By Rafiq Raji, PhD
The purpose of Geert Hofstede’s Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviours, Institutions and Organisations Across Nations is an ideal starting point. “A better understanding of invisible cultural differences is one of the main contributions the social sciences can make to practical policy makers in governments, organisations, and institutions – and to ordinary citizens.” I extract some of the expositions in the book to highlight certain cultural practices and behaviours in Nigeria, which to the ignorant, are accepted as “wisdoms.” Unfortunately, a lot of those who eventually see the “light” – many do not, only realise the false or flawed logic behind these “wisdoms” when they are aged, too late of course, sapped of strength, with little or no initiative left for enterprise. But for these suboptimal norms, we would probably be a nation of groundbreaking innovators and entrepreneurs of global reckoning. Yes, we do have some of those. But where are they? Most are in saner climes.
Shame vs guilt
Nigeria has unity in many spheres than most people realise. We have a commonality in at least one instance: all our ethnic groups have shame cultures. Ever wonder why most Nigerians make decisions around the frame of reference of “what will people say?” Shame cultures do not engender innovation. Shame cultures are collectivist while guilt cultures are individualist. Most of today’s advanced economies have individualist cultures while some of the poorest economies are collectivist. The motivation to do what is right in guilt cultures is intrinsic while that for shame cultures is extrinsic. I quote from several parts of the relevant sections of Hofstede’s book to establish the theory.
“US anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1946/1974) stressed the distinction between cultures that rely heavily on shame and those that rely heavily on guilt…True shame cultures rely on external sanctions for good behaviour, not, as true guilt cultures do, on an internalized conviction of sin. Shame requires an audience or at least a man’s fantasy of an audience. Guilt does not. In a nation where honor means living up to one’s own picture of oneself, a man may suffer from guilt though no man knows of his misdeed”
“The child in a collectivist society is seldom alone, either during the day or at night. In an individualist society, such a lack of privacy would be highly abnormal. In most collectivist cultures, direct confrontation of another person is considered rude and undesirable. The word “no” is seldom used because saying no is a confrontation. In individualist cultures, on the other hand, speaking one’s mind is a virtue. Telling the truth about how one feels is seen as a sincere and honest person. Confrontation can be salutary; a clash of opinions is believed to lead to a higher truth.”
“A child who repeatedly voices opinions that deviate from what is collectively felt is considered to have a bad character. In the individualist family, in contrast, children are expected and encouraged to develop opinions of their own, and a child who always only reflects the opinions of others is considered to have a weak character. Family life in collectivist societies can be oppressive and stultifying, with no escape for those suffering abuse, especially girls. Members of the collectivist family are partially kept in order by the threat of shame.”
“A child in individualist society who infringes upon a rule learns to feel guilty, ridden by an individually developed conscience that functions as a private inner pilot. Collectivist societies, in contrast, are shame cultures: Not only the culprit him- or herself but also his or her in-group mates are made to feel ashamed when a misdeed is committed. Shame is social in nature, whereas guilt is individual: whether a person feels shame or not depends on whether the infringement has become known by others. This becoming known is the source of the shame, more so than the infringement itself.”
Be your own audience
To feel shame requires that your actions and thinking are against the background of an audience; real or imagined. If your sense of purpose is otherwise, based on something genuine, like your own satisfaction, shame is an emotion you cannot feel; that is, with respect to failure, etc. Incidentally, it is also those with such emotional resilience and grit that succeed in our shame-based climes.
The reason most of our compatriots do not hesitate to roll up their sleeves when abroad is because suddenly there is no audience to impress or be wary of. It is shame that stops a lot of ideally industrious young Nigerians from letting go of their false pride and getting down to work. The fear of standing out also prevents a lot of young Nigerians from pulling above their weight. The consequence is that the poor remain poor and the wealthy remain wealthy or wealthier. For instance, the rich send their wards to “international schools” and thereafter abroad for further studies. Add to that some work experience in the “temperates”, they become well-placed to maintain the lofty positions of their parents.
Ever notice how the rich are stern with the children of the poor when they violate a cultural norm and laugh off the same “infractions” by their own kids? Much of what we call culture are mechanisms for discrimination and exclusion. Take another issue: corruption. It is retractable because our cultures tolerate some level of corruption. There are proverbs in our various languages with meanings like “live and let live”, “it is where we work we will eat from”, etc. Corruption is not considered a shameful act in most Nigerian cultures. Who are largely the practitioners and major beneficiaries of corruption in Nigeria? The rich. It is a vicious cycle.
“e go learn” & “o ma gbon” fallacies
You would hear custodians of these shame cultures make remarks like “e go learn”, “o ma gbon”, etc. (They mean “he will learn”, “he will become wise”.) In the Yoruba culture (I am Yoruba), for instance, early marriage is encouraged, living by yourself (“on dagbe”) is discouraged, and so on. They are not the “wisdoms” they are oft-presented as. These are norms, that put together with others, ensure the tribe’s cultural institutions of rewards and sanctions, function effectively. They hinder social mobility. Put another way, they engender social statism. If you are not well-to-do and you marry early, with responsibilities hitting you right, left and centre, you cannot garner enough savings in time to change your circumstances for the better. With little or no privacy, being perennially in the company of others from birth, there is little chance of the kind of introspection and contemplation required to better your lot.
So when you hear these culture custodians make such remarks like “e go learn”, “a ma ko”, “o ma gbon”, etc., what they really mean, logically at least, is that you would learn to be mediocre, you would acculturate to aim low. Put simply, you will learn to know your place. From the slave trade, our forever potholed roads, power blackouts on end, to the continued pilferage of our commonwealth by the elite with impunity, the “e go learn”, “a ma ko”, “o ma gbon” pseudo-sages have little to show for their self-acclaimed wisdom. They do know one thing, though. Those who refuse to “gbon” (learn), the mavericks, the sometimes “olori olowos” are precisely destined as such because of their consistent defiance of convention. Flawed conservatism is not wisdom. Needless to say, our culture is holding us back.