Chapter 12: Could Culture Breed Intolerance?

There’s no iota of doubt that culture can breed intolerance. Every culture of people has this sense of superiority that makes it to consider itself and all tenets of such culture to be nothing but the truth, more valid and more sensible than the rest. For them, it is not arrogance but a product of indisputable truth they claim to have gotten from their ancestors.

With this frame of thought at the back of their minds, they insist that their own cultures therefore should be respected by all people irrespective of other people’s own cultural affiliations. In fact, they would take their own cultures as beacon, mantra or the base for any other cultures. When one’s culture is being viewed or taken as such, then this is likely to breed intolerance. Men have wedged wars and taken others into slavery and captivity due to their erroneous views of their own cultures as being more valid or more sophisticated than those of their captives.

According to a philosopher called Spinoza, “the ultimate wisdom is not to consider oneself as inferior or superior…”[1]

But unfortunately, people who discriminate against others based on their racial or cultural affiliations still have this superiority ego that always spurs them into thinking that they are very much better off than all people from other racial or cultural divide.

In a country like Nigeria with more than 250 ethnic groups, this type of reasoning has always been the case, and has always make things often go wrong. Even corruption which is general and universal phenomenon is today viewed most often in Nigeria from the perspective of the ethnicity of the alleged corrupt fellow. But then, since no one in his right senses, no matter how bad he is brainwashed, would ever agree that all people from his ethnic group are all dumb while all people from the other group are all geniuses – then there would always be conflicts and constant battle for either superiority or to prove the other people’s assumptions wrong.

Chinua Achebe (The Father of African Literature and the author of ‘Things Fall Apart’) observed, probably with mild irritation while writing his book titled, “The Trouble with Nigeria” that it is very unfortunate that “Nigerians of all other ethnic groups will probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common resentment of Igbo. They would all describe them as aggressive, arrogant and clannish”[2]

Here, Achebe was trying to bring to our notice about the predicaments of being Igbo and the consequent negative branding of Igbo people by their fellow countrymen in Nigeria. They see the whole bunch of Igbo tribe as aggressive, arrogant and clannish and this is the fastest way to dispose people of whom they are and depose them by the corner of history. Quoting this in his book, J.O. Oguejiofor said:

“It is fair to add here that these negative traits maybe like giving a dog a bad name in order to hang him. Hence, other Igbo intellectuals are of the view that envy and jealousy explain why the Igbo people are so perceived by other Nigerians.”[3]

Since cultures could be passed from generations to generations, so also is the whole bunch of intolerances and prejudices that come with cultures of the people, even those laws and observances in the culture that were obviously done out of prejudices. There’s no doubt that certain cultural observances that people have today are mere products of prejudices, ignorance or wrong assumptions. Most often, certain cultural observances are still being circulated within the people of such traditions without the people knowing the root aim of such observances or why it was ab initio being introduced. People whose views are so closed are likely to say a lot of unprintable things about others, even without having tried to come closer to them. J.O. Oguejiofor commented on David Hume who seemed to have the worst perception of the Africa. According to Hume, “there has not been any invention, any sing of civilization among the blacks. None of them has shown any sign of ingenuity, and they are therefore inferior to the white race.”[4]

Now, imagine that David Hume, even with all his education, philosophies and ideas was not able to extricate himself from the ugly clutches of racism and blanket segregation of people he only knew as “black” and nothing else. David Hume was not able to meet each and individual black person before he made his unfortunate conclusion, but because he had been nursing this kind of racial prejudice against black people, then he was not able to hide his prejudice when the opportunity finally came for him to air his views.

“When Hume was challenged by James Beattie and contradicted by the example of a Jamaican who was a man of letter, he retorted in his preface to the second edition of his book that the little evidence of ingenuity among blacks is like that of a parrot, which is praised for uttering a few words clearly.”[5]

Now this is very laughable and clearly insulting. People who claim to know so much, most often miss the most significant points in their logics. How David Hume arrived at his assumptions is one of those mysteries beyond human understanding, but should never be completely alienated from his prior prejudices about black people. For Hume, being black couldn’t be placed anywhere far from being stupid.

Culture stands out as one of the criteria to define people’s worldviews. Every worldviews people have today is influenced by cultures where such worldviews or ideology was created. Though culture might be dynamic to the extent of changing some of its basic rules and ideologies from one generation to the other, but there are always those few aspect of people’s cultures that would never change. These rudiments of cultures are permanently there, and can never be destroyed or be influenced by change.

When culture of the people is mainly dependent on certain prejudices, misunderstanding of others people or total ignorance of their real worldviews, then we have something seriously bad to battle with. Sometimes total ignorance of the real truth in how the world is fashioned also contributes in no small measure to fan the embers of prejudices we have today. When some certain prejudices have been adopted by people as way of life or their worldviews, they might totally get things out of control.

A typical case study is sometimes ago in eastern part of Nigeria, when it was ‘cultural thing’ to kill twins because twins were generally believed in the people’s culture to be evil. Twins were being killed for no other known reason, except that somehow their culture abhors humans reproducing like other animals- giving birth to more than a child in one pregnancy. Thus, people in that generation believed that human reproduction must not be in the same manner with reproduction in other animals. Therefore they held religiously the opinion that only a child should be expected in one pregnancy, and only evil manipulations can make it more than one.

When they come in two, then one must be human while the other must be evil. But then because there’s no way to decipher which of the twins is good and which one is evil, then the two must die. So, whenever twins were born in those era, then it was taken that evil has occurred and must be removed immediately to avoid the wrath of gods upon the land, while certain rituals were performed to cleanse the land and the mother of the twins.

They were killing all twin babies born in those dark era, solidly being backed up by culture which was based majorly in the traditional religion of the people in that area. Christian missionaries that came later in these areas worked so hard to make people understand that there’s nothing bad about having twins, and used all methodologies available to them to educate the people on how twins are formed in the wombs of their mothers. In this case, we could see how ignorance of reproductive biology helped in promoting the prejudice about twins.

Though I have heard some arguments were some people have tried to contest this historical facts as not true, but the evidences that twins were killed in about some few decades ago abound. The remnant of this history of killing twins which I personally encountered was reserved in the mental reflections of the people in the era and immediate following era.

For instance, few years ago (around and before 1980’s) I still heard some of old men in some villages praying during presentation of kolanuts or while blessing newly married couples saying a phrase like this in Igbo language, “otu otu, ulo eju” – which can be loosely translated to, “one by one, the house becomes full”. This sounds like both prayers and admonitions for the couples telling them or reminding them that it is not acceptable if they give birth to more than a baby in just one pregnancy. Therefore, they should take it one by one. No twins.  That phrase in the prayer was a quick reminder to many that really it wasn’t fashionable to beget twins in these areas during some years in the past.

This was just prejudice that was nursed and galvanized with ignorance of the people, especially on the biological issues that normally come together to result to twins, but it somehow got its stake in the culture of the people to the level of controlling their minds to be believing in the dictates of the culture and then acting in a way they wouldn’t have acted.

Branding twin babies as evil gave them enough excuse to eliminate them. This was one of the cultural practices of our people some years back, but it has a lot to tell today about prejudice and intolerance especially when it comes to what we either didn’t understand or what we prefer to suppress.

Cultural intolerance is as strong as religious intolerance. In fact cultural intolerance imposes a lot of influences upon religious intolerance. Since religion is nothing but revealed truth about divinity under strict dictates of certain culture, then it is obvious that religions are offshoots of cultures on whose platform such religions were formed.

No religion comes to the people in isolation of their cultures. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are known to be religions that still trace their origins back to the days of Abraham. These three Abrahamic religions also adopted lots of similar cultures in their religious observances. These common religious observances they adopted or some parts of their sacred scriptures that still share common stories, of course are great proofs that they inherited a lot of similarities from the same tradition. Then one should not wonder why prejudices and intolerances in these three religions most often are the same. It is nothing but a clear indication that these religions are based upon the same foundation of a revealed ‘truth’, with God (the only one God) as the one revealing Himself to Abraham.

Then from the time of Abraham down to our own generation, there have been a lot of people who have come and gone. These people like Moses, Joshua, Jesus, Mohammed and the host of other prophets recognized by the three Abrahamic religions had their own sentiments, their peculiar teachings and philosophies (which most often are based on their own personal prejudices), and which they authoritatively disseminated among their followers. Their religious worldviews therefore weren’t in any way different from their cultural worldviews. In fact, the former is the child of the later.

Culture varies from place to place and from one generation to the other. Variations in cultures give each culture its unique identity and recognitions. The uniqueness of every culture promotes its relevance in the society. Culture of the people is what such people believe in, live and practice. It is indispensable part of their lives because there is no way such people could be validly distinguished or defined out of the confinement of their cultures. It is formulated practices that are sometimes being elevated to the level of religion where possible – depending on how piously people observe some or all rudiments of these cultures.

On the other hand, religion is what is left when culture is stolen away to be observed in the name of supreme beings or gods that such people hold as being sacred to them. As cultures have their diverse natures, so also do religions. No one should impose a certain culture on everyone because everybody in every age or race can never have the same perception of values.

But today, though people who have been wrongly indoctrinated and who have turned into religious fanaticism have seen some awkward reasons personal to them why certain religious traditions and cultures should be something that all humans must imbibe irrespective of their cultural affiliations. This is one of the sins of religions, and why its influences on cultures of the people should most times be scrutinized.

[1] J.Obi Oguejiofor, Philosophy and the African Predicament, (Ibadan: Hope Publication, 2001) Pg. 80.

[2] C. Achebe, The Trouble with Nigeria (Enugu: Fourth Dimension, 1983), p.45

[3] J. Obi Oguejiofor, The Influence of Igbo Traditional Religion on the Socio-Political Character of the Igbo (Nsukka: Fulladu Publishing Company, 1996), p.17

[4]J.Obi Oguejiofor, Philosophy and the African Predicament, (Ibadan: Hope Publication, 2001) Pg. 81.

[5] Ibid.

About Author /

Ugonna Johnbosco Ezeomedo (ojombo) is a philosopher, poet, educationist, web developer and social & political analyst. He lives in Awka – Nigeria. He loves working with computer and other creative works.

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