Insults: who is insulting who?

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By Editor
Sun 24 Jan. 2010, 04:00 CAT   [3488 Reads, 2 Comment(s)]
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PROFESSOR Nkandu Luo is right when she says that “talking about the suffering of the people does not constitute an insult”. Today it seems in Zambia one cannot criticise or question the decisions and actions of the President and others in power without being accused of insulting them.

We are not living in a monarch where the citizens are subjects of the rulers. We are living in a Republic where citizens are the masters of those who govern their country. And the issue of citizens being masters in a republic is not a theoretical matter but a practical reality.

The democracy our people are seeking is a genuine one in which the political leaders are servants of the electorate and not its masters. Even in our chiefdoms, the traditional authorities are no longer treating their people like subjects of the old type, of the times when they had absolute power as a sovereign in their own right. Today in Zambia, both the subject and the chief are citizens with equal rights.
Criticising public officers can never be said to be an insult and should not be criminalised in any way.

And moreover, in a republic, citizens have a divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, we mean the characters and conduct of the rulers. Citizens have a right to comment on, question or criticise the conduct or character of those who govern their affairs. To some people, questioning or criticising political leaders at whatever level is an insult. If criticism is valid, it must be made because it is good for people and institutions that are part of public life. And as we have repeatedly pointed out, no institution should expect to be free from the scrutiny, the criticism of those who give it their loyalty and support, not to mention those who don’t.

But of course, we are all part of the same fabric of our national society and that scrutiny, by one part of another, can be just as effective if it is made with a touch of civility, gentleness, good humour and understanding. This sort of questioning, of criticism can also act, and it should do so, as an effective engine for change.

We have heard some people complain about the President being insulted, but we have never heard the same people complain about the President insulting others, insulting political opponents and even ordinary citizens who he disagrees with. We have never heard these same people who claim to have very high morals complain or criticise the President directly when he insults others.

The President has insulted other citizens so repeatedly. And we really mean insults. The President of this country has insulted us, charging that we are sick people; we are morbid, queer and so on and so forth. None of these self-proclaimed moralists have criticised the President for insulting us. Or are they telling us that it is alright for the President to insult a fellow citizen but it is wrong for that citizen to insult back.

The President has even gone as far as accusing us of having pocketed US$ 30 million from state institutions through Zambian Airways. What insult can be worse than this if what the President is saying is not true, cannot be proved? But again, none of these moralists have come to our defence or have criticised the President for insulting us.

There is need to tell the Zambian people the truth; there are no gains in telling lies. It is better to lose power than to tell people lies and suffocate them with cheap and sometimes silly language. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the Zambian people look to their leaders for compassion, for understanding and for honest purpose.

We have been accused of insulting the President when we have called him a liar when he has lied. To these moralists calling someone a liar, especially the President, when he lies is an insult. And to them it doesn’t matter what proof you have. Some of them have even gone to say one cannot say his or her father is lying even when he is doing so because to do so will be tantamount to insulting one’s father. This may sound sensible but there is a problem here because this suggests that the presidency of a nation is metaphorically equivalent to fatherhood in a family, and that citizens are equivalent to children. This is a dangerous form of paternalism in conflict with the possibility of democracy in a republic, in a modern political system.

The truth is that – and they know it – calling a President who has lied a liar is not an insult; it is a fact, the truth. One who tells lies is a liar. And there is no better way of describing him other than that he is a liar. What else can one call a person who tells lies other than that he is a liar? Yes, there are other alternative words that can be used but they still amount to the same thing, they still mean the same thing – a liar. This is not an insult.
It is difficult for us to understand how the Church’s guidance, pastoral letters can be said to be insults.

Anyway, what they are seeking is praise and not criticism. They don’t want to be questioned on anything. Anyone who questions what they are saying or doing is perceived to be insulting. This is why they have hired some churches, some small briefcase political parties, and some individuals to sing praise of them and come to their defence whenever they are criticised. And these are the ones they refer to as “the church”, “the opposition”. They also have some individuals going under some NGO names who from time to time issue statements that receive very high prominence in the state-owned and government-controlled media. These are the ones they call “civil society”.

Clearly, what they hate is not insults. What they hurt is criticism targeted at themselves. What they like is praise even of their heinous deeds. What they like is criticism of their opponents. What they don’t like is anyone praising their opponents or those they don’t like.

This reminds us of what is said about the rich and powerful and the poor and powerless. It is said that when a man in power stumbles, there will be many people jumping up to try and be the first ones to steady him. But if a poor man, a powerless citizen falls, no one will try to pick him up, even his friends will just watch and wait for him to pick himself up. It is also said that when a man in power makes a mistake, says something wrong, insults someone, there are many people to cover up for him, explain away all the things he never should have said and echo his insults.

But let a poor and ordinary citizen make a mistake, and he gets nothing but criticism. Sometimes even when he is not wrong, he is accused of having done something wrong, of having insulted simply because it embarrasses, humiliates and offends the powerful. Even if what he says makes good sense, is factual, is true, he still gets attacked for it and called all sorts of names. This is the case with those who dare to criticise, to question the decisions and actions of the President, of all those in power.

These are the double standards of our moralists, of those who are complaining about insults, of those who want to sound as if they stand on high moral ground when they are nothing but defenders of inequities, of corruption and other abuses of power; when all they are trying to do is to protect the President, those in power from honest but probably piercing criticism.

It is said that “liars deserved to be cursed” (Sirach 28:13). And when a wicked man curses his enemy, he is simply cursing himself. It is not good to think up lies to tell about fellow citizens who you do not get on well with. It is not good to tell lies at all because it never does anyone any good. It is not good or proper, fair or just for one to set one’s heart on being a judge, unless one has the strength of character it takes to put an end to injustice.

We remember the President’s insults in Kafinda area in August last year. Before starting to insult, the President openly declared that he was going to insult and indeed he did just that. He insulted us and Michael Sata. The President knew what he was doing; his insults were not accidental, they were deliberate and conscious. They were insults aforethought. But none of these moralists came up to criticise him. Why? This same President at a by-election campaign accused us of telling ubufi bwa kunya. This was a clear insult on us but our moralists were nowhere near to criticise the President.

Again, it will be appropriate for us to end this discourse on insults with United States president Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quote on presidential criticism: “The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right.

Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about anyone else.”

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