Dialgoue, outrage and democracy

Does the self-inflicted debacle of Kinijit call for a dialogue or an outrage? Messay Kebede makes a thoughtful “Plea for an Honest Dialogue” whereas Fekade Shewakena argues, equally thoughtfully, that the call “has come too late and after the crisis has taken its toll.” Some commentators have taken sides for one or the other. I would like to argue that from the perspective of the history of democracy, both as an idea and a practice, opposing dialogue to outrage, is counterproductive. Democracy needs both dialogue and outrage. But these two terms have to be understood politically.

Whoever is responsible for the debacle in Kinijit, the need for democracy is an urgent matter. It cannot be abandoned because Kinijit is in turmoil. The question therefore is how do we go about it? One could say, let each faction go its own way, or one could argue for starting from scratch and building a new party. But before such options are considered, it appears worthwhile to try dialogue between the factions in order to re-inscribe within Kinijit the democratic spirit and unity that came to light in 2005.

The opposition to the idea of dialogue is that it is “too late”. I want to step back for a moment, and lean on some ideas from thinkers who have meditated on the nature of time and argue that dialogue involves a conception of time incompatible with the notion of “too late”.

Time may be conceived as a homogeneous, linear and quantifiable phenomenon. In this case, one could speak of time in terms of too early or too late. Those of us who are paid on an hourly basis know that when we arrive to work too late, we are paid less. Let me call this economic time. The other conception of time is qualitative in the sense that it is the experience we live that gives meaning to time. Those who have experienced the 1960 coup d’état, the 1974 revolution, or the defeat of the Derg in 1991 can see how their experience of these events is also the experience of a qualitatively different time. Let me call this political time, and it is radically different from economic time. It is not homogeneous, linear and quantitative. For example, unless one wants to indulge in historical fictions, there is no point in saying that a historical event such as the 1974 revolution came too late or too early. Each event makes its own time. Dialogue also exists within qualitative time. Since there are many kinds of dialogue, I will limit myself to the practice of dialogue in the political arena.

The starting point of dialogue in the political arena is the future. We want a democratic Ethiopia and we would like to know how to get there peacefully and quickly. This future is a beacon that throws light on the past, that is, on the past failures that we have to overcome and redeem in the future. What dialogue does is to make the junction between our vision for the future (on which we all agree, that is, a democratic Ethiopia), our failures in the past (the debacle of Kinijit), and the present with its question of “what should we do now?”. Dialogue connects the future with the past and the present. Since, the future can never be too late, and since dialogue’s starting point is our vision of the future, dialogue can never be too late. For example, to take an extreme but revealing example, it is difficult to say that the dialogue between the ANC and the Apartheid regime came too late when it did.

But, one may ask, what triggers dialogue? In certain cases, outrage does trigger dialogue. But outrage must be understood politically and not morally. Moral outrage is more often than not a sign of powerlessness and tends to lead to purism, which, of course, is fundamentally anti-political. Political outrage, on the other hand, is, like dialogue, future oriented and seeks to bring about new circumstances that overthrow or transcend the present disastrous conditions. A good analogy here is a strike. When employees go on a strike, it is because they are outraged by the exploitation (low, wages. Unhealthy work conditions, etc.) they have to suffer. But this outrage is also a call for negotiations, or, in our term, dialogue, based on certain principles regarding fair wage and healthy working conditions. That’s why the outrage that triggered the strike leads to dialogue between employees and employers in order to annul the conditions that triggered the outrage and led to the strike. The point that needs emphasis here is that outrage, understood politically, is rooted in principles. In our case, the outrage is triggered by the lack of democracy within Kinijit.

In other words, from the political perspective, dialogue and outrage are internally related. They cannot be separated from each other. The wounds that the leaders of Kinjit needlessly inflicted on the party, themselves, and our democratic aspirations, call for an outrage. But this outrage, being political, needs to be oriented, in order to fulfill its function, towards dialogue.

Dialogue is the sanctuary of hope, and outrage is the sanctuary of principles. Democracy needs both. In this sense, both Messay and Fekade are right.

The writer can be reached at mmennasemay@gmail.com.

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