By Daniel Weru In response to Kalenjin Bashing-This Emerging Trend Must Be Stopped
Kikuyus for Change have just released a statement. They believe that ethnic stereotypes are harmful.
Having experienced the harm resulting from ethnic stereotypes, they’re, understandably, determined to speak out against misrepresentations of other communities as a whole. In their view, there has been serious misrepresentation of Kalenjin as a community — it’s unclear just what this amounts to, but it seems to be a variation on collective responsibility. If Kikuyus for Change are right, it is widely believed that Kalenjin are perpetrators of (significant portions) the PEV; that they are destroying the Mau; and that they are the source of discontent on coalition governance issues. Against this unfortunate state of affairs, Kikuyus for Change argue that Kalenjin are not as a community perpetrators of PEV; and that they are not as a community Mau forest occupiers. We are given exactly one reason for that: those actions – the PEV; the entrance, destruction of and refusal to leave the Mau – are not the responsibility of Kalenjin because they are the actions of individuals.
This is the sort of empty and deceptive moralism that gives advocacy organisations in Kenya a bad name.
First, though, a word about the argument. The structure should be familiar: members of a group have done some terrible things; the group is then accused of collective responsibility for those acts; it is argued, felt, or feared that the members of the accused group will be victims of bigotry. A defender of the group has three options: accept collective responsibility; deny collective responsibility; or deny that collective responsibility has anything to do with it. If he accepts collective responsibility, then the defender has to show that this group doesn’t bear collective responsibility for this act: maybe they didn’t do it, or they knew not what they did, or whatever. If he doesn’t accept collective responsibility, then it makes no odds what the group did: even if the group performed the act, it can’t be held responsible. Alternatively, the defender of the group could simply say that even if the group were collectively responsible, that wouldn’t justify bigotry against it, because ethnic bigotry is just wrong.
Kikuyus for Change supply a desperately inept version of the first, when they should have gone for the third; their moralism lies in telling untruths for (what they suppose to be) good ends. Remember that they said that the actions for which Kalenjin are held communally liable are the actions of individuals. It is clear, I think, that they aren’t denying collective responsibility; rather, their point is that even if there is collective responsibility, it doesn’t apply in this case: Kalenjin aren’t collectively responsible for, say, the PEV. The problem with that move is simple: that the actions were committed by individuals does nothing whatever to show that there’s no communal liability for them. That follows from a very simple fact: groups acts through individuals, so it is entirely possible for a communal act to be performed by an individual. Think about the President’s assent to a bill. It is an act performed by the individual who happens to hold the office at the time; it is also an act by which the state, and therefore the groups of people who constitute the state, promise to obey a certain rule. Think also about a murder, carried out by a group of three men, who jointly plan and bring it off. Roughly speaking, it’s enough, for there to be collective moral responsibility, for a group to deliberately perform an act. The group of murderers is constituted of individuals; it is their actions which constitute the planning and commission of the murder. What makes them jointly responsible is their joint deliberate participation in the joint enterprise. But that joint deliberate participation is composed of individual acts. So the fact that the actions were performed by individuals is entirely consistent with collective responsibility for them; merely noting that the actions in question are the actions of individuals is a hopeless defence to the charge of collective responsibility.
More to the point, it deliberately overlooks facts which are common knowlege. The PEV in the Rift Valley was carefully-planned, and there was wide communal involvement. (See, for example, the Human Rights Watch report). All sorts of independent evidence suggests that the violence had the consent of a significant proportion of Kalenjin; and the consent, planning and participation of those properly empowered to act in the name of the community (Ashforth, Lynch, Waki). There is pretty good evidence of wide, if not quite universal, Kalenjin approval of the consequences of the violence (Ashforth, Lynch). And, again, there have been well-reported efforts to institutionalise the consequences of the violence: segregated schools, for example. In the example I gave earlier, the consent and particpation of all the members of the group was taken to be sufficient for collective responsibility. So it might be argued that the lack of either rules out collective responsibility in this case. That’s too quick. Collective responsibility can accrue to a group for an action even when not all its members approve or participate. The clearest example is war. It’s often taken to be the case that a duly-elected head of a state or a nation has the power to commit the state or nation to a war, with the collective consequences that that brings. It’s also true that a President, say, need not be elected by the entire nation to gain that power — all that’s necessary is a majority of the vote. Donald Kipkorir’s devotion marks the extent to which the Kalenjin political class is the duly-empowered representative of the Kalenjin nation, It is tolerably clear that the Kalenjin political class arranged the relevant bits of the post-election violence, tolerably clear that they were acting in their capacity as leaders of the Kalenjin nation in doing so, and tolerably clear that there is near-unanimous Kalenjin support for the consequences (if not, perhaps, the means) of PEV. That is why it ought to be conceded that Kalenjin bear collective responsibility for it.
It’s essential at this point to distinguish kinds of collective responsibility. I have in mind the following distinction: there is a kind of collective responsibility in which each member of the community is liable (and may therefore be punished) for the actions of the entire group; and there’s the kind of collective responsibility which does not distribute in this way — where we should say that the community is responsible for the acts, but in which it doesn’t follow that each member of the community can therefore be punished for the communal act. The clearest example of the first is the first example above, the joint-murder case, in which all the deliberately participants agree to kill. The Kalenjin-communal case is of the latter kind, mostly, I think, because while there was a piece of deliberate group activity, it is also clear that this was not unanimous. To recognise collective Kalenjin responsibility is not to call for communal punishment of Kalenjin.
But suppose you don’t agree. You think that there’s no Kalenjin communal responsibility for the PEV. You should still think that the Kikuyus for Change argument is foolish. Think about like this: rape is bad, regardless of the identity of the intended victim. The prohibition against rape isn’t contingent on whether or not the intended victim is, say, a rapist: even rapists ought not to be raped. If you’re looking for reasons not to rape someone, and the best you can come up with is that they’re not a rapist, you need to buy a new moral compass.
The Kikuyus for Change argument against anti-Kalenjin bigotry is of exactly this type: instead of saying the simple and true thing — that ethnic bigotry is bad, independent of the identity of its victims — they say the complex and false thing — that anti-Kalenjin ethnic bigotry is bad because Kalenjin aren’t communally responsible for PEV. They seem unable to see the point that anti-Kalenjin bigotry is bad because it is wrong, not because Kalenjin are right.