Over the past few months, I have found myself in the strange position of defending human rights activists to leftist/progressive Kenyans. It is a strange position because it feels so out-of-fashion, so out-of-date, so yesterday. And it indicates that yesterday’s poison lingers in our collective bloodstream. I get ahead of myself. Let me choose an arbitrary starting point.
Dissident was a filthy word in Moi’s Kenya. Those people wanted to destroy the Kenyan family that was guided by baba Moi. (We cannot overlook what happens when kinship relations supersede political ties, even and especially through metaphor, and the dire consequences for constitutionally defined rights and protections.) And they were funded by Kenya’s enemies: not Uganda, not Tanzania, not even India, (I choose arbitrary countries), but those terrible human rights people. My childhood memory tells me Amnesty had a terrible reputation in Moi’s Kenya. Human rights were “western impositions.”
I should explain, here, my continual return to Moi’s Kenya. I am not arguing that every current Kenyan framework derives from the Moi era. Such an argument truncates the multiple histories that feed into Kenya today. Instead, I am interested in the persistence of attitudes and ideas, and their subsequent appropriations and transformations. And, given my experiences over the past few months, it’s quite clear that we need to interrogate our attitudes toward human rights and other human-service organizations.
Let us not forget Moi’s ongoing claim that human rights organization and individuals were funded from abroad and were corrupt and corrupting. Ironically, this belief continues to circulate in various forms today, and leftist/progressive writers and thinkers disavow human rights organizations and individuals, claiming that they are tainted, “in it for the money,” in bed with power.
Unfortunately, this claim, predominantly hinged on “I have seen and I know,” authorizes a lazy dismissal of all human rights organizations and individuals, who are all “tainted.” And when human rights groups try to mobilize action or stage protests, we can then dismiss them as performing “stunts,” because they are “well funded” from abroad.
I am left to wonder how much money is given so that human rights activists can be arrested and assaulted, as happened with my friend, Philo Ikonya; how much is given so that activists can be arrested and held in secret locations and separated from their children, as happened with Jayne Mati; how much is available so that activists can sit in their cars and be executed; how much money is available so that activists are forced to go into hiding, afraid for their lives.
Leftist/progressive Kenyans distrust human rights actions and activities, and, in doing so, they sacrifice needed coalitions and lose potential allies.
One reply I have heard when staging this argument: “we don’t need those kinds of allies.” And this reply worries me a lot.
It is a reply that drinks deeply in Kenyan cynicism, wallows in political depression, sighs dramatically about the “state we’re in,” and demands untainted purity from potential “allies.” This reply justifies apathy in the name of wisdom, laments the absence of “good people” while flinging mud on everyone around.
It is an impossible demand couched as a reply, and I am interested in what it makes impossible, and also what it licenses.
To begin with the latter, what it licenses: it is not simply that all human rights activists are dismissed, but that a scale of value is created in which class status distinguishes between the “good” and “bad” activists. Those from the middle and upper-middle classes, those with advanced degrees, and, arguably, greater cultural capital, are suspect. In contrast, community workers with “bona-fide” credentials of the “I was born and work with ‘the people’” become lionized, not simply lionized, but fetishized. Thus, we who disdain middle-class activists readily speak with great eloquence about “real activists” doing “real work” in Kangemi and Kibera and so on.
That “we” who speak with such approval are invariably middle-class is its own particular irony, as we keep searching for “authentic” spokespeople, ashamed of ourselves and skeptical of our own motives and abilities, except as “champions” for those who “need championing.” There is something incredibly disingenuous about this position. And dangerous, for this is not a “learning from below” so much as it is a fetishizing of class origins and status.
Such championing of others “not of our class” also absolves us of any need to put ourselves on the line: after all, why get involved when “born and bred there activist” already knows the terrain so well?
Of course fetishizing class origin helps to police class status: if we cannot trust ourselves, as the middle and upper-middle classes, to work with altruism for human rights, then we shouldn’t work in human rights at all, and should leave such labor to those who are “real” and “genuine.” The logic is perverse, pervasive, and self-serving.
As part of this perverse logic, the only space available for middle and upper-middle class human rights activists is as martyrs. At such a moment, class protectionism melds with class-based fear, and we grudgingly allow that human rights work in Kenya might be dangerous for us. (A criminally irresponsible article has recently suggested that Kenya’s human rights activists should be executed. I mention it but cannot link to it because it is criminally irresponsible.)
To some extent, human rights activism also suffers from a problem of tone: Kenyan commentators have perfected satire. And we have come to understand satire as the best kind of critique. Against satire’s sharp bite, the earnest tone of much human rights activism elicits sneers and yawns.
Why aren’t activists more entertaining? And shouldn’t all activism be satire? I cannot, here, begin to outline the limits of satire as critique, and will leave that task for another person, or another day.
To return to an earlier question: what is made impossible by the demand that human rights individuals and organizations be free of taint?
I am not, here, justifying corruption or cronyism or nepotism. Instead, I am interested in the formal operation of metonymy to discredit all human rights activism. Metonymy is when a part stands in for a whole, and it is pervasive in dismissing human rights activism.
Yet another irresponsible article, not criminal, but irresponsible, demonstrated such metonymy when it claimed that it’s possible to see a vehicle belonging to a human rights advocate parked outside the houses of known criminals. Metonymy: one vehicle represents all vehicles, one presumably corrupt activist represents all activists. I need not continue. You see the (ill)logic.
I have no answers, no recommendations, and have certainly not posed all the questions that need to be posed, but it’s vital that we re-think our positions toward human rights activists. A lot is at stake.