The notion of culture is up for a debate. The claim by the clergyman, Mensah Otabil, that the act of lynching is an embedded cultural practice among Ghanaians has ruffled many feathers with continuing backlash on social media regarding the claim. One of those who disagree with Mensah Otabil is a lecturer in Sociology, Nana Obiri Yeboah, who views the practice as “universal and not a reflection of Ghana’s culture” (Please follow the link
http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/Lynching-not-cultural-Lecturer-disagrees-with-Otabil-543329). In this piece, I argue that the act of lynching and mob justice are part of the Ghanaian culture and we must find ways to eradicate these practices than being in a state of denial.
The question is: what is culture? I will be direct and simple. Culture is a way of life of a group of people. Meaning that the food we eat, the way we dress, the ways in which we respond to emergency situations, the way we speak, and even the way we raise our children are all products of culture, because there are shared values in the ways in which we conduct these things.
Do all humans speak? Yes; all humans do speak. More confined, both the Ghanaian and the American speak English, right? But I guess they speak it with different twangs, invoking different social realities with varying nuances and implications. It is these variations in twangs, nuances, and implications that send scholars and students of communication across cultural lines on that wild goose chase to want to unravel those nuances for comparative purposes. In another example, both Ghana and the United States have health services that respond to emergency situations. But when the late P.V. Obeng, just like our late President Atta Mills, was taken ill, we all saw what happened to him. Our emergency response systems are also products of culture. Chances are that as an ordinary citizen here in America, if I should fall ill suddenly requiring a rapid deployment of emergency services, the emergency response to my need for rapid evacuation will be faster than what a Ghanaian president will receive in Ghana. What I am trying to point out here is that culture is everything and everything is culture. But in spite of its expansive reach, bringing under it aegis everything on its way, cultures are contextualized in space and time.
Thus, the claim by Nana Obiri Yeboah that that lynching is “a universal practice and not a reflection of Ghana’s culture” is a pitfall in cultural analysis that hinges on the erroneous assumption that culture is timeless and homogeneous. Moreover, there is a certain defensive tendency on the part of many Africans, not just the Ghanaian, to view a critique of any aspect of our varied cultures as recessive to be an attack on the totality of our so-called “peace-loving cultures.” While agreeing with Nana Obiri Yeboah that the practice of lynching is Biblical and unlimited to the African, I take exception to the attempt to lampoon the clergyman for hitting the nail right on its head. First, akin to the speaking example given, it is an acceptable fact that lynching is a historical phenomenon recorded in the Bible. The reader of American history would also appreciate that gory era in American history when the practice became an acceptable cultural norm among White Supremacists who did it gleeful even in the daylight. Does America continue with the practice in contemporary times? Nope! It will be anachronistic to see a community in America engaging in the practice today because the laws of America have changed to make the practice illegal. Even within the socio-cultural context, two observations can be made. First, individuals, including Blacks, have the right to bear arms and can defend themselves, so they would fight back any attempt to lynch them. Second, why lynch when by the push of a button the job can easily be done? The point is that the social context in conjunction with the laws of the land have made it impossible for lynching to flourish in America.
Beyond the social context and the protection of the law, another important question is: when lynching was rife among White Supremacists in America, was it a representation of the totality of American culture? Nope! At the same time that White Supremacists embarked on those dastardly acts, there were other White groups who joined forces with the abolitionist in their quest to stop the practice and completely remove the scourge of Jim Crow from the American social life. To the extent that the practice was not universal even in the American context, we would label it as a subculture. Subcultures are part of larger cultures, particularly when members of these cultural groups have beliefs and practices that are at variances with the beliefs of the larger culture.
From my argument so far, the reader can appreciate the fact that Obiri Yeboah erroneously attempted to bring lynching under the aegis of the universal, evading the contextual time and space factors, which are important to the understanding of the issues. One of the first lessons in any good cultural communication class (Culture 101) is the appreciation of the dynamism of culture. So we cannot define culture without emphasizing that it is not timeless or statistic. Thus, the common saying: culture is dynamic. It goes through changes for good or for bad.
Interestingly, there are some who are even questioning whether the practice existed before colonialism, suggesting that it must have been a contamination from colonial domination. If even we agree that lynching is a product of colonial contamination (which is erroneous anyway), colonialism has come and gone. What have we done to eradicate the practice among us? I thought culture was to be dynamic, allowing for changes? The mistake people make about the expression that culture is dynamic is that they think cultures naturally refine themselves toward the good. It is a misperception. Particularly in the case of lynching, we must accept that we have evolved into the very depraved, if the assumption is that it did not exist in the past.
Let us take a look at the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Modern, the Postmodern, and the Post-postmodern. These are philosophical epochs that are historical and associated with certain cultural practices regarding even how knowledge is produced, evaluated, what is accepted or rejected as knowledge. Knowledge itself a product of culture. But knowledge of forms have themselves not been static through the ages. At one point, the earth was seen to be flat. But this knowledge and the cultural practices associated with it were dislodged with a new discovery that the earth is spherical. To this extent, we can agree that even knowledge as a cultural product is not timeless or static.
Too many commentators fell into the trap of Obiri Yeboah by arguing that Ghanaian culture has no room for such practices as lynching and mob justice. But we can pardon the uninitiated for such comments. Those comments are part of cognitive misapprehension that is constructed on the erroneous impression that my culture is infallible and intolerable to the negative. It is the ways of the uncritical mind. Female genital mutilation, mob justice, lynching, etc., are all negative cultural practices. To the extent that they are at variances with the larger culture, we will call them subcultures. Should these practices become rampant, as we are seeing, threatening to alter the acceptable norms and practices of the larger culture, they become countercultures that must be confronted or those negative cultural practices become the order of the day.
As I started working on this piece, there was another case of an alleged witch stoned to death (Please follow the link http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/Witch-stoned-to-death-by-family-543360). How does this not justify the claim of the clergyman that due to the visibility of the late Captain Maxwell Mahama, this issue has received national attention? On a normal day, I can stand anywhere in Accra Central anytime of the day and shout thief and reactions akin to the mob lynching of Maxwell Mahama would be replicated. In the 1990s, I witnessed people stoned to death because someone had accused them of using mystical means to take away their male genitalia. As recently as my last visit to Ghana five years ago, I witnessed the lynching of an alleged thief to death in Dansoman, a suburb of Accra. What is even more horrifying about the practice is that our university campuses are not exempted from it. In 1998, at Commonwealth Hall in University of Ghana, Legon, I watched students marched an alleged mobile phone thief through the streets of the University naked to a site called Gono. My inquiries revealed that the idea of the exercise was to exorcise him of the spirit of stealing. That was not without whips, slaps, and bodily harm to the alleged thief. Recent cases: On May 31, 2011, Amina was arrested and stripped naked on University of Ghana campus by male students because she was alleged to have stolen from another student
(http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/Woman-thief-stripped-naked-and-molested-by-University-students-206122); another case of an unnamed individual March 11, 2015 (https://ugfile.com/gono-is-gradually-returning-to-legon-campus-4-years-after-the-amina-case/); an alleged thief beaten on University of Ghana campus for robbing Chinese student’s iphone on March 21, 2017 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJl9ln64Gf4). These are just a few cases that I have sampled on University of Ghana campus to illustrate the point. Now, what business do we have in trying to challenge and discredit the assertion of Otabil? To the extent that these are not isolated incidents, it is a national shame that in 2017 we still engage in these barbaric behaviors gleefully and attempt to find universal justification for their occurrences.
From the conceptual perspective, the erroneous analysis of Nana Obiri Yeboah is not uncommon in the academy. The tendency exist among some scholars to erroneously apply Hofstede’s cultural dimensions in ways that suggest that culture is static, homogenous, and uniformly distributed. Culture is not static, timeless, and homogenous. Even though there is evidence of lynching and mob justice both in the Bible and in American history, space and time contextualized these practices. At best, we can view culture as a process of sense-making, through which culture is created, recreated, and sustained through complex symbolic interactions that are nuanced in our expressive consciousness. What are our rituals about justice? What stories are told about such rituals? What are the values embedded in such rituals? To the extent that there are still these occurrences among us, we have no business in challenging those who dared called a spade by its name. Even though a subculture that has existed for a long time, due to the increase in violence across the country, the clergyman was right in labeling the practice part of the Ghanaian culture.
As much as I wish mob justice and lynching were not part of the catalogue of negative cultural behaviors or practices that Ghanaians indulge in, the facts speak for themselves. The only way we can avoid the label is to work assiduously to ensure that these negative practices are stamped out of our society once and for all. This would require respect for the laws of the land, equipping our security services to act swiftly in apprehending and dealing with those who engage in the practice, and most of all using the classroom as a platform to confront these barbaric behaviors amongst us.
Finally, to argue that the practice is universal and not part of the Ghanaian culture is unacademic and atavistic. We must confront it ferociously as we are confronting the man who dared labeled it a Ghanaian cultural practice.
Prosper Yao Tsikata, Ph.D.