘When Stella stepped on those banana peels’, captured  this line of accusation crisply:  “Jideofor, as always, you tend to subtly cover your stand….”  My good friend, Udenta O Udenta, a master polemicist, has long teased me about the ‘on the other hand’ predilections in most of my writings for newspapers.  ‘On the other hand’ predilection in Nigerian-speak means that I tend to concede so much to every perspective in an argument that my own position is either blurred or is “cleverly hidden” between words.  However when critics challenge me to ‘come clean and take a stand’ or to  “put grammar  and ‘on the other hand’ aside and shoot straight like a man”  my reply has always been that I set out in most of my newspaper articles to be an analyst rather than a polemicist. Is there any difference between the two or is it just another obfuscation from me?

Let me preface my answer to the above question with a story about the elephant and some blind men. There are various versions of this story. A version in Jaina dharma – an Indian religion that prescribes a path of non-violence towards all living beings  –  has it that  six blind men were asked to determine what an elephant looked like by feeling different parts of the elephant’s body. The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.

In this elephant and blind men tale, the disputants eventually took their case to their King who calmly and unemotionally told them: “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all the features you mentioned”.

Now back to my attempt to distinguish between the polemicist and the analyst: In the elephant story above, each of the six blind men is a polemicist to the extent that each argued forcefully that his notion of reality was the correct one while insisting that the others’ conceptions were definitely wrong. A polemic is a contentious argument that is intended to establish the truth of only a specific understanding and the falsity of any contrarian position. Polemicists believe in zero-sum- game, one side winning for them equals to the other side losing, hence they have a singular and passionate devotion to proving the truth of their lineal understanding of the world and the falsity of whatever is contrary to it. Unlike the polemicist, the analyst (the king in the elephant story) aims at finding a common ground for disputants or arriving at a ‘higher truth’ by bringing together the versions of truth purveyed by the disputants in any controversial issue. In other words, ‘on the other hand’ is the analyst’s way of ensuring that all contending perspectives are interrogated and something conceded to each in the quest for truth or common ground. While the polemicist aims to win an argument, the analyst strives for objectivity, if not scientism, by trying to see reality from as many facets as possible. This often requires empathy – trying to put yourself in the position of each disputant while unemotionally viewing reality from the lenses through which the disputant filters reality.

A key question here is whether striving for objectivity means that one must also be value neutral? My personal opinion is that maximizing objectivity in social research or write-up does not necessarily require total value neutrality but rather a commitment to certain social values. Here what motivates a particular write-up or social project becomes very important.

Let me illustrate with one of the criticisms of my last week’s piece on Stella Odua. Obviously as a columnist, I am grateful that readers bother to comment on my writings, whether praise or acerbic criticism. In this sense this write-up should be seen not as a defence of the criticisms but an extension of the conversations triggered by my last week’s piece and others.

One of the commentators on my piece on Stella Odua called to express his disappointment that I chose to defend Stella Odua because she is my fellow Igbo. However when I asked the gentleman whether ethnicity was also a factor when I became probably the first person to come to the ‘defence’ of Farouk Lawan when he was accused by Femi Otedola of demanding and receiving bribe from him, he fell silent. Actually my piece on Farouk,  ‘Why We Should Rally Behind Farouk Lawan’ (Daily Trust, 21 June 2013), was not a defence of Farouk but an argument that I suspected the invisible hands of the oil cabals in Lawan’s ordeal and that we should focus on fighting the cabals first and returning to ask Farouk questions later. Similarly my piece on Stella did not in any manner seek to defend the allegations of corruption and inflation of contract. Rather I suspected that the enemies she made from certain ethnic groups compounded her woes. This remains my position on her ordeal.  I believe I would have taken the same position if Stella Odua were from any other ethnic group. Saying this does not amount to condoning any wrong doing. If she is found culpable of any offence, she should obviously be made to pay for it but we should not pretend that her ordeal has not been conflated by ethnicity. 

Let me return to the argument about the polemicist and the analyst and declare that neither is superior to the other. It all depends on the context and what the society wants to achieve at a particular point in time. For instance, when propaganda is needed to engender ethnic or national pride or to mobilize the populace or a section of it towards a given cause of action, the polemicist will be preferred to the analyst  who may not be able to arouse enough emotions in the citizens with  his ‘on the other hand’ analyses. When however the search is for a common ground, reconciliation or a set of compromises that will satisfy all disputants, then the analyst will trump the polemicist. The thing I find nauseating about many of our political polemicists however that while is purveying their arguments with all the passion and grammar that they can muster, they often deny any merits in the grouses expressed by others. For instance a Nigerian polemicist complaining against the ‘marginalization of ‘his people’ will quite often shout down anyone else who also complains that his or her own group is equally marginalized.  This therefore tends to turn what should be national conversations into shouting matches and finger pointing.

We can also see polemical tendencies in action – not just at the level of rhetoric and write-ups but in practical politics. In the realm of practical politics, Obasanjo and Babangida may probably represent the two extremes of the polemical and analytical traditions. While Obasanjo is known to have a single- minded devotion to any objective he wants to achieve (polemics), Babangida would more likely  listen to many perspectives on the issue before making up his mind ( or even if  he had already made up his mind on what to do).  Thus while Obasanjo’s ‘garrison politics’ involved militarizing politics to achieve a given end, Babangida’s analytic approach would lead him into organizing a national debate about whether the country should embrace IMF/World Bank’s facilities or not. It was also probably the same analytic approach that informed his strategy of   aligning with any group to achieve a particular objective and quickly moving out of that alliance as soon as that objective was accomplished. This particular strategy made several groups believe, rightly or wrongly that he had sympathetic ears to their cause. Obasanjo would not have patience for such diplomatic niceties. In fact Babangida’s two political parties – ‘one a little to the left’ and the ‘other a little to the right’ may not just be talking about ideological spectrum but of conceding something to each of the disputants in an argument.

Whether the analytical leader or the polemical leader is better will of course be a matter of taste.   For Babangida, while his supporters will argue that but for the annulment of the June 12 elections won by Abiola, he would have been the greatest Nigerian leader in terms of political engineering; his critics will accuse him of cunning and of trying to please everyone. Similarly while Obasanjo’s supporters would say there was no dull moment in his regime, his critics would accuse him of overheating the polity with his garrison (polemical) approach to politics and governance.  


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