macroafricaintel | Mokyr’s A Culture of Growth: A review in the African context (2)

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

Convention is fluid
Remember when if you wore sneakers with a traditional attire, you would likely be thought a misfit? But today, it is consider quite cool, isn’t it? All it took was a few celebrities to wear the abnormal combination. This second example would resonate with Muslims. Some Muslims wear trousers that stop just before the ankle as a religious practice. It wasn’t considered a ‘cool’ thing to do. Have you noticed, however, that supposedly ‘cool’ suits nowadays come with trousers that stop just before the ankle? Celebrities are cultural entrepreneurs. They are cultural change agents. It is not always the case that they seek to change culture deliberately. For some, it is precisely their bold actions that throw them into the limelight. Others simply rode on popular culture and acquired fame in the process and thereafter are able to introduce new trends of their own. It is also the case that through them, people can be dissuaded from negative cultural practices.

“What is it precisely that cultural entrepreneurs do? Mokyr posits “they are persons who become sufficiently influential to change the cultural menus of enough people and who persuade many of them to adopt the cultural variants they are proposing.” To be sure, not all cultural entrepreneurs succeed. Those who do are “individuals who successfully contested and overthrew existing authorities in a specific area of culture and created a competing variant”. Two hugely successful cultural entrepeneurs of their time are Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon, whose legacies endure to this day. More relatively recent examples are prominent economist John Maynard Keynes and American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

If these examples do not resonate with you, maybe this would: an Oprah Winfrey qualifies as one. Put simply: “influential individuals affect the beliefs and preferences of others”. They are probably also the most effective channel through which culture can be changed today. Who are our celebrities? Are the beliefs they espouse progressive or retrogressive? Are the contents of our arts ones that spur innovation and new thinking or the entrenchment of old beliefs? Institutions can be created or remodeled to tune our cultural output towards progressive goals. For instance, what are the criteria by which our censor boards approve art, movies, music, etc.?

A warning. Cultural entrepreneurship is a hugely risk affair. In Europe, Mokyr recounts, “new people challenged the conventional wisdom in every area of knowledge and thought. To be sure, a variety of conservative bodies made serious attempts to suppress innovators and some of the most innovative cultural entrepreneurs paid with their lives.” But while during the European Enlightenment, “fragmentation, footlooseness, and the proliferation of printing presses meant that it became increasingly difficult for politically powerful incumbents to suppress subversive and heretic new beliefs generated by cultural entrepeneurs,” with the internet and technology, it is much easier today to be one with not as much risk or effort.

Modern man vs traditional man
I digress from Mokyr (2016) a little bit. Who is a modern man? And how does he defer from the traditional man. To the ignorant, the instinctive definition veers towards the ethnic, tribalistic or racist. It is no such thing. Geert Hofstede’s (2001) Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviours, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations quotes now late Harry Triandis’ (1971) Some psychological dimensions of modernization, a paper he presented at the 17th Congress of Applied Psychology in Liege, Belgium on the differences between the two as follows:

A modern man “is open to new experiences; relatively independent of parental authority; concerned with time, planning, willing to defer gratification; he feels that man can be master over nature, and that he controls the reinforcements he receives from his environment; he believes in determinism and science; he has a wide, cosmopolitan perspective, he uses broad in-groups; he competes with standards of excellence, and he is optimistic about controlling his environment.”

The traditional man, however,has narrow in-groups, looks at the world with suspicion, believes that good is limited and one obtains a share of it by chance or pleasing the gods; he identifies with his parents and receives direction from them; he considers planning a waste of time, and does not defer gratification; he feels at the mercy of obscure environmental factors, and is prone to mysticism; he sees interpersonal relations as an end, rarely as means to an end; he does not believe that he can control his environment but rather sees himself under the influence of external, mystical powers.”

Modernise your philosophy of life
Being a modern man does not require that you give up your religion or your traditions. Instead, it is underpinned by the philosophy that there is a rational explanation for everything. In applying this ethos, you approach problems objectively, seek new and better solutions, and continually seek to improve your lot. The traditional man, however, seeks irrational and mystical explanations, and procures the services of its dubious practitioners when in doubt. The outcome is very well what underpins our problems as a country. Whether it is perennial traffic in a busy Nigerian city, power failure on end, lack of reliable potable water supply, and so on, the “traditional man” outlook of most of our compatriots is why we live relatively miserable lives. So, my questions to you are thus: Which of a modern or traditional man as described above is better? And which one are you? Become better. Better still, become best.

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